Pitch And Putt
Major League ballplayers will go to extremes to satisfy their golf fix -- and not always with their team's blessing
Several players on the 1986 San Francisco Giants were sitting around in spring training, tackling one of their favorite subjects: golf. The conversation turned into a friendly debate about the world's greatest course, prompting veteran pitcher Mike Krukow to tout ultra-exclusive Cypress Point, even though he hadn't played the famed layout. Mike Aldrete, a young first baseman/outfielder, offered to get Krukow on Cypress -- Aldrete, who grew up in Monterey, had a connection.
"So now we're all praying this little rookie makes the team," Krukow recalled.
Aldrete not only made his major-league debut that May, he backed up his promise. One day later in '86, ignoring general manager Al Rosen's rule prohibiting golf during the season, Krukow and several teammates made the drive down the coast. They could barely believe their good fortune: They were playing Cypress Point! The magical day became even more memorable when Krukow smacked the ball onto the green at No. 3 ... for a hole-in-one.
Soon thereafter, Krukow's name appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, alongside other local golfers to collect aces. The next day, the newspaper clipping was pasted to his locker at Candlestick Park, with a handwritten message attached: "See Al Rosen."
Krukow nervously went to the GM's office, where Rosen launched into a red-faced, vein-popping tirade. "You're a leader on this team!" he screamed. "How could you do this?!" His temper still hot, his voice still loud, Rosen didn't skip a beat as he completed his brow-beating by asking Krukow, 'What'd you hit?'
Upon learning it was a 7-iron, Rosen told Krukow not to let it happen again and sent him on his way.
Major-league players covet a spot in the upcoming All-Star Game, no question. They eagerly eye a trip to the World Series, the game's Holy Grail. But many players harbor another grand ambition, often sequestered from public view: They want to play as much golf as humanly possible.
Their devotion leads them on countless Krukow-like odysseys to prestigious courses -- and not always with management's blessing. Former pitcher Tommy John took his clubs on the road by hiding them in a teammate's bat box. Randy Johnson, before his back surgeries, was addicted to golf: He routinely connected with pros at well-known country clubs, dropping his name or offering to leave tickets to the ballgame. Johnson described his "best off day" in baseball as the time he and several Arizona teammates played Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits on the same day, before a series in Milwaukee.‘Smoltz is the only guy I know who tried not to let his job get in the way of his passion,’ -- Don Sutton
Johnson and Curt Schilling waged a perpetual duel during their Diamondbacks days, with the loser buying the winner a pricey golf shirt from the host club. If Schilling won, he strutted into the clubhouse wearing the shirt and conspicuously draped it over his chair, so his teammates knew the outcome of that day's match.
The Oakland A's were so full of voracious golfers at one point -- from players and coaches to the club's radio and TV broadcasters -- equipment manager Steve Vucinich watched baggage handlers marvel at all the golf bags streaming down the conveyer belt, off the team's charter plane. "Man, I thought this was a baseball team, not the PGA Tour," they would say. If the A's were struggling, Vucinich sometimes replied, "We play golf better than we play baseball."
Still, the modern standard for golf-crazed major leaguers remains former Atlanta Braves pitchers John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Smoltz, who detailed his fanaticism in a recent Q&A with GolfDigest.com, led the Big Three to the course as often as possible, and the games were hardly casual 18-hole strolls. They became fiercely competitive.
"Smoltz is the only guy I know who tried not to let his job get in the way of his passion," said Braves broadcaster Don Sutton, a Hall-of-Fame pitcher and himself an avid golfer. "It created a bond for those guys. The competition on the course turned them into blood brothers on the bench."
Here's how much the Big Three craved golf: When Atlanta won the 1995 World Series, they convinced then-team president Stan Kasten to install a putting green inside Turner Stadium (after the Braves moved there in '97). The artificial-turf green covered 360 square feet, included four holes and was surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling, panoramic mural of Augusta National.
Sadly, the green disappeared last year when the Braves built a new, high-end restaurant behind home plate. But that doesn't mean golf has fallen off the radar for the 2009 Braves, even with Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine no longer around. Outfielder Jeff Francoeur, a 4-handicap, played Merion on one visit to Philadelphia and Butler National on a stop in Chicago. And during his team's April series against the Pirates in Pittsburgh, he also found his way to storied Oakmont Country Club, figuring the course's history might override team rules.
"You're not supposed to play the day of a game," Francoeur said, smiling sheepishly. "But I got three hits that night, so everything was OK."
Most position players, weary from the major-league grind, seldom play golf during the baseball season. They don't have the time or energy of starting pitchers, who typically take full advantage of their once-every-fifth day schedule. Pitchers generally avoid the course the day before and the day of their start, leaving them three days to sharpen their games.
Some teams are more accepting than others of players' fixation with smacking around the little white ball. Former Angels manager Gene Mauch was a 2-handicap, but he focused so intensely on baseball during the season that he banned clubs on the road (hence, John's habit of hiding his) and fined players $500 for violating the rule. Braves manager Bobby Cox actually encourages his pitchers to play, provided it's not on the day they start. The Big Three, in many ways, helped make it cool to mix golf and baseball.