Writing

Writing is fundamental to all storytelling. While T.V. is Brett’s true love, he got his journalism start as a college writer. Below are a collection of stories he remembers fondly.

Honesty is staple for former GM Lee Thomas

Published: November 2012

Category: Feature Story

Lee Thomas told his wife to get up. He wanted to leave.

Photo by Brett McMillan
Lee Thomas addresses students at Lindenwood University Nov. 2. Thomas currently is a special assistant to Baltimore Orioles general manager Dan Duquette.

She was confused why her husband, then general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, wanted to leave game six of the 1993 World Series with his team leading 6-5.

Thomas had been in professional baseball since he was 18. He knew what was coming, and he was just being honest.

What happened next at Rogers Centre, Thomas said he still sees during his sleep.

Toronto Blue Jays’ outfielder Joe Carter hit a World Series winning, walk-off three run home run. The ball beat the Thomases out of the ballpark.

“It was like somebody hit me over the head with a hammer,” Thomas said.

Carter’s home run off Phillies’ closer Mitch Williams ended Thomas’ only appearance in the World Series as a general manger.

Eleven years earlier he won the only World Series of his career when he was Farm Director for the St. Louis Cardinals under GM-manager Whitey Herzog.

“Whitey always told me one thing, if you don’t lie to any of the players you don’t have to worry about what you said when you lay your head down,” Thomas said. “And boy, I agree with that one-hundred percent.”

Bing Devine gave Thomas his first job with the Cardinals during the 1970s. He moved up from the minors, and eventually found himself making the rounds of the Cardinals minor league affiliates by the time Herzog arrived.

Thomas said those in the Cardinal organization trusted each other. Before Thomas finalized a decision to release a minor leaguer he would call the Cardinals’ Director of Scouting, Freddie McAlister. Thomas would not make a final decision until after the pair had talked about it.

The teamwork philosophy traveled with Thomas to Philadelphia when he was hired as the Phillies GM in 1988. He said having people he could trust to evaluate talent and give him advice about players was key.

Scouting convinced Thomas to bring several marquee players to Philadelphia. Curt Schilling was one example.

“He got us to the World Series, and somebody asked me, ‘What are your real thoughts on Curt Schilling?’ And I said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing. I like him every fifth day,’ ” Thomas said.

Outfielder Lenny Dykstra was another one of Thomas’ signature trades. He was traded from the Mets to the Phillies in 1989 after the Mets grew tired of his antics. Thomas said sometimes he would call Lenny up to the “principal’s office” when complaints arose, but overall he liked Dykstra.

Even after Thomas and Dykstra were both no longer in Philadelphia, Thomas still had to deal with the ramifications of Dykstra’s behavior.

In 2006, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was commissioned by Major League Baseball to do an investigation on steroid use in MLB. They called Thomas in to talk about Dykstra.

Thomas was honest about what happened one day when Phillies’ manager Jim Fregosi called him to the clubhouse to watch Dykstra put on a weight lifting show.

“I went up to him and said, ‘Lenny, you look great. What did you do?’ He said, ‘Oh, I worked out. I worked real hard.’ He said, ‘I took some great vitamins.’ And that was it. I didn’t say no more, because at that time [steroids] wasn’t that prevalent,” Thomas said.

Photo by Brett McMillan
Orioles special assistant Lee Thomas shows off his 1993 National League Championship ring at Lindenwood University Nov. 2. Thomas was the general manager of the Phillies in 1993 when they won 97 games, and were beat by the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series.

After being fired by the Phillies in 1997, Thomas went to work for the Boston Red Sox as a special assistant to GM Dan Duquette.Thomas played a role in signing both outfielders Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez for the Boston Red Sox.

“Manny is an incredible hitter, and at that time the numbers he was putting up were just sick. I mean he was slugging .600,” Matthew Kory, SBNation.com Red Sox Blogger said.

