(Introduction to the book – One Pitch at a Time by Tom Oldham)
I love watching tough players. I loved competing against tough players. The toughest play- ers make you raise your game; they make others around them better. If you were to visit locker rooms across the country you would hear coaches telling their players they need to be tough. They need to show toughness, both mentally and physically. But what do they really mean? What makes a player tough?
If you watch games on television or in person today, it is hard to cut through all of the flash to recognize a tough player. Crazy hair, 2-foot-long beards, and oversize jerseys present players as more concerned with their appearance than their play. Throw in the ridiculous bat flips, players jawing at each other, and other forms of “big leaguing” and it becomes even harder to understand if players truly know what it means to be tough.
I often wonder if these players realize how they come across – not only to other players and coaches, but to recruiting coordinators. Over and over, I hear how important it is for a player to get recruited – by a college, a university, or a professional team. Everyone is fo- cused on getting recruited. It seems that if being recruited is a top priority, being a tough player should be a top priority, as well.
I was fortunate to learn what it means to be a tough player at a young age. My parents were incredibly supportive of my desire to play professional baseball. My father spent hours upon hours working with me and talking through the various aspects of baseball so I could better understand the game. And it paid off. At an early age, I was playing against players four to five years older than me and doing well. My father never let that go to my head, though. He always said to me, “Remember, there is always going to be someone out there better than you. Just focus on getting better each day.” He wanted me to be a tough player.
This desire continued through my high school years when I transferred high schools to Omaha Westside to play baseball for Coach Bob Greco. That transition was one of the hard- est transitions I have made in my life. I lived away from home, knew only a handful of peo- ple when I started, and went back to my hometown of Fremont, Nebraska, on the week- ends. It wasn’t ideal, but I knew I had to be tough. Luckily, my family, close friends from Fremont, new friends from Westside, and all the families that let me crash on their couches supported me. Looking back, if I hadn’t stuck with it, I would have missed out on some of the best years of my life and might not have met my wife (you’re welcome, honey.)
Coach Greco is the best high school baseball coach in the country. And that’s not just my opinion. Last year, he deservedly was named the top high school baseball coach in the coun- try by the American Baseball Coaches Association. Year after year, Coach Greco produces winning teams and championships for Omaha Westside. His intense focus on creating tough players and building tough teams causes that to happen. Coach Greco has no time
for soft players, and he made that clear to me one day during my junior year. I remember him pulling me into the dugout during practice and saying to me matter-of-factly, “Tom, you’re pitching like a scared little boy. If we are going to win the state championship, we need you pitch like you can. You need to pitch like a man.” And that was it. He told me to get back to practice. His words were to the point and incredibly impactful.
You see, Coach Greco knew that I had recruiting on my mind. I was being contacted by sev- eral colleges and universities across the nation to play baseball, and it was distracting me from what was important. He knew that if I performed like I could, the recruiting process would work itself out. Playing soft and scared was not only going to hurt me, but even worse, hurt the team.
As it turned out, that conversation worked. We went on to win the 1999 Nebraska High School State Championship at Rosenblatt Stadium. It was a dream come true and the team- mates I had on that team are some of my best friends today. We weren’t amazing baseball players, but we were tough. We knew how to win and we did. If you ask Coach Greco, it was all by design. After winning the championship, he was interviewed by a local news sta- tion and when asked what his favorite part of coaching was, without hesitation he said, “I just love taking a marshmallow of a kid and turning him into a tough, hard-nosed player.”
We were a tough team, filled with tough players. Our toughness had nothing to do with our size, strength, or overall skill, though. We developed the toughness over time by being in the right type of program with high expectations that required the players to buy in or move on. If you weren’t committed to being tough, you weren’t on the team.
That short conversation in the dugout stayed with me throughout my college career at Creighton University and in professional baseball, pitching in the Seattle Mariners organiza- tion. It continues to stick with me in my professional life after baseball, as well. Being tough helps you on and off the field.
So, how do players become tough? In today’s game filled with flash, how do you cut through that and be or build a tough player?
It starts with how you define toughness. Toughness in baseball comes in many forms and is displayed in many ways. I wrote this book to help players, coaches, and parents better un- derstand how toughness is defined in baseball. It’s a definition that holds true no matter what level you are playing at or aspire to play at. I believe toughness is not something you are born with but a skill you can develop over time.
Become a tough player or build a tough team by adopting the following guidelines that define toughness in baseball.
Listen to the audiobook, One Pitch at Time, by visiting iTunes and searching for the PITCHABILITIES podcast (EP 002).