TEMPE — Baseball has been ingrained in American culture since its invention in the early 19th century. As it has grown in popularity, more and more players have been part of the cultural zeitgeist. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Barry Bonds. Players on the Los Angeles Angels look to previous generations for inspiration; most have found it in the form of two people – their favorite player and their dad.
Unsurprisingly, many players that were born in between the mid 80s and early 90s wanted to model their game after one of the more talented and recognizable five-tool players of the last generation.
“I loved Ken Griffey Jr.,” Angels third baseman Zack Cozart said. “I think when I saw him in the home run derby, having a blast, it drew all the attention to him.”
Griffey won the home run derby in 1994, 1998 and 1999. He finished his career with 630 home runs.
“I always watched Griffey and played video games with him in them,” Angels first baseman and designated hitter Chris Carter said.
Even relief pitchers, such as Cam Bedrosian, had dreams of playing baseball just like “The Kid.”
“When you’re younger, you want to be a hitter too, and I watched Ken Griffey Jr., and Mark McGwire,” Bedrosian said. “There’s plenty of people that you watch growing up that make you want to be a big leaguer.”
Although most players cited Griffey as a player that drew them to the game, everyone had additional players they wanted to emulate.
Kaleb Cowart, who has played second and third base for the Angels, said his heritage had everything to do with who his favorite player was.
“I’m from Georgia, so Chipper Jones.” Cowart said. “I grew up a Braves fan.”
Cozart also mentioned his southern background when discussing his favorite player of all time, Ozzie Smith.
“I grew up in Memphis, which is Cardinal country,” said Cozart, who played shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds but will play third base for the Angels. “My dad was a Cardinals fan, so we watched Cardinals games. I’d watch Ozzie Smith, and I wore Number 1 until I made it to the Reds, because it’s retired (for manager Fred Hutchinson).”
Cozart laughed when asked if he ever had attempted to do a backflip when taking the field like the 15-time All Star and 13-time Gold Glove Award winning Smith used to.
“I know I can’t, and that’s never crossed my mind,” Cozart said. “That’s another thing that was cool about him. You could tell how much fun he had out there. I think that’s what you see guys get away from because it’s such a tough game, but you have to have fun.”
Tyler Skaggs, the six-foot-five left-handed starting pitcher for the Angels, said another tall lefty was the guy he looked up to as a kid.
“Randy Johnson was my favorite guy growing up,” Skaggs said. “I was really tall when I was growing up, so I think it’s a good comparison.”
Carter also said when he played as a kid, he would wear Frank Thomas’ signature shoes and batting gloves.
Every kid has a favorite player and someone that they want to emulate. Some wanted to have a perfect swing like Griffey, and others wanted to overpower batters like Pedro Martinez. Those who have dreams of playing in the big leagues had to start somewhere small, and that often means practicing with a parent. In a lot of cases, kids and their dad work together on empty fields or streets before the player has even started Little League.
“My dad put a bat in my hands when I was very young, like three or four,” Cowart said. “He’d soft toss to me in the house with a plastic bat and ball. The bigger I got the more I had to go outside, because I started breaking stuff around the house.”
In Cozart’s case, his dad worked with him on the mental side of the game. As his coach, Cozart said his dad didn’t hesitate to discipline him if he showed an attitude.
“He was there all the time, pushing me (to get better),” Cozart said. “If I didn’t have a good attitude or threw a temper tantrum, he would sit me out.”
For Skaggs, both his mother and father pushed him to compete in as many sports as possible. He played basketball, football and baseball in high school.
“Both (my parents) were a huge part of me excelling in sports,” Skaggs said. “They’d take me every weekend to play different sports; whether it was football, basketball or baseball I was always on the go.”
Skaggs said he’s very happy that his parents wanted him to play multiple sports, because he had a good time in all three.
Bedrosian has baseball in his blood. His father, Steve, was a relief pitcher who racked up 184 saves for the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants and Minnesota Twins.
“As long as I can remember I’ve been playing baseball,” Cam said. “I have three older brothers, and they all played baseball. I can remember a little bit of when my dad played in Fulton-County Stadium. As far as I can remember back I’ve been watching baseball, playing baseball and honestly I’ve always done it. It’s never been out of my life.”
Cowart said his dad played football, and convinced him to play baseball because it carried a much lower risk of injury.
“He didn’t want me to go the same route,” Cowart said. “I played (football) in middle school, but once I got to high school I focused on baseball.”
Aspiring baseball players typically grow up idolizing one or a few players, usually the stars of the league. Sometimes role-players get large fan bases, as well. Once they’ve grown into their own as a talented ballplayer, they recognize that they most likely would not have gotten there without the help of family and coaches.
Perhaps there are some kids in Orange County today who are just getting into baseball. The sport is constantly evolving and is accessible to all genders and ages. Who knows, maybe there’s a five-year-old who will want to hit like Cozart, or a pre-teen who wants to throw a looping curveball like Skaggs.