Duquette was replaced by Theo Epstein in 2002. Epstein, then 28, was the youngest GM in Major League history. While Duquette and Thomas relied heavily on reports collected by scouts, Epstein centered his philosophy around sabermetrics and computers.

Thomas displayed his trade mark honesty, and decided Boston was no longer the place for him.

“Theo Epstein is very good. I think I could have stayed. I know I could have stayed, but I just felt like I had a chance to go do something better, and do more baseball work,” Thomas said. “It was almost like I wasn’t used enough. Let’s put it that way. That’s why I felt like I didn’t want to stay any longer.”

Milwaukee was the next stop. He was a scout for the Brewers from 2002 to 2008. Then, he took a break from the game for four years. He even stopped watching games regularly on television.

The four year hiatus from baseball was broken by his old boss from Boston, Dan Duquette.

Duquette had an interview for the Baltimore Orioles’ GM position. He told Thomas that if he got the job he was going to hire him as a special assistant.

“Around midnight I get a text on my phone. It said, ‘We be back.’ I knew he got the job then,” Thomas said. “But it was fantastic, and we lost 93 games [in 2011], and we won 93 [in 2012].”

Dan Connolly, Orioles beat writer for the Baltimore Sun, said people in Baltimore were aware of Thomas’ reputation when his signing was announced.

“He has got a real keen eye for scouting. He is one of those guys that can figure out ballplayers,” Connolly said. “He has got a good sense of what it takes to be a big leaguer. I think his scouting eye is considered one of his strengths.”

Thomas commutes to Baltimore several times a summer, but lives in St. Louis, Mo. where he attended high school. He started his MLB playing career after being drafted out of Beaumont High School.

Thomas said he enjoyed his eight year playing career, but working in the front office is better.

In typical Thomas fashion, if asked why he gives an honest answer.

“When I go out and throw a baseball I don’t miss playing,” Thomas said. “Because my arm hurts.”

 

Getting the Royal Treatment

Published: August 2011

Category: Feature Story

Former Truman State University pitcher Christian Witt is separated from his dream by 1,279 miles. That is the distance from Surprise, Ariz., home of the Kansas City Royals rookie ball affiliate — the Arizona League Royals, to the mound at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. Improbabilities and daunting numbers have been part of Witt’s baseball career from the beginning.

In June, the Kansas City area native was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 36th round with the 1,086th overall pick of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. NCAA statistics reveal the right handed Witt now is among the 9 percent of college seniors from NCAA member schools drafted each year by one of the 30 MLB franchises.

Witt said the call from the Royals informing him he been drafted changed his life.

“I hadn’t been watching the draft so I didn’t know until I had gotten the call,” Witt said. “I was at home both of my parents were at work. Whenever I called them it was   just, [I] really didn’t know what to say. Just speechless on both sides.”

Witt is the first Bulldog to be drafted since the San Diego Padres selected outfielder Tony Vandemore in 1999. Witt now has the distinction of being just one of the .44 percent of former high school baseball players who graduated high school during his year to find their way into a major league system, according to the NCAA. Although he is a professional baseball player, he has not always had the kind of numbers most draftees enjoy.

During his first year at Truman, Witt had an earned run average of 7.31 and a record of 0-2 pitching in 16 innings. In his second year, his ERA rose to 11.57 as he remained winless and took four more losses in 18.2 innings of work.

Christian’s mother Debbie Witt said her son’s struggles during his first two years playing baseball at Truman, along with injury, showed him his lifelong dream might not become a reality as easily as he thought.

“I think any young kid, when  they’re playing a sport, [playing in the big leagues] is their dream or something they’d want to do,” Debbie Witt said. “And then when [Christian] was in high school and started at Truman I think he loved playing baseball and would have loved to achieve that [dream] but knew how few get to achieve that goal. Within the last probably year and a half or so, I think once they started scouting him and stuff, he actually thought it could be a reality.”

During his final year at Truman, Witt set out to improve his change-up to a game ready pitch. Witt entered the program only throwing fastballs and curveballs at a game usable level, said Dan Davis, Truman head baseball coach.

