Hometown, grandpa shaped Hawkins into man
Stomping Grounds: Toronto reliever grew up in tough Indiana town
Gary, Ind., is a city of hard times, an industrial town, built by U.S. Steel and named in honor of Elbert Henry Gary, the founding chairman of the company.
The population has fallen by more than 50 percent since the 1960s, partly the result of a changing industrial world where automation assumed a workload once handled by humans.
Toronto Blue Jays reliever LaTroy Hawkins knows the story well.
He was born and raised in Gary, also the hometown of Michael Jackson and his famous musical family -- a city where crime, unemployment and poverty have taken a toll on the population.
Hawkins emerged from the challenges, having chosen baseball as his path to a better future when he graduated from Gary's West Side High School in 1991.
The right-hander has become a point of pride for the folks in Gary, where he's part of a group of professional homegrown athletes that includes Glenn Robinson, Alex Karras, Tony Zale, Lloyd McClendon, Dan Plesac, Hank Stram, Ron Kittle and Tom Harmon.
"We all have a sense of pride in what LaTroy accomplished in his life,'' said Gary native Chuck Hughes, the president of the Gary Chamber of Commerce. "His career has been such an uplifting story and has brought positive attention to a community that has had its challenges and negative image in recent years.
"He is homegrown. He played Little League here. He played high school baseball and basketball here. In a city of people identified with crime and decline, he is one of our shining lights.''
There are those back home who wondered just how good Hawkins, also a highly regarded basketball recruit, could have been had he accepted Indiana State's offer of a full scholarship to play hoops instead of signing with the Minnesota Twins as a seventh-round Draft choice in 1991.
In a report ranking Hawkins among the top prospect in the Twins' system two decades ago, Baseball America expounded on his athleticism with an account that "he stuffed Glenn Robinson" in high school basketball.
"I don't know if you can say I stuffed him," Hawkins said. "He was clearly better than the rest of us. He went to Purdue, and then there's no question what he did in the NBA, but we went to bitter [high school] rivals. He went to Roosevelt [the same school as the Jacksons] and I went to West Side."
And when they went head-to-head?
"I had some good games against him," admitted Hawkins. "We always battled each other. They were dogfights."
Robinson, nicknamed The Big Dog, went to Purdue and was the first overall pick in the 1994 NBA Draft, going to the Milwaukee Bucks. He averaged 20.7 points per game in an 11-year NBA career.
Hawkins opted to pursue a baseball career.
"I was really close [to choosing Indiana State], but a lot of [Major League] teams started showing interest in me as a baseball player my senior year," he said. "I decided if I was drafted, I was going to sign.
"When I got drafted, I thought I was going to get to play baseball and get paid for doing it. I thought, 'That's the best job in the world.' Then when I got to the big leagues, I wanted to stay four years to vest [in the pension] and then it was get 10 years in so I could max [in the pension]."
Now 21 years into his career, Hawkins is the second-longest tenured player in the Majors (Alex Rodriguez debuted a year earlier), having played for 11 of the 30 teams, including two stints with the Rockies. And now, in what he says will be his final days as a player, he is making his fifth postseason appearance -- a stretch-run acquisition for the Blue Jays, who acquired him from the Rockies along with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
"It definitely makes me appreciate the opportunity, where I am from and how far I have come from there," said Hawkins. "A lot didn't make it out; some died, some went to prison. I am completely blessed. I was able to turn the page and escape the vicious cycle."
Hawkins credits his staying on the right path to the strong foundation he had at home, and his parents encouraging him to pursue sports, which was his childhood passion.
"We used to take a rim off a bike and nail it on the side of the garage and play [basketball] like we were in Chicago Stadium,'' he said. "Baseball? We didn't have any bats. We used broom handles. I broke a lot of broom handles. And we made tape balls. Gloves? We didn't get them until we got to Little League.''
And speaking of Little League, Hawkins has not forgotten the impact youth baseball had on him, and he wants to make sure other boys and girls in Gary have that opportunity. He donated nearly $30,000 a few years ago to Gary Youth Baseball to help rejuvenate the Little League program.
"He grew up in this environment, has enjoyed success and has not forgotten the people back home," said Hughes. "He is a shining example for people in our community of what can happen.''
One of the biggest influences in Hawkins' life has been his grandfather, who taught him to respect himself and others. It's a message Hawkins always has tried to extend to the clubhouses he's called home throughout his career.
Hawkins, who said his grandfather kept him grounded, shook his head when he thought back to his second year in pro ball. After breaking in with the Twins' rookie-level Gulf Coast League team in 1991, he found himself sent back there again in '92.
"They sent the college guys to Elizabethton [the Twins' Appalachian League affiliate in Tennessee] and the high school kids back to the Gulf Coast League," said Hawkins. "I called my grandfather and told him it wasn't fair. I told him I was going to quit, and come home. He said, 'Where you going to stay?' I told him I thought I'd stay with him. He told me, 'I don't let quitters stay in my house.' I got the message."
Only one other time did Hawkins consider turning his back on baseball.
He made the Twins' roster out of Spring Training in 1995, when teams were allowed to carry 28 players -- three over the normal roster -- for the first month of the season because of a strike-shortened Spring Training. When the time to cut back to 25 came, Hawkins, having appeared in three games, was one of the players the Twins sent to Triple-A.
He went home at the All-Star break thinking he'd had enough.
"This guy I knew asked me for $2 to buy some wine," recalled Hawkins. "I'm thinking, 'I'm making $1,400 a month and he wants $2 from me.' He told me he was making $200 a month.
"That was it. I went back to Salt Lake City [the Twins' Triple-A affiliate at the time] and got my stuff right. It made me think about how tough times were. I didn't want to ask somebody for $2."
All these years later, Hawkins is prepared to walk away from the game on his own terms: at the age of 42, the oldest active player in the game and 10th all-time in pitching appearances with 1,042 regular-season games.
"My worst day in baseball," he said with a pause, "... it was pretty good when you think about it."