Column: A dad shares lessons learned the hard way with son, and Dodgers benefit
He loved the Dodgers, but they never loved him back.
Stu Pederson toiled through their minor league system for seven years, yet wore a Dodgers uniform for only eight major-league games.
He came to the plate just five times. He never got a hit. He never scored a run. He collected one RBI on a sacrifice fly to the Dodger Stadium right-field wall, and then took off the jersey forever.
It was September of 1985, and outfielder Stu Pederson was quite possibly the most invisible man at Chavez Ravine. He was sent back down the following spring and never appeared in another major-league game. He eventually sought refuge in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, but by then he was an aging journeyman and, even with a career minor-league average of .292, it was too late.
“I did the best I could,” he said plainly. “But they didn’t want me, and my run was eventually up.”
When Pederson finally ended his frustrating odyssey by retiring after the 1992 season in triple-A Syracuse, he was given one last chance at baseball salvation. He was offered several minor-league coaching jobs. It was an opportunity to use his best asset — his baseball mind — to coach young players and perhaps end up back in a major-league dugout for good. The temptation for redemption was strong.
But he turned down every offer because, with two children waiting for him, including a son who was born just five months earlier, he realized it was time to go home and be a father.
“As a man, that’s just what you do,” he said. “You be there for your kids.”
He would never be involved in professional baseball again. He would never even work outside the home again. He has spent the rest of his life being the dad that he promised, in a way that might surprise some.
Stu Pederson parented through the game that had turned its back on him. He overcome any bitterness over his own stalled career to teach his children lessons through the beauty of baseball. He played catch with them. He pitched to them. He coached them. He built a batting cage with a pitching machine in their Palo Alto backyard. He would drive to their school and pitch batting practice during their lunch breaks.
He never talked about winning. There was never a final score. It was always about working hard, appreciating your blessings, remembering that life might only give you eight good games, and you cherish those games
“I taught them about baseball, but it wasn’t really about baseball,” he said.
Every dad knows the drill, you duck your head and lose yourself and sacrifice everything in hopes for your children’s happiness. You pray for everything, expect nothing, and then, one day, the tiniest gesture brings life full circle.
On this Father’s Day, Stu Pederson will receive a package with the return address of Dodger Stadium, a box containing some fancy new versions of the same sort of Dodgers gear he abandoned 30 years ago.
It will come from a kid who is doing amazing things his father never had the chance to do, things his father only dreamed of doing, yet things his father precisely taught him to do.
It will come from that boy who was just 5 months old when Pederson quit baseball to work as his father.
A kid named Joc.
He is the most memorable of this year’s Dodgers, a mop-topped, 23-year-old center fielder who this season has impressed the baseball world with his 450-foot bombs, sprawling catches, and quiet humility.
Joc Pederson smiled and said he learned it all from the most forgotten of Dodgers.
“My dad was my first coach,’’ said Joc. “He taught me everything.”
The relentless work ethic? Joc said it came from watching his father never turn down a game of catch despite being surrounded by four active children he was raising with his wife, Shelley.
“I don’t think I ever understood how annoying I was as a kid, and the sacrifices my dad made for me on a daily basis,’’ Joc said. “End of the day, my dad is tired and hungry and I’m like, ‘Let’s play catch.’ And he would say, ‘Not now.’ I would say, ‘C'mon Dad, let’s play catch!’ And eventually he would give in. He always gave in and played catch.’'
The amazing feats in the field? After making that highlight video game-saving running grab in San Diego last weekend, Joc credited his father with teaching him how to save a step by taking his eye off the ball, run in its general direction, then pick it up again before making a catch.
“It’s kind of like a football wide receiver, you can run faster if you’re not looking at the ball,” said Joc. “Been doing that my whole life.”
That aw-shucks humble attitude that permeates his subdued on-field presence and quiet postgame interviews? Joc said his father understandably preached to him about never taking one big-league moment for granted.
“He always told me, ‘You never know when they’re going to take the jersey from you, appreciate every moment, and never forget that there’s lots of things more important,’ ” said Joc.
For Stu and Shelley Pederson, the most important thing was clearly family. Today that family includes Joc’s older brothers Champ, who has Down’s syndrome, and Tyger, and younger sister Jacey. All played sports, with Champ starring in Special Olympics, Tyger playing briefly as a minor league infielder in the Dodgers organization, and Jacey currently starring as a nationally ranked high school soccer player.
The one thing this diverse group shares is an almost complete lack of knowledge of their father’s baseball career, which included two seasons at USC before he spent a dozen minor league seasons with double-digit homers four times and 60-plus RBIs five times.
“I was similar to Joc, just take away a little bit of everything . . . a little power, a little speed,” said Stu, now 55, with a laugh.
And remove all memories. There is no old Dodgers uniform hanging in the Pederson house. There are no old baseball videotapes on the TV stand. When he retired, Stu left behind all remnants of his former life and concentrated only on his children.
“He never talked about himself, it was always about us,” Joc says. “He’s never like, ‘I played, you should do this.’ It was always about how we could get better.”
With an online ticket business allowing the family to make ends meet, Stu focused on teaching his children the values he learned through his struggles. Instead of pushing them toward his lost dreams, he hit them with reality.
Life isn’t always fair. You don’t always get a second chance. Fame is fleeting. Bitterness is worthless. Do the right things, be a good person, and you’ll find your way.
“I didn’t have the greatest opportunity in the big leagues, but I did have an opportunity, I did have four at-bats,” Stu said. “What if I had gone four for four? Would they have given me more of a chance? It just wasn’t meant to be. I don’t live off old memories. This is not about continuing my dreams, it’s about making new ones for my children.”
So he didn’t blink when Joc went through entire years during elementary school literally wearing nothing but baseball pants or shorts. And he dropped everything when Joc reached Palo Alto High and began asking his father, who was an assistant coach on the varsity baseball team, for extra help.
“It was lunch time, the phone would ring, ‘Dad can you come over and throw?’ ” related Stu. “So I’d go to the high school, we’d get in the cage, he’d go back to class, I’d go back home, then a few hours later I would go back to practice.”
Now that Joc has a handful of coaches who can pitch to him around the clock, he doesn’t need his father’s arm so much, which is fine with Stu. In fact, despite this being his son’s first full season in the big leagues, Stu is spending two months in Alaska as an assistant coach with the Anchorage Glacier Pilots of the Alaska Summer Baseball League for collegians.
It is Stu’s way of satisfying his eternal urge to teach. It is, perhaps, also his way of catching up on some of the high-level baseball coaching that he gave up so many years ago.
Joc, whose first phone call upon being recalled to the big leagues last September was to his father, understands.
“He taught me how to play the game the right way, it’s up to me now,” Joc says. “Once you grow up and you realize how much time he gave us, all the sacrifices he made for us, how it was always about us and never him, how much he loves us…I’m just happy if he’s doing something that makes him happy.”
Stu can only catch the occasional game on national television, but perhaps his greatest Father’s Day gift is the satisfaction of knowing he no longer needs to watch his son to know how exactly he will look.
“He knows what he needs to do,” said the father.
“I know what I need to do,” said the son.
Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke
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