by Michael McHugh
A role model is a person who sets a good example for others. The way they act, the way they demonstrate their values or the way they play hard at their sport are all positive influences. Kids of all ages idolize sports figures from high school to the pros, and want to emulate those athletes.
These days, a lot of pro athletes make headlines for the wrong reasons. But there are plenty that get it right, and for those who do, they have a loyal following.
Just ask thirteen-year-old Sean McHugh, of Nashville, Tennessee. In 2004, Sean’s dad Dan, took him to Los Angeles to see the LA Lakers take on his favorite team, the San Antonio Spurs. It was his first in-person NBA experience, having only seen Tim Duncan and company on TV. It had him hooked, and last month, Sean’s parents gave him another surprise, a birthday trip to Houston, to see the Spurs take on the Houston Rockets.
In 1997, while watching the World Series between the Florida Marlins and the Cleveland Indians, by brother Zach, who was in second grade at the time, latched on to a young new player, Craig Counsell, the Marlins rookie second baseman. There was really no rhyme or reason. He just liked his scrappy play, and a hero was born. Zach wrote letters to Counsell after the series, but of course, it was the off-season, and the letters went unanswered, surely lost in the piles and piles of fan mail the team would get.
He wasn’t discouraged. When the 1998 season kicked off, the Marlins made their way to Houston. My mom took Zach to the game and he stood behind the dugout with other loyal fans, hoping to get an autograph, or a glimpse of his new found idol. He came prepared, armed with a Sports Illustrated World Series issue, a baseball, and a Sharpie. Counsell signed the magazine for Zach, and chatted briefly before the game began. That kind gesture was everything to my brother, who jumped on the Counsell bandwagon, hook, line and sinker.
A couple of months later, while watching the Marlins play Houston on TV , Zach watched in horror as Counsell was struck in the jaw by a fastball from Houston’s C. J. Nitkowski and sustained a compound fracture of the inner jaw, ending his season.
Zach wrote Counsell numerous letters offering his sympathy and support, sent him a gift, and a care package to help him through the rough times. Counsell didn’t forget his favorite fan in Houston and hand wrote Zach a note, on Marlins stationary, thanking him for his support and for being such a big fan. A friendship developed, and the two corresponded with each other during the off-season. Zach received an invitation to the Marlins spring training camp in Viera, Florida, in 1999 and the whole family made the trip. It was a memorable one for us all. It was also an experience Zach would never forget. Zach is now 17 and still makes his way to the ballpark to say hello to Craig when he comes to town. That one gesture made a liftetime memory for my brother, who will forever be Counsell’s biggest fan.
For Sean, an avid basketball and Duncan fan, his recent trip to Houston was one he won’t forget either. Besides having great seats in the middle of the action on the floor, he was also able to talk to his favorite Spurs, including Manu Ginobili, with whom he had is picture taken, and get some autographs on a basketball he brought along before the game.
“It was a phenomenal opportunity to come and see some of my favorite teams in the NBA play against one another,” said Sean, who just happens to love the three Texas NBA teams. “It was so exciting.”
Tim Duncan is a great role model for young fans. I love watching him use his sound fundamental skills.”
After the game, I talked with Duncan, and told him about his young fan who had flown to LA and now Houston from Nashville, just to watch them play. He stared at me as if in disbelief, and shook his head.
“That’s awesome, and unbelievable,” said Duncan. “I’ve never actually heard of that and that’s a cool thing to hear, that I’ve got fans all over the place. I can sure remember 14 years ago coming in here as a professional, not really knowing what to expect and people have really embraced me over the years. I think that’s awesome.”
Duncan seemed genuinely touched that someone held him in such high regard.
Asked if he had any advice for his young fan, who loves to play the game himself, Duncan replied, “Play a lot. There is nothing like experience. People talk about practice and everything and that’s great, but you can play a lot of pickup basketball and you need to find different people to play. That’s the only way to get good.”
Guys like Counsell and Duncan are great role models, for all the right reasons. Besides their tremendous abilities in their sport, both give of their time and money to charity work, and conduct themselves in a respectful manner, both in and out of the spotlight. They are also grateful for their fans, and appreciate their loyalty.
As for Sean, he left Houston happy and loaded with memories, and is already looking forward to another road trip, and his next NBA experience.
“It’s been a great experience and fantastic weekend,” he said. “I can’t wait to do it again.”
Craig Counsell Q&A
STAY TUNED TO MLB.com/Kids for the video interview!!!!
