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Now It’s J.T.'s Show : First Baseman Snow Went From Being Jack’s Son to the Guy the Angels Got for Jim Abbott

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First baseman J.T. Snow gingerly walked into the Angel clubhouse, lowered his head, and tried to blend into the crowd.

He was doing what his dad had told him, but it proved futile.

His new teammates gawked at him, nudging one another and whispered.

So, this is the guy.

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This is what we got for Jim Abbott.

It doesn’t seem to matter that there are two pitchers who came with Snow from the New York Yankees for Abbott. It’s unimportant that Snow has played only seven major league games. No one cares that Snow could not possibly fulfill his potential in a single season.

“That’s just the way it is and I know I’m going to be associated with the trade the rest of my life,” Snow said. “More so than the two guys I came here with. People are going to make comparisons, and there might even be some tension.

“But I’m not trying to replace Jim Abbott--that’s impossible. And I don’t care about trying to fill Wally Joyner’s shoes.

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“You see, I’ve got to fill my own shoes first, and the only expectations I’m going to try to live up to are my own.”

Snow, who didn’t even dare tell anyone Friday that his first day of camp was his 25th birthday, is well acquainted with the controversy his presence has stirred. He has listened to the public’s criticism of the trade, and read all accounts of the Angel players’ disgust.

“Can you blame them?” former Angel reliever Bryan Harvey said. “They traded Jim Abbott for nothing. They didn’t get squat for him.”

Snow would love to shut everyone up, just as his dad did 28 years ago, but will keep still. Sure, maybe his professional experience consists mostly of the minor leagues, but check the honors:

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He was selected the International League’s most valuable player and rookie of the year last season after batting .313

with 15 homers and 78 runs batted in. He has made the all-star team on every level he has played. Scouts already proclaim him one of the finest defensive first baseman in baseball.

“I played with the guy for three years,” said Colorado Rocky catcher Brad Ausmus. “You won’t believe him until you see it for yourself. He’s the best defensive first baseman I’ve ever seen, and that includes Don Mattingly.”

Said Whitey Herzog, Angel vice president for player personnel: “I watched a lot of minor league games last season, and he’s as fine a prospect as I’ve seen. If the Yankees didn’t have Mattingly, he’d be playing in New York right now. If this guy can’t play, we should all get our heads examined.”

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The biggest impediment in Snow’s path to stardom, the Angels say, would be self-imposed pressure.

His agent, Dennis Gilbert, figures that won’t be a problem.

“His dad demands so much of himself and J.T. is out of the same mold,” Gilbert said. “Let me tell you something, this guy thrives on pressure.”

The way J.T. figures it, the pressure of coming home to Southern California and playing with the Angels is almost trivial.

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Try living up to the expectations of being the only son of Jack Snow, the former Ram all-pro wide receiver.

“Now that was pressure,” J.T. says.

Jack Snow was in Tampa, Fla., broadcasting the Rams’ game last Dec. 6, when the phone rang in the radio booth. The engineer picked it up, jabbed Snow, and said it was the KMPC studio calling.

“He told me to take the call, but I didn’t have time,” Snow said. “The Rams had the ball and were driving. I put them on hold for probably a good four minutes.

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“When we got a break, I said, ‘OK, what is it?’ ”

Studio: The Angels and Yankees made a trade today.

Snow: Fine, hurry up and give it to me.

Studio: The Angels traded Abbott.

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Snow: Well, I figured they would . . .

Studio: In return, the Angels got Russ Springer, Jerry Nielsen--they’re pitchers--and a guy named J.T. Snow.

Snow: Oh, my God!

“To say the least, it was a traumatic shock of happiness,” Snow said. “We took a commercial break, and I was going to have my broadcast partner announce it, but then I said, ‘Hell, it’s my kid. I’ll announce the trade.’ ”

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The euphoria in the Snow household wore off quickly, though. The Angels were berated on talk shows, chastised by newspapers, and mocked by fans.

“It became very difficult for me,” said Merry Snow, J.T.'s mother. “There was a time where I couldn’t even read the paper or listen to the talk shows any more. I couldn’t take it.

“I loved watching Jim Abbott pitch myself, but J.T. was just an innocent bystander in this. He didn’t force the Angels to make a trade.”

Said Jack Snow: “I thought at least things would ease up when I was doing a talk show three days a week. Uh-uh. I tried to be as objective as I could, but it got to be a little tough.”

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Instead of being incensed or bitter toward the fans’ reaction, Jack Snow calmly sat his son down one afternoon and told him about the 1965 summer day that forever changed his life.

Snow, who had starred at Notre Dame, had been drafted during the first round by the Minnesota Vikings. But then, before playing a down, he was traded to the Rams for receiver Red Phillips and defensive tackle Gary Larsen. Phillips happened to be a two-time all-pro. Snow was talented, but completely unproven.

Sound familiar?

“Oh, people didn’t like that trade at all,” Merry Snow said. “As a rookie, you’re not that accepted anyway, but this was so much worse. The players were upset, and even the wives were mad because Phillips’ wife was so popular.

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“It took a good half a season before they wanted anything to do with us.”

