Independent baseball: Wills provides insight for Slammers’ players
By Dick Goss firstname.lastname@example.org July 9, 2011 6:32PM
Former Major Leaguer Maury Will talks to baseball fan Jacob Boss, 5, before the Joliet Slammers' home opener Thursday, May 19, 2011, at Silver Cross Field in Joliet. | Larry Kane~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:36AM
One of the most important elements in becoming a better baseball player is to make mistakes.
Maury Wills says so.
The former Los Angeles Dodgers basestealing king and outstanding shortstop was in Joliet for a few days last week to work with members of the Joliet Slammers on his areas of expertise.
Be it baserunning, stealing bases, bunting for hits, bunting for sacrifices or fielding any of the infield positions, there may not be a more knowledgeable instructor anywhere.
Wills works as a roving instructor with the Dodgers. He is doing the same with the Slammers thanks to his longtime association and friendship with Slammers general manager John Dittrich.
“Yeah, I’m doing a little of everything here,” Wills said while taking in a Frontier League game against the Southern Illinois Miners at Silver Cross Field. “Running and stealing for some, sacrifice bunting for everyone and base-hit bunting for a few guys.”
Some would argue sacrificing is not for the big sticks in the lineup — ever. But Wills told a story in that regard.
“I was working with NBC years ago, and we were doing a game involving the Braves,” he said. “It was the eighth inning, and I said this is a sacrifice bunt situation.
“Eddie Matthews is managing and Hank Aaron is hitting. Hank steps out, looks down at third, steps out again and looks down there again. Then a third time.
“Finally, he lays down a sacrifice bunt, to (play-by-play announcer) Jack Buck’s amazement. And I said, ‘If Hank can do it, anyone can.’ ”
Wills stole a then-record 104 bases in his MVP season of 1962, when he outstole every other major league team. A switch-hitter, he swiped 586 bases in all and hit .281 with 2,134 hits in a 14-year career. And he was an excellent bunter.
But through it all, he said the key was that he allowed himself to do things some players wouldn’t, to take a chance on making a mistake.
“I tell everyone I work with that you can’t be afraid to make mistakes in baseball,” he said. “You can’t become good without making mistakes. Every time you make a mistake you should become a better baseball player.
“I know for sure you can’t be a good baserunner if you are afraid to make mistakes.”
Wills’ rookie season was 1959, the year the Dodgers beat the White Sox in the World Series. He was promoted to the parent club after spending 81/2 seasons in the minor leagues.
“I made it a point in my career to test major leaguers with minor league maneuvers,” he said with a smile.
“Some of the catchers in my day were short and squatty and it was too much work for them to get up and throw the ball back to the pitcher. So they tossed it back from their knees.
“I was on third base one day and thought I would try it out in the big leagues (make a dash for home plate just as the ball was being tossed back to the mound). I was out by 10 feet.
“That had worked four or five times in the minors. When I got to the dugout, I heard from the manager about never doing that again. But other stuff did work, and I kept it in my repertoire.”
Last week’s visit to Joliet was Wills’ third. He was here for the preseason Grand Slammer event at the Rialto and for opening day.
“I got to throw out the first pitch opening day, and I got it to the plate from the rubber,” Wills, 78, said. “I was proud of that. The players complimented me, and that made me feel good. The main thing was I didn’t bounce it.”
Wills had an opportunity to try his hand at managing as he guided the Seattle Mariners from late in the 1980 season through early in ’81. That did not go particularly well, but that was all part of his development as a teacher of the game.
“I like to give credit where it’s due when I work with players,” he said. “I have to find a way to point out mistakes without being critical.
“It’s important to build a good relationship before even getting started with the instruction. I like the way the players, these players on the Slammers, will come up to me and say, ‘Hi, Maury.’ ”
They’re appreciative. They realize they are learning tricks of the trade from one of the greats.