Playing baseball professionally for 12 seasons was undoubtedly one of my life's greatest blessings. Not only was I able to live out a personal dream, tour the country, and travel to corners of the world I may have not seen otherwise, but I was also able to develop countless meaningful relationships with coaches and teammates with whom I shared the field. Many of these men have impacted my life so strongly, I feel compelled to share. Here are 7 signs, using their example as a measure, that you're a great teammate:
1. You welcome the new guy, and you mentor the less experienced. My first encounter with Todd Helton didn’t happen quite the way I had it drawn up in my head. It more closely resembled the recurring nightmares from which many people suffer – the one where you have a big presentation to give to your classmates or coworkers. You’re well prepared, but for some reason when you’re delivering your speech, you’re completely naked.
I met Todd right after my first Major League Spring Training practice in 2005. I had just exited the showers, and was in search of a towel when I first crossed paths with the former batting champion, gold-glove winner, and 5-time all-star. Todd was combing his hair in front of the mirror when I (naked as the day I was born) extended a dripping-wet handshake in his direction.
“Hi, Todd. I’m Ry…,” I nervously began my rehearsed introduction before he cut me off.
“You’re a pitcher, right? From Virginia? You had a good year in double-A last year?”
I nodded in acknowledgment, bewildered.
“I know who you are, Ryan,” Todd announced confidently as he forwent my saturated handshake offer in favor of an “atta boy” spanking on my bare behind. “Welcome to the Big Leagues.”
When the most established player on the team takes the time to learn about the guy battling for the last spot on the bench, there’s going to be a healthy amount of leadership in the clubhouse.
Todd was, by far, the most highly touted player on our squad in a year that the headlines read, “Todd & The Toddlers.” Although he was in his prime and still putting up ridiculous numbers, our inexperience overpowered Todd's prowess to the tune of a franchise record, 95 losses.
Rather than vying for a trade, Todd embraced his role as a mentor. The sage-like leadership he provided was profound. The more Todd poured into us, the more we “Toddlers” came into our own, and Todd deservedly earned himself the nickname, “Toddfather.”
Two years later, as a direct result of his guidance, we found ourselves winning the National League Pennant. Nobody deserved the ‘07 World Series run more than Todd.
2. Not only do you accept your role with the team, you embrace it. Doug Bernier is one of the best teammates with whom I’ve shared a clubhouse. During our years in uniform together, “Dougy” was never “The Guy.” While eye-popping speed and/or power earned others “prospect” status, Dougy’s solid-average, but steady tools typically earned him a utility role.
Rather than gripe about playing time, Dougy found ways to add value to the team. He started by learning every position, and doing all of the “small” things well. While he wasn’t going to steal you 50 bags, or hit you 30 homers in a season, he was going to play ridiculously sharp defense, and situational hit for you every chance he had.
One year, we had a top prospect roll into spring training with personalized license plates that read, “Touch ‘em all” (abbreviated). Dougy joked that he should have some plates of his own made up that read, “Get ‘em over.” Although he was making himself the butt of the joke, Doug was realistic with his skillset, and he never tried to become someone he wasn’t. Instead, Doug became a master of the things he does well, while improving upon the areas where struggled – en route to becoming one of the most rounded players with whom I shared the field.
Nobody practiced harder than Dougy, and when an opportunity presented itself, he was ready, and he produced – often playing his way into a starting role. That’s why with 16 seasons of pro ball already under his belt, Dougy is still in uniform, while others (even the “prospects”) aren’t.
3. You “earn it” every day. Matt Holliday has freakish talent on the baseball diamond, but what struck me was how hard he works at his craft. We see too often that success breeds complacency – the more success we have, the more inclined we are to "relax," and the less we feel the need to work hard. That was never the case with “Matty.”
Before every home game (usually around 3pm for a 7:05pm game), several other pitchers and I would head out to the field for early conditioning. On our way, we passed the indoor batting cages to find Matty in the cage, hitting off of a tee. When we had finished our conditioning, we passed the same batting cage on our way back to the clubhouse, to find Matty…still hitting off of a tee.
Immediately following the games that I pitched, I would head to the weight room to work out. When I arrived, Matt was in there, already working out. When my workout was finished, Matt was still in there…still working out. I noticed a pattern had developed.
It wasn’t that Matt was only working when I happened to be watching, it was that Matt was ALWAYS working.
I continued to watch as Matty took reads off the bat in the outfield, worked on his base running, and launched bombs over the concourse during batting practice. Matt never gave reps away.
Not only was Matty our most physically gifted athlete, he was also our hardest worker. His incredible talent, coupled with his tireless work ethic has led to one of the most distinguished careers the game has seen. He poured into our team by setting the standard of what hard work looks like, and was a great teammate in the way he always gave his best effort, during and outside of game time.
4. You place the team’s goals above your individual goals. Coming up in the Minor Leagues, there’s a dichotomy between wanting to climb the ladder to reach the Majors, and wanting to stay with your current Minor League team to achieve excellence with your current set of teammates.
