Former players encourage kids to believe in themselves
ARLINGTON -- Eight former big leaguers worked out players at a youth clinic on Sunday and left the small group of youngsters with one parting piece of advice: Have faith in yourself.
"When I got to my first Spring Training [in 1958], I looked around and there were all these bigger guys, faster and stronger," said Ron Brand, then a farmhand for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "I became a 'no prospect.' Branch Rickey Jr., the Minor League director for the Pirates, went to George Genovese and said, 'George, what did you see in that boy?'
"But I believed."
Genovese, by then a retired career Minor Leaguer with a grand total of two plate appearances in the Majors, believed, too.
Brand was one of eight former Major Leaguers turned instructors at Sunday's Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association Legends for Youth baseball clinic at the Texas Rangers Youth Ballpark just outside the big league stadium.
In addition to Brand, former All-Star and Gold Glove winner Ellis Valentine, Chuck McElroy, Jerry Browne, Dave Chalk, Darren Hall, Ced Landrum and Jimmy Serrano were on hand.
They drilled about 20 youngsters in the art of outfield play and baserunning, among other things, and life skills.
"I get more out of it than they do," said Valentine, who recalled a day in his youth when former Dallas Cowboys receiver Bob Hayes came to speak to his baseball team in Los Angeles.
"It stuck with me. I'm just grateful to be able to do it and to see the joy on their faces and their family's faces."
Brand, known as an scrappy, undersized overachiever as a player, was about as good a messenger as could be found.
As soon as the then 9-year-old found out Genovese, then a shortstop for the Minor League Hollywood Stars, lived down the street, he marched down there and knocked on the door.
"I told him I wanted to be a ballplayer," Brand said.
Genovese took an interest in the youngster, perhaps because he saw a little of himself in this precocious youngster. Like Brand, Genovese, was a "little bitty guy." He told Brand to come down the next day, and those few hours of pepper and catch began a long friendship.
"He encouraged me and encouraged me and encouraged me," Brand recalled.
The Pirates signed Brand out of North Hollywood High School, essentially on Genovese's recommendation. The mentor began talking up his protégé to Rickey, starting when Brand was a 14-year-old. When Rickey questioned Genovese's evaluation during that first Spring Training, "George said, 'Don't worry. He's a player, he can play, he's a winner.' And they kept me around."
Yet, Pittsburgh still didn't see a big leaguer with any over-the-top ability.
Brand found ways -- through persistence, versatility and an eagerness to help his team. Still a Minor Leaguer in 1961, Brand volunteered to go behind the plate when his team's catchers were all injured. A year-and-a-half later, he was in the big leagues as a catcher, among other positions, and stayed for eight seasons.
"I was never afraid," said Brand, who played seven positions at some point during his career. "George told me that when I was a kid. 'You can't be intimidated by who you play.'
"If I was playing against Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, they were merely guys on the other team. I respected their ability, but I thought I was every bit as good as they were on that day, in that game."
Brand's versatility extended off the field. He earned licenses in insurance sales, securities, real estate and contracting -- a business in which he worked after his playing days and before a 20-year stint as a scout for the New York Yankees. Brand retired from the Yankees two years ago.
Brand was a career .240 hitter with a .300 on-base percentage. But he thrived at doing the little things, whatever needed to be done to win a game.
"The biggest thing is I believed," Brand said. "I wanted it so bad. That was my ticket. Everybody who played against me thought I was the toughest and hardest-working player they played against.
"My story is a great story, because nobody thought I could do it."