Last season, with his newly added third pitch, Witt had an ERA of 2.70 appearing in 36.2 innings as both a starter and a reliever. He went 4-2 getting his first wins of his Truman career.

“There are some guys who have talent but won’t put the work in,” Davis said. “Christian is the full package. He’s got a little bit of ability but then he is also got that work ethic that pulls people towards him.”

Witt said Davis has been instrumental in his success. Davis was the second person Witt called after talking to his parents about being drafted and the pair still regularly talk once or twice a week.

It was Davis who contacted the Royals’ scouts. The scouts eventually recommended the organization spend a draft pick on Witt.

Royals scout Jerry Lafferty only scouted Witt twice. The first time was in a Ben Johnson Summer League game in Kansas City during the summer of 2009. Witt was named Ben Johnson League pitcher of the year that summer.

Lafferty said what he saw in Kansas City made him decide Witt was worth a second look.

“When we evaluate a player in amateur levels, whether it is high school or college one of the evaluation processes, that scouts make is they have to evaluate as to what this player might become,” Lafferty said. “I saw what we call arm strength and pitching tool.”

Lafferty saw Witt pitch once more in relief during a chilly early spring Truman home game this past season.

Witt said he will spend the rest of the summer playing in Surprise and the Royals organization will decide whether he is ready next season to move up to one of the team’s A-ball affiliates. As of Aug. 10, Witt was 2-2 with an ERA of 11.17 and a 2.28 WHIP with the Arizona Royals.

Scott Melvin, Royals Midwest Area Director of Scouting, said a high ERA is not necessarily something to worry about at Christian’s stage in his career.

“As long as you’ve got a job with a uniform you still have a chance,” Melvin said. “And that’s all these young men have been given is an opportunity and a chance.”

 

Offense sputters as Griffons roll

Published: October 2011

Category: Game Story-Football

For the fourth time this season the Bulldogs lost a game by more than 24 points Saturday when they lost to Missouri Western 45-7. The ‘Dogs are now 2-6 overall and 1-6 in the MIAA. They are 9th in the conference standings.

Truman was unable to score any points until nine seconds into the fourth quarter when second string sophomore quarterback Conrad Schottel had an 11 yard touchdown rush.

Saturday’s final score is the second largest deficit in any of Truman’s six losses this season.

“We’ve struggled all year,” head coach Gregg Nesbitt said. “We really struggled on Saturday. We just did not execute worth a doggone. I didn’t think it was possible at this stage for us to throw and catch the ball as poorly as we did. We’ve really improved. People aren’t seeing it yet so hopefully we will [show them] over the last three weeks in that area specifically.”

Senior starting quarterback J.B. Clark was removed from the game after going 7-for-15 with 42 yards and an interception bringing his season total to 13. Schottel was 6-for-21 and threw from 91 yards after taking over.

Nesbitt said there is no quarterback controversy, but the move was intended to get Schottel real in-game experience in a game that was 38-0 at the time.

Griffons sophomore quarterback Travis Partridge went 15-for-24 with 278 yards passing and three touchdowns. He also threw two interceptions, neither of which Truman was able to convert to points in the next offensive possession.

Western had 632 total yards of offense. It was the first time since Sept. 16, 2000 Western has had more than 600 yards of total offense. Saturday the Griffons averaged more than 20 yards per completion through the air and five yards per rush.

Truman had 291 yards of offense. Five Bulldog receivers combined to catch 13 passes for a total of 133 yards. Western’s eight receivers who saw time Saturday combined for 361 receiving yards and 18 receptions.

The game’s leading receiver was Griffon junior Tarrell Downing, who out-received Truman as a team, catching 5 balls for 171 yards and a touchdown.

“We played pretty solid defense for a little bit,” senior cornerback Terrence Byrd said. “Explosive plays, you mess up a couple assign and the next thing you know they hit us with some big plays.”

