The introduction to Major League Baseball begins through many sources.
We often to expect to hear about how a grizzly veteran put his arm around the young rookie and told him about the unwritten rules. We learn about the various tests young players will be given by experienced teammates to provide wisdom about how things are done. It is all part of the cycle of baseball life.
Yet we forget that lessons about how to adapt to life at the top will come from many more people than those on the roster with you. When you have close enough proximity to these players, and if they are humble and willing listeners, the information to help you adjust, can come from anyone.
Yosh Kawano was one of those sources. My first big league camp was in 1994 in Mesa, Arizona with the Cubs. Before this particular spring, I had no big league locker room experience of any kind. All I had were tiny conversations with those who had been there.
It was clear that Yosh was commandeering some sort of ship when I first met him during spring training. I initially had no idea whether it was a ship of his own imagination or if by talking to him about more than equipment, he would grant me understanding about where this ship of MLB life was actually going.
Judging him by his diminutive size betrayed the weight that he was carrying with him and the presence he commanded. Player after player let it be known that Yosh was the man not to cross, but also the man with the access and information.
I was just getting a feel for his role as an equipment manager at the time, since life in the minors was not as luxurious as big league spring training. I knew his job had a lot to do with bat orders and uniforms, clubhouse items and extra blue socks. I did not imagine the person in charge of these items could be a gatekeeper.
So I respected the deference I was told to give Yosh and he returned it with lessons: One liners, a joke, a motto, a warning.
His face could contort from a look of sheer joy to a sense of sympathy or dread. He would pull you close and whisper when he needed to do so, as if that information was just for you.
But it took time to earn even that place in his heart. The place where you would appreciate what he had to say and why. I had to follow the etiquette and the hierarchy of baseball royalty. He watched how you interacted, watched how you employed history and even with the Cubs many decades of struggles, he evoked a sense that he was the captain of the most regal ocean liner ever built. The only iceberg came up when you did not appreciate your path back to your starting point.
I remember getting a pay stub from an early paycheck (and spring stipend) from the Cubs and there was this number in pencil in the corner. I thought it was some code, so I ignored it in the beginning. I came to learn that this was his fee system. No bold invoice, erasable. Just pencil.
Sure, the team provided us with necessary equipment to represent the team, but do not try and con Yosh and grab five extra T-shirts for your third cousin. He was going to charge you. The way he tracked it all was by some sort of extra-sensory gift. If you grabbed an extra pair of stirrups, an alarm must have went off somewhere. You better take care of the company-issued blue Cubs undershirt and make it last. Nothing was free, except his advice.
This was a man with an inexhaustible depth of knowledge about the Chicago Cubs. It came from his direct experience, not just re-framed from the outside. He was there, and he was there to see generations of change, from Civil Rights movements, to a shift in voting, to labor disputes, to wars. Sure, this may not help me learn a hook slide or how to hit a curveball, but talking to Yosh made me feel like I was part of something beyond myself and he expected me and all others, to wait in line for their turns. And when you get your opportunity, keep your eye on history.
In a world of escalating super salaries and mega fame, Yosh was a grounding force. He brought together time itself to the front of your locker. He eliminated pretense and refreshingly brushed aside any ego-mania around a player’s need for being told how great he was.
He knew baseball, but he cared if you were humble, thankful, and gracious for the opportunity to be a big leaguer. How you did that was of the highest order to him.
These days, it is probably difficult for anyone to check a big league ego at the door who is not anointed or appointed in some manner. People get fired for aggravating the talent in many industries, not just baseball. No one but a select few are allowed to get deeply involved with the investment made in players. Player or not, Yosh unapologetically would let you know what he thought and his ambassadorship always seemed to shine through.
And his laugh was infectious. For those of you who remembered the show The Dukes of Hazzard and the Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (look it up on You Tube!), that sums it up. And he could even laugh at himself. One time he needed to get something to a player when we were playing the Padres at their old park (Qualcomm/Jack Murphy). He sprinted down a ramp to get there and pulled a hamstring.
“I’m getting old,” he said with a smile.
Yosh was a constant reminder of the power of humility, the power of breaking down these constructs that tell us we have a station in life and can only gain wisdom or interact with those in our imagined station. That we often create this boxes, player inside the glass box, the world outside. Yosh was a living and engaged symbol of time, not just from his decades of experience around the game, but because of his commitment to sharing it, knowing it was important to preserve. He did not want any player to ever forget what came before him.
I was honored that at one point when I was declared “one of his favorites.” I saw him many times at Wrigley after I retired and before he went to Los Angeles to spend his final years. Once I had his new information, I was told that he was not the same as I remember him. Regardless, I had planned to visit him, but only ended up making a call without talking to him directly.
I was simply going to thank him.
Thank him for reminding us to always remember those that not only sailed the waters before us but cared enough to leave the light in the lighthouse on.