Said Jack: “I told J.T. that he’s going to go through the same thing. Jim Abbott was as popular an athlete as anyone on that team, and it’s going to take time.

“ ‘Just do what I did: Shut your mouth, keep a low profile, and play like you’re capable of doing. It will pass . . . in due time.’ ”

J.T. listened. In 25 years, his dad had never steered him wrong. Besides, his parents had always taken great pains to make sure that he grew up like any other kid, that he would never resent his father’s fame or be burdened by being his son.

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His name is Jack Thomas Snow Jr., but he has been called J.T. all his life.

“I’ve always been grateful for that,” J.T. said. “It gets tiring enough always reading, ‘J.T. Snow, son of former Ram receiver Jack Snow.’ Guys used to tell me, now don’t be afraid to get your own name.’ ”

Merry also made sure that J.T.'s life didn’t revolve around his father’s. The family never made comparisons, scolding neighbors or friends who acted as if J.T.'s athletic talents should all be attributed to his father.

“I remember sitting in the stands at his games,” Merry said. “You’d hear someone say, ‘Hey, he’s a pretty good ballplayer.’ Then, someone would whisper, ‘That’s Jack Snow’s son, he should be good.’

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“I always resented that. It was like he was good only because he was Jack Snow’s son. And if he failed, it was because he wasn’t as good as an athlete.”

Jack never pushed his son toward football or any particular sport, playing catch during the fall, shooting baskets in the driveway during the winter, and hitting grounders to him during the summer.

J.T. became one of the most versatile athletes in Southern California, selected to the all-Southern Section teams in every sport. There was a time when he played in 82 events during a two-month span one summer, waking up at 5:30 each morning just to lift weights.

One day in his sophomore year at Los Alamitos High, J.T. proclaimed that he was burned out. Playing three sports simply was too much, he said. Maybe it was time to eliminate one. Besides, all three high school coaches were always asking him to focus on only one sport, anyway.

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“That’s fine by me,” Jack said. “But I’ll tell you what, Sport, you can drop football or basketball, but you’re not giving up baseball.”

Responded J.T.: “Well, I guess I’ll keep playing all three, because I’m not giving up football or basketball.”

By his senior year, he finally had to decide which to play in college. He was offered scholarships in each sport, but he attracted the most interest in baseball. He was offered a baseball scholarship by Arizona, visited the campus, and canceled the rest of his visits.

A week later, in a move that nearly ended his baseball career, Lou Holtz telephoned. Notre Dame had an extra football scholarship available and offered it to Snow. Suddenly, J.T. had a difficult decision.

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“If they had called me before I visited U of A, I would have gone to Notre Dame in a heartbeat,” J.T. said. “But I had already given Arizona my word. I wasn’t going back on it.”

So J.T. went off to college, giving up football forever.

Since December, the Snows have been telling folks that J.T. receives only a handful of complimentary tickets for each game.

Friends and relatives have arranged a tailgate party before the April 6 season opener against the Milwaukee Brewers. They are expecting about 200, and when the crowd moves inside Anaheim Stadium, it will form the inaugural J.T. Snow Fan Club.

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“We’re making sure not to get J.T. involved in all this because he’s got enough to worry about,” Jack said. “I mean, some of the things people have been asking us.

“A good friend the other day asked me, ‘Can you get J.T. to stop by our tailgate party for a little while, you know, just to a say few words?’

“I said, ‘For crying out loud, the last thing I want him thinking about is us and our tailgate party. You know what he’s going to be doing when we’re tailgating? He’ll probably be in the toilet throwing up because of his nerves.

“I’ll tell you, some people just don’t understand.”

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The Angels, trying to soften the hostility toward the Abbott trade, have spent the winter selling Snow as the new local hero. He modeled the Angel uniform during the Fiesta Bowl parade, visited local hospitals, signed autographs in malls, appeared on talk shows, did baseball clinics, and even attended the local dairymen’s convention.

“It’s like my life changed overnight,” J.T. said. “When I was with the Yankees, no one knew I was.”

How quickly times have changed.

Said Merry: “When I was in the checkout line of the grocery store the other day, the clerk said, ‘Are you . . . ? Is your . . . ?’

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“I knew exactly what she was going to say. For the last 20 years, it’s been the same thing: ‘Are you married to Jack Snow?’

“So I was just about to answer when the clerk finished by saying: ‘Are you J.T. Snow’s mother?’

“I couldn’t believe it. I can’t remember being so proud.”

No matter what J.T. accomplishes in the big leagues, he and Jack already have achieved a unique distinction: They are the first father-son combination to play in the NFL and major league baseball.

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“This is a dream come true for the entire family,” said John Shane, J.T.'s uncle who has been taking him to Angel games since he was a toddler. “Well, particularly for me. I’ve been a die-hard Angel fan since they started. I’ve even collected baseball cards going back to Steve Bilko and Ted Kluszewski.

“I figured I better update my collection, so I went in the other day to this card shop and asked, ‘How much for the J.T. Snow card?’ The guy said, ‘Nine bucks.’

“I said, ‘Why so much?’ ”

“The salesman said, ‘Hey, he’s the guy who replaced Jim Abbott, you know.’ ”

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