On defense, Western held Truman to its second-lowest point total of the season. Before Saturday, excluding the week one loss 65-3 to Northwest Missouri State University, Truman had not scored fewer than two touchdowns in a game.

Truman had 16 first downs compared to the Griffon’s 24 and the Bulldogs converted two of 14 third downs. Truman had two redzone scoring chances and converted one of them while the Griffons were 3-for-4 inside the 20-yard line.

“I think [redzone offense] is now something we’re thinking about a little to much both as coaches and players,” Nesbitt said. “I think you just got to relax. One play at a time. Get the play let’s execute the play and get it in the endzone.”

On Saturday, Truman will finish a stretch of three straight road games with a game at Emporia State. The Hornets enter the game eighth in the conference standings one spot above the Bulldogs.

“We didn’t play very well,” Nesbitt said. “What we’re looking for with any team regardless of where you’re at is consistent improvement. I don’t know why [we are losing]. The kids don’t know why. They’re certainly preparing hard.”

 

Roster questions linger for LU baseball

Published: January 2012

Category: Preview

The infield at the Lou Brock Sports complex was deemed unplayable after strong rains before Lindenwood baseball’s practice Sunday. The dirt on the field is not the only thing that will enter the 2012 season muddy, so will the roster.

Twenty-eight of the 33 players on the Lions 2012 roster are underclassmen, 15 of those are freshmen.

“You kind of go into the season knowing that patience level is going to have to be like never before, and I don’t know if I have what it takes to have that throughout the season,” manager Doug Bletcher said. “I’ve been preparing myself for the fact that all of the coaching staff are going to have to help each other post game, to sit there and have our talks, and pick each other up.”

Bletcher said the youth on his team does pose challenges, but also produces tremendous opportunity for a program he is trying to build without recruiting many transfers.

Last season, the Lions finished with an overall record of 32-23 and a conference record of 20-8. LU was eliminated from the Heart of America Conference Tournament after a 5-4 loss to Mid-American Nazarene University [Kan.].

Two of the four returning starters from last season’s order are sophomores.

Sophomore catcher Zach Loraine is the lone returning player from last year’s starting lineup who hit over .300. He is also the only Lion returning who ranked in the team’s top five in total bases.

“I think [the offense] is going to be alright,” Loraine said. “Altogether we’re a young team, but for the most part we’re just going to have to play small ball.”

The offense will also include a few transfers, such as junior outfielder Colton Moore. Moore hit .328 during 2012 for NCAA Div. I Murray State [Ky.], and started 43 of the 46 games he appeared in. He hit one home run and had 39 RBI.

Bletcher said he is not sure what his opening day lineup will look like, but there are players he must commit innings to if he wants them to develop properly.

“There are probably like 13 players we feel like we’ve got to give 100 at bats or more, and then there is a break down you could have,” Bletcher said. “It can’t be just nine guys or eight position players. It’s got to have a certain amount of depth.”

The Lion’s pitching staff lost last year’s leader in appearances and strikeouts alum Cory Trudell. Sophomore pitcher Zac Pearman led the Lions in innings pitched and wins last season, although he did trail Trudell in earned run average. Trudell finished the season with a 3.58 ERA, a full run better than Pearman.

Loraine said he thinks new pitching coach Nathan Beuster is positioning the staff for success.

“He knows what he is doing, coaching wise,” Loraine said. “Our pitchers have [good stuff], not by any means is it going to blow by anybody, but they throw strikes.”

This season, LU baseball will be an NCAA Div. II independent like the other Lindenwood programs making the switch from the NAIA to the NCAA. A year from now the Lions will be getting ready to begin their first Mid-American Athletic Association conference schedule.

Bletcher said his ball club needs every spare hour during the next year to prepare to compete in the MIAA, and he said he knows it will not be an easy transition.

“We have a challenge before us in the sense that if we’re going to be very outcome-oriented this year, perhaps, one would view it as not a productive year,” Bletcher said. “And we simply can’t look at it that way.”

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