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Zopf: Play the game the right way

POSTED: April 11, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Every young baseball player dreams of one day becoming a major leaguer.

In doing so, they try their best to emulate the stars of the game, whether it be what jersey number they wear, what position they play or how they swing a bat. Doing those things makes them feel like a major leaguer, and therefore, in their eyes, play like one too.

For me, I grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr. Not the Ken Griffey Jr. who has been laboring through injury-plagued seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, but the Ken Griffey Jr. who, at the time, was the brightest young star in all of Major League Baseball.

Junior, which is what everyone knew him as, had the sweetest left-handed swing I had ever seen. He played the center field position like a man possessed, tracking down every ball that was hit in his vicinity and even some that weren’t. Griffey also displayed a certain level of confidence. He wasn’t cocky or arrogant by any means, he was just confident. He knew he was good, great even, but despite all that he never tried to be bigger than the game of baseball. He played the game the way it was meant to be played, with talent, hard work, hustle and with a smile on his face.

For that I looked up to him, and in a way, I still do.

As a right-handed hitter, I never could emulate his sweet swing, and as an infielder I never was able to track down flyballs like he used to, but still, every team I played on I wore Griffey’s No. 24, because despite all our differences (talent level included) I still wanted to be like him.

But I’m afraid, like Griffey’s career in Cincinnati, players like him are a dying breed.

Sure, there are guys like New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Cleveland Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore who still play the game the way its supposed to be played. But for every Jeter hustle play and Sizemore diving catch, there is a Barry Bonds posing after hitting a home run or a Manny Ramirez not running out a ground out.

And frankly it’s ruining the game of baseball. Not only at the major league level, but at the high school level, too.

Major League Baseball players know that they are looked up to by young ballplayers, but I don’t think they realize how much what they do (or don’t do) affects the way kids play the game today.

Go to any high school baseball game anywhere in the country and you can see the negative aspects of professional players on display.

After stopping and staring at their accomplishment, kids who hit 375-foot home runs take a little extra time rounding the bases, just like the pros do.

With three ball counts, batters take the liberty to determine whether or not a ball is a strike or not, often times taking one step toward first base prior to the umpire’s call. You know who else does that? That’s right, professional baseball players.

Don’t get me wrong, the love of the game still shines brightly on the faces of the young players, but the negative idiosyncrasies that the young player emulates often overshadows that love.

Maybe it’s the coaches’ fault, or maybe it’s the parents’ fault, but I think it’s the major leaguers’ fault. As parents (and I include myself here), we all want to believe that our children idolize us, but face it, they don’t.

We aren’t on SportsCenter every night throwing down alley-oops or winning games with ninth-inning home runs, are we? No, we’re usually the ones telling the kids to turn off the TV and go to bed, right?

It’s perfectly natural for young athletes to idolize professional athletes, but it’s a shame that too many young athletes are idolizing the wrong ones.

So as a full tilt of games kick off the start of the Major League Baseball season today, I urge all you young baseball players out there to find a player and try and be like them. But don’t find the guy that hits the most home runs, or strikes out the most batters, find the guy that plays the game with hustle, hard work and a smile on his face, the way that the game is meant to be played.

Those traits are contagious, and you will not only better yourself as a baseball player, but you’ll better your team, too. With that in your pocket, you’ll be one step closer to achieving your goal of playing in the big leagues, and when you make it there, young players of the future will be able to include your name in the list of Jeter, Sizemore, and my boyhood idol, Ken Griffey Jr.



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