As a young athlete, I was mediocre. I had moments of brilliance, but I could also have times where I looked as if I forgot how to play the sport entirely. I tried hard, but Bo Jackson I was not.
In the summer of 1984, my family moved and I was to attend a new school. Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Even though it was a mere 6 miles away from the grade school I attended the year before, I would only know 3 out of 800 people that would be in my freshman class. And, like the plot of a John Hughes movie, two of them (for some unknown reason) did not want to continue our friendship. This was a very awkward time for me to say the least.
In my early time at Shadow Mountain, I had gained a lot of weight and I had very little self-confidence. I joined the football team and quit before one practice even ended because I was completely unprepared and incredibly out of shape. To add insult to injury my bike was stolen. I wound up walking home a mile and a half, which felt like 25 miles.
One of the things that I was (mildly) encouraged by was the upcoming high school baseball tryouts. I loved baseball and everything about it. I enjoyed playing little league and had forged many friendships within that. In addition, my real talent was drawing Major League baseball logos that I would actually sell at a local baseball card store (a story that I will document in another blog).
But one thing that really sticks out in my memory of this time was a tall blonde kid who would walk through the high school lunch area wearing a black satin Pittsburgh Pirates jacket. It did not have the ‘P’ logo on it, similar to the hats. Instead, it had the iconic Pirate face logo from the 1970s (pic). He was a senior, and I was a freshman. As I saw it, he was a full-grown man. But that ‘kid’ was Curt Schilling. And the word was that he pitched for the Varsity baseball team.
In the winter of 1985 baseball tryouts had started. I quickly found out that all of my previous little league taught me very little about playing at a higher level. I distinctly remember throwing a ball from the outfield about four stories over the cutoff man. As you can imagine I was immediately berated by the coaches. And rightly so. From there on I really concentrated on trying my hardest to do the best with what I had. Through one grueling practice after another, I survived. I wanted to quit many times but knew I had nothing to lose by sticking it out and trying my best.
And when the team came down to final selections, by some miracle I had made the team. This may all seem like a small thing, but with everything I was dealing with… even being the last player on the bench was an incredible accomplishment for me.
But the struggle had just begun. I didn’t get much playing time. And in a key pinch-hitting situation I struck out looking. My coach even had me pitch an inning to see if he had anything he could salvage in me. I pitched a good inning, and then followed it up by a horrible one. After I was pulled from the game I stood next to my coach hoping for some guidance. He said to me “Mike, don’t stand next to me unless you do good.” Later that year he had an even better quote during a team ‘pep-talk’ when he said, and I quote, “We are only as strong as our weakest player. And our weakest player is Mondragon.” My only guess is that he wanted me to quit. But there was no way I was going to do that. That would have been too easy.
Curt graduated from Shadow Mountain in the summer of 1985 and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 2nd round of the January 1986 amateur draft.
Actually, I look back, my coach’s words were a real turning point for me. I used that experience and motivation to work hard for the following year. I hit and fielded well in my summer league and would go to the batting cages regularly to improve. I became the captain of the junior varsity team in my sophomore year. And I had a lot of momentum going into my junior year of 1987. A sudden change in the management of the baseball program meant I had some new coaches to impress and a lot of promise going into the season.
As was customary in Arizona many major and minor leaguers would come out and train in the winter before Spring Training would begin. I distinctly remember Tom Pagnozzi working out with us as he was the brother-in-law of a teammate of mine. But nothing could prepare me for what would happen next. Curt came to work out and was asked to throw ‘live’ to us. He wasn’t World Series MVP Curt Schilling yet. Nor was he ‘bloody sock’ Curt Schilling. He was simply a young hungry minor leaguer. But to us, he was exactly who we aspired to be… a drafted baseball player.
This ‘simulated game’ was basically to help Curt and give him some game situations to work on. The benefit is, that we got to work on our own game situations as well. Backed by the varsity team, Curt took the mound. And after a few rounds, I was on deck. I was encouraged by a smaller player who had promptly hit a double off Curt to start the inning. From there, it was now my turn.
I stepped in, took some ritualistic half swings as I dug in. Curt’s first pitch whizzed by me as if I wasn’t there for a clear strike. While he wasn’t lighting up the radar gun against us, it was clearly faster, more accurate and just a different level that I hadn’t seen before. I knew I was overmatched, but I can’t imagine a time in my baseball career when I wasn’t overmatched. So instead of seeing more pitches and potentially striking out, I was going to hit the next pitch wherever it was located. I knew he was there to throw strikes, not walk me. So I dug in again and awaited the next crucial pitch.
Curt wound up, fired, and threw. I swung with everything I had. And made contact. As in the case of most of my at-bats, I didn’t know where the ball went. I do the same in golf. But I did know that I made contact. So I ran to first as one would naturally do in this situation. But then reality set in as I looked and saw the ball dribbling lifelessly to the second baseman who promptly threw me out. Hey, at least I can say that I made contact.
While it may not be the ‘curtain-calling’ moment I had longed for, I do have a story that I can tell my grandchildren. And more importantly, it taught me that life’s best moments are sometimes not the biggest moments of your life. They are the journeys and events that it took to get there. And how you use those to shape your future.
Curt went on to play for the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Boston Red Sox. He was a 6-time All-Star, 1993 NLCS MVP, and World Series co-MVP in 2001. He played on 4 World Series teams, winning 3 times. As of today, his career WAR is 79.9 which ranks 63rd in the MLB…all time!
As for me, I now write the Beer Baseball Blog. But, I never did give up on my quest to be an athlete. And in a few weeks’ time, I will tell you about a kid who grounded out to second base against Curt Schilling who was later in a wrestling ring in Japan and on MTV. Now THAT is what I call foreshadowing.
Thank you for reading and I’d love to hear your comments.
Special thanks to Keven Zeigler for finding the photos from the Shadow Mountain High School 1984-85 ‘Bull’s Eye’ yearbook. Photo credits to Sheri Riley and Carrie Swearngin.