MM: Who influenced you most in life and why.
CC: My parents, for sure. They’re the ultimate role models, so my parents were the biggest influence.
MM:: What is one thing in your locker that would shock people to know?
CC: I don’t have anything crazy in there. Just the normal stuff.
MM: If you were stuck on an island, which of these things would you want with you. A good book, a good movie or a good CD?
CC: I’d probably have a good book. It would last longer.
MM: What book?
CC: I’d take a long one.
MM: Who would you consider to be your biggest fan?
CC: (laughs) That’s a loaded question. I can’t say one person, but I have a lot of great fans, and their support is great and I’m glad they enjoy watching me.
MM: Have things changed for you now that you’re a dad?
CC: It’s changed quite a bit. It’s a great thrill and it’s wonderful, and it changes your perspective in what things you consider important. I love it every day being a father.
MM: What do you consider as your greatest strength as a player?
MM: What would you have done for a job if you weren’t a baseball player?
I’m not sure. I haven’t had to find out yet. I went to college and have a degree in accounting, so maybe something like that.
MM: Do you feel there is a great responsibility being a role model?
CC: I think it is a responsibility, but if you are a good person and you try to live your life as a good person, then everybody’s a role model. That’s how I think of it.
Williams, 40, spent the last two years with San Diego, where he was 12-5 with a 3.65 ERA for the Padres. He was one of eight National League pitchers to record eight or more wins after the All-Star break. The Houston native, who is thrilled to be playing for his hometown team, took time during his busy off-season to talk with MLB.com/kids.
Check out what he had to say!
Michael McHugh: As a kid did you ever think you would be in the major leagues playing for the home town team?
Woody Williams: No, I never did. It was always one of my dreams, and I am happy to be home playing for the home team.
McHugh: You had a good win loss record with the Padres last year. 12- 5 with a 3.65 ERA. Did you feel it was a good season for you, and was there any reluctance to leave San Diego?
Williams: I did feel it was a pretty good season and I would like to win a few more ball games this year but there was really no reason I left San Diego other that the opportunity to pitch for the Astros.
McHugh: Any significance to wearing # 29 for the Astros?
Williams: No, no significance. The numbers that I wanted were taken and that was one that appealed to me.
McHugh: With Andy Pettitte moving on to NY and Roger Clemens still up in the air about what he will do this season, did it in the least bit disappoint you to learn Andy moved on? How are you feeling about the rotation this coming season?
Williams: I am really excited about the rotation. I think we are going to do well. It’s hard to lose Andy Pettitte, and the uncertainty of Roger, but I think we are still going to be ok.
McHugh: What is the best team pitching rotation you have played on? I am thinking when you were in Toronto.
Williams: Yes, Toronto, or maybe even St. Louis. In Toronto, it was myself, Roger Clemens, Juan Guzman, Pat Hentgen and Chris Carpenter.
McHugh: When you were moved from a reliever to a starter in 1997, was that a hard transition for you to make?
Williams: No, it was really easy because all through the minor league that’s what I did, I started. So I was ready and wanting to do that.
McHugh: What was it like for to you to be in an All-Star game (2003)and a World Series (with St. Louis in 2004)?
Williams: It was incredible. It’s the whole reason we play baseball, to pitch or play in a World Series. It was a fun time. Playing in an All-Star game was a nice experience.
McHugh: What do you consider to be your best pitch?
Williams: It really depends on the day. Sometimes it’s my fastball, but location is so important.
McHugh: What’s it like to throw a knuckle ball? Do you use that pitch much in games?
Williams: I don’t use it too often , and I work on different things. Anything that makes me better, I’ll try it.
McHugh: Being you are from the Houston area, is your family excited to be back home and close to the ballpark?
Williams: Oh yes, they are very happy to have me play here.
McHugh: What do you do for relaxation in the off season?
Williams: Spend time with my family, and that’s about it. It’s real simple. It’s an opportunity to be with my kids and my wife.
McHugh: Who do you consider the best hitter and the best pitcher in the majors today?
Williams: The best right handed hitter, Albert Pujols, and the best left handed hitter, Lance Berkman, and the best pitcher, Roy Oswalt.
McHugh: Do you have any organizations in Houston you hope to work with?
Williams: I work with Special Olympics and I am involved in my church.
McHugh: What has been your most memorable baseball moment?
Williams: I think the first time I was able to pitch in the major leagues and being called up to the majors for the first time.