Many Minor Leaguers, whose focus is solely reaching the Majors, are often labeled “Stat Rat,” because they’re the guy who knows exactly how many hits they’ll need to get their batting average above .300, or “Johnny Transactions,” because they’re the guy who is nose-deep in the transaction sheet, hoping for somebody ahead of them to go down with an injury, in the hopes of a call-up. Needless to say, neither of these guys care too much for their teammates with their “thumbs-in, me-first” mentality.
Several teammates come to mind that displayed the opposite: a team-first approach, but few surpassed Jeff Winchester. I was a closer for the teams “Winnie” and I played on together, and he was a catcher. When I entered the game with a lead in the 9th inning, our team’s batting was typically done for the day. Many catchers I had worked with previously would bring that day’s batting performance into the field with them – either pouting behind the plate because they logged an 0-4, or were relaxing on their high horse because they had hit 2 doubles and a homer.
Winnie always had a bigger vision: the team’s success. I remember one game vividly where Winnie had achieved the dreaded “Golden Sombrero” - he had struck out 4 times that game. Winnie met me at the mound with sweat pouring off his brow, and with fire in his eyes, he slammed the baseball into my glove. “Let’s win a ballgame,” he said positively before he darted to home plate to catch my warm-up pitches.
We won the game, and regardless of Winnie’s performance at the plate, he contributed greatly to the team’s victory.
5. You relentlessly pursue excellence. I spent a lot of time in the video room at Coors Field analyzing my pitching mechanics, the action on my pitches, and scouting batters I’d be likely to face in the upcoming game.
One day, I entered the video room to find Scott Podsednik at one of the other computer monitors, watching a pitcher from the opposing team we’d be facing in our game that night. I sat beside him, and looked at the screen he was locked-in on, and asked, “are you going to mash off of that guy tonight?” “No, I’m trying to see if I can steal a base off of him,” “Pods” replied. I looked down and noticed the stopwatch in his hand. My mind was blown at his attention to detail. Never before had I seen a player utilize the video room to get set, hold times, and delivery to home plate times on a pitcher.
Scott was in the middle of a down season, and he had already checked the lineup card to find that he wasn’t in the starting lineup that night. Rather than “taking the day off,” he found a way to add value to our team. He predicted that his best shot at entering the game would be as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement, late in the game.
Guess who entered the game as a pinch-runner, stole a base, and helped us win that night? You guessed it.
Scott’s personal pursuit of excellence is a clear example of how a seemingly small individual contribution can lead to a team achieving their goal for the day.
6. You are consistent with your character. Regardless of whether you’ve gone 0 for your last 20, or 17 for your last 20, your teammates know exactly whom they’re getting when you walk into the clubhouse each day. This is because your character is neither parallel, nor perpendicular to your performance the previous night, week, or month. Your character is on a whole other axis, completely independent of your performance.
I had the good fortune of playing several seasons with Matt Herges. “Hergey” is the guy I described in the previous paragraph, day-in, day-out. Whether he threw 3 scoreless innings of relief the night before, or was walked-off with a soul-crushing homerun, Hergey showed up the same way the following day.
You’d never know what type of game he had had the night before because his performance was independent of his character. His character added value to every team he was on, and he improved the culture of every team for which he played.
7. You are quick to “pick-up” a struggling teammate, and share the joy when they succeed. If being a good teammate means having empathy for your fellow teammates, few embodied it better than Jeff Francis. Jeff and I followed a similar path to the Majors, climbing the ranks at a similar pace, and breaking through at around the same time. I was fortunate to have made several Minor League stops with him, not only to witness some marvelously pitched ballgames, but also to witness that becoming a “Big Leaguer” doesn’t have to change a person’s identity.
At the lower Minor League levels, Jeff could be found touring the clubhouse after a game. He would congratulate our teammates on great performances, and he would “pick-up” those who were struggling. Even if Jeff were in a rut himself (which was rare), he’d be the first at your locker to share in the trials and triumphs, following a game.
My debut in the Majors was truly a surreal experience. We walked off Trevor Hoffman on Opening Day in front of a sold-out crowd. Although I couldn’t feel my legs while pitching in the 9th inning, I managed to “vulture” the win in relief. Guess who was the first to meet me at my locker and invite me out to celebrate that night? It was Jeff.
My next 3 weeks in the Majors were dreadful. I was admittedly in awe of the Majors, and felt like I didn’t belong. My performance reflected more of the same. Jeff was there at my locker after each poor performance to offer a kind or encouraging word, but I ultimately earned myself a demotion to AAA.
When I returned to the Majors later that year, nobody seemed happier to see me than Jeff. He truly rode the wave of emotion with his teammates, placed himself in other peoples’ shoes regularly, and did all he could to pour into everyone with whom he shared a uniform.
Ryan Speier is a professional pitching instructor in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He played professionally for 12 seasons, was a member of the 2007 National League Champion, Colorado Rockies, and has coached at the NCAA Division-I level. Ryan is a dad, husband, and follower of Jesus Christ. Find Ryan on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/SpeierBaseball/