Preparing to Win


If there was ever an improbable prospect for major league baseball stardom, that longshot was Maury Wills. When he first tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, he stood five feet eight inches tall and weighed 150 pounds-too small to play most positions. He was a terrific sprinter, a promising pitcher, and a good fielder, but he couldn't hit worth a darn. The Dodgers signed him but sent him down to the minor leagues for development. Maury told his friends, "In two years, 1'm going to be in Brooklyn playing with Jackie Robinson."

Despite that confidence, Maury languished in the minors for eight and a half frustrating years. How he finally got out-to reach not just the major leagues but individual greatness-is a story of patience, preparation, and practice, practice, practice.

He started out in Class D, the lowest rung on the baseball lad­der, riding a bus from game to game, enduring racial harassment M segregated towns, and barely supporting his growing family cm his paltry $150-a-month minor league salary. He knew he had some­thing to offer a big league club if he could just round out his skills.

Every day, Maury practiced hitting for hours. Yet after years of grueling practice and drills, he was still far short of making a major league roster. Instead of giving up, he changed his game. During practice one day, the team manager, Bobby Bragan, watched as Maury took a couple of swings at the plate from the left side. Bobby knew Maury was afraid of getting hit in the head with a curve ball, and Bobby knew if a player couldn't hit a curve ball, he would never make the majors. Bobby suggested Maury try "switch-hitting"-learning to hit left-handed as well as right­handed so he would feel safer batting against right-handed pitch­ers from the opposite side of home plate.

"You're in a seven-and-a-half-year slump as a right-handed batter," Bobby told him. "You've got nothing to lose. Come out early tomorrow and I'll throw to you." The next morning, hours before the other players arrived, Bobby threw to Maury and saw new promise. After four days, Maury was eager to try switch-hitting, but Bobby suggested he wait until the team went on a road trip so Maury wouldn't embarrass himself in front of the home fans. Two weeks later, that opportunity finally came.

Maury got two hits. "I began to feel like a baseball player again," said Maury. "Those two hits restored my hope and vision of going to Brooklyn." By the end of the season, Maury had polished his skills at shortstop and showed promise as a switch-hitter. Even with his improved skills, the Brooklyn Dodgers still did not offer to move him up.

In his eighth year in the minors, Maury continued to practice with Bobby. In the first twenty-five games he stole twenty-five bases and hit .313. Meanwhile, the Dodgers' shortstop broke his toe and the general manager was looking nationwide for a replace­ment. Bobby Bragan called the home office. "You're looking around the country for a shortstop and you've got one right here," he said. "Maury Wills?" Was their response. "He can't play. He's been around forever."

"Yeah," Bobby said. "But he's a different player now."

The Dodgers ignored Bobby's advice and continued the search. A week later, out of desperation, the home office called Maury, and he flew to join the team in Milwaukee. In the next couple of games, Maury came to a painful realization-playing in the major leagues was much different from playing in the minors. Although Maury was a fine shortstop, his hitting still wasn't major league caliber. The managers let him bat a couple of times each game then took him out around the seventh inning and put in a pinch hitter. "The handwriting was on the wall and I knew if 1 didn't learn to hit better, I was going back to the minors," Maury remembered.

But now that Maury had finally tasted his dream, he wasn't about to go back to the minors.

Maury went to the first base coach, Pete Reiser, and asked for help. Pete agreed to meet Maury for batting practice two hours before the team's regular practice session each day. Maury practiced hitting day after day, in every kind of weather, until his hands were blistered and bleeding. Yet for all his efforts, his bat­ting still wasn't strong enough. He continued to be taken out in the seventh inning. Discouraged, Maury finally considered quit­ting baseball.

Pete wouldn't let Maury quit. Pete realized that a crucial piece of Maury's preparation had been missing. All this time, Maury had been working on his hands, arms, posture, and swing through. Pete wondered if perhaps the biggest obstacle was Maury's confidence. So Pete changed the training. Each session, Pete and Maury spent thirty minutes hitting the ball and ninety minutes working on Maury's mental preparation. Sitting in the outfield, Pete would focus on Maury's thinking and attitude. Pete assured Maury that he had what it took and that if he persisted in his training, the work would eventually pay off.

"It was tough to continue to walk up to that plate having no hits in ten times at bat," Maury said. "However, I learned that con­fidence comes only after a measure of success, and success comes after a whole lot of practice and preparation."

In a game two weeks later, Maury got a hit his first time at bat. And his second time at bat. In the now-dreaded seventh inning, Maury looked over his shoulder, waiting for the manager, Walter Alston, to call him back to the dugout. Instead, Alston nodded for Maury to continue. Maury responded with another hit. After eight and a half frustrating years, Maury finally found his "groove." The next day Maury got two hits, and four hits the day after that. His batting average soared.

In his first full season in the majors, Maury finally established himself as a major league shortstop and hitter, but he didn't stop there. He had yet to unleash his most natural talent-his God given speed. Studying the motions of opposing pitchers, timing the throws of opposing catchers, practicing powerful takeoffs and deceptive slides, Maury started stealing bases like no one in the history of the game except for the great Hall of Famer Ty Cobb.

By his second season with the Dodgers, Maury led the league in base stealing. Base stealing had become Maury's own special weapon, distracting pitchers, causing wild throws by catchers, and drawing thousands of extra fans to the stadium to watch his magic. Most important, Maury was helping the Dodgers win games. Even then, Maury wanted to accomplish more. He wouldn't be satisfied. He set his sights on Ty Cobb's record for stolen bases. In 1915, Cobb had stolen 96 bases in 156 games. Even though the regular baseball season in 1962 included 162 games, Maury's goal was to beat the record in 156 games, as Cobb had done. Maury began running like a man possessed. He slid into bases so many times he peeled the skin off his legs from hip to ankle. Bloody, bruised, bandaged, ignoring the pain, he never slowed down.

Game number 155 was in St. Louis against the Cardinals. Maury needed one steal to tie the record, two to break it. With every eye in the stadium on him, and the eyes of the nation watching on television, Maury got two hits and two steals. He broke a major league record that had stood for forty-seven years. At the end of the season, Maury was named the Most Valuable Player in the National League, alongside Hall of Fame giants like Willie Mays, Don Drysdale, and Sandy Koufax.

The player who had once seemed stuck forever in the minor leagues, destined to end his career in mediocrity, had transformed himself into a bona fide star. All because, year after year, rejection after rejection, Maury Wills persisted, preparing himself. And when his moment came, when he had his chance to shine, he was ready.

Excerpted from Unstoppable, p, 152-156 (Sourcebooks, $14.95) Copyright 1998 by Cynthia Kersey www.unstoppable.net

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Cynthia Kersey is a nationally-known speaker, columnist and author of the bestseller, "Unstoppable" and upcoming sequel "Unstoppable Women". Cynthia captivates audiences by delivering presentations on how to be unstoppable in their business and life pursuits. To learn more about receiving a FREE daily Unstoppable Insight, joining the FREE "Unstoppable Community" or bringing Cynthia to your next meeting, visit www.unstoppable.net .

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