ALBUQUERQUE – Yes, Rio Rancho is nowhere near famed Route 66, aka “The Mother Road,” as author John Steinbeck tabbed it.
Nonetheless, Rio Rancho High School’s batting cages made the cut, so to speak, in “Grassroots Baseball: Route 66,” a coffee-table book that took Jeff Idelson, former National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum president, and acclaimed photographer Jean Fruth the length of Route 66, from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif. Along the way, Fruth shot photos of any and all forms of baseball – from the littlest of kids to the oldest of men playing the game and having fun doing it.
The 256-page book – with more than 250 of her photos — celebrates and illuminates America’s pastime through all eight states on the 2,400-mile route, detailing stories from some of the game’s greats who got their starts along the iconic highway.
Among them: Baseball Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, George Brett and Jim Thome; Astros star Alex Bregman; retired major leaguers Billy Hatcher, Ryan Howard and Adam LaRoche; as well as retired Amarillo College president and current Sod Poodles broadcaster Paul Matney. They all got their starts along Route 66 and contributed first-person essays.
Idelson penned the preface, long-time major league executive and minor league team owner Mike Veeck added the foreword and Bench provided an introduction about the legend of fellow-Oklahoman Mickey Mantle.
Now, you may want to know, how did Rio Rancho High School make the lineup for this, the second Grassroots effort – with a third on the way, says Fruth, which will feature women of baseball and be a three-year project.
Idelson and Fruth met RRHS baseball coach Ron Murphy a couple years ago and visited his nationally acclaimed ballpark, getting a few photos. During that media tour, which also visited Isotopes Park, Rich “Goose” Gossage was the featured guest, and he happily handed out free baseballs and mitts to a couple dozen underprivileged Albuquerque children.
How did Bregman get a spot in the book?
“I wasn’t sure Alex would know about 66 because he’s so young,” Fruth said at a June 15 media event at Isotopes Park. “He was very aware of Route 66, and his essay was spot on.”
That essay included the Rattlesnake Museum and the balloon fiesta.
Bregman was reared in the Duke City. His parents, who owned the New Mexico Thunderbirds when the team played its D-League games at Santa Ana Star Center (now the Rio Rancho Events Center), once had a fourth-floor suite above the first-base line at Isotopes Park. At the state high school baseball tournament, young Bregman even hit a ball out of the park as an Albuquerque Academy standout, prior to playing at Louisiana State.
Speaking of Albuquerque Academy, the book contains photos of the Class 4A championship game, played at Santa Ana Star Field – kitty-corner from Isotopes Park – and the Chargers’ win over St. Pius X.
Fruth mentioned her enjoyment of capturing the winners’ faces as well as of the tears of the losers. It’s all part of the game – and life, she said.
“It was a pleasure and truly an honor to document baseball and Americana along Route 66 with my camera, and tell the stories through my photos,” Fruth said. “Capturing the action on the field is exhilarating, but there is so much more.”
Meeting people along the way, each with his or her stories of the game, also delighted her.
“Jean beautifully captures the essence of the game and its deep connection to community in Grassroots Baseball: Route 66,” said Idelson, who drove their RV. “The images in this, her second book, along with the poignant memories shared by past and present-day players … provide the definitive compendium of baseball life along the Mother Road, from Chicago to Santa Monica and all points in-between.”
Greg Maddux, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, accompanied Idelson and Fruth for their Albuquerque visit, and threw out the ceremonial first pitch of that night’s Isotopes game vs. the Salt Lake Bees.
Few pitchers can match Maddux’s accomplishment of compiling 17 straight seasons with 15 or more victories. He won 355 games in his MLB career, retiring after the 2008 season.
Maddux told the media that his father took him to his first ballgame, at Dodger Stadium, to see his father’s favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds. Before that, he recalled being a 4- or 5-year-old and playing catch with his father in the back yard. Most men have similar memories.
The Maddux sons – Greg’s brother Mike pitched for the Albuquerque Dukes in 1990 – sat near the left-field bullpen. Years later, Greg Maddux pitched for the Dodgers; brother Mike is still active in the game as the pitching coach for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Greg Maddux has spent time not far from Isotopes Park in the past. He served a stint as the pitching coach for San Diego State, which annually visited the Duke City to play the University of New Mexico.
Although the game has changed a bit since he retired, he said it still comes down to pitching, even though there may never be another 300-game winner or guys amassing more than 250 innings a season.
“You look at the top pitchers in the game today, they’re the ones executing the most pitches,” he said.
If he had to pitch in Albuquerque or for the Rockies in Colorado, he said he’d merely try to outlast the other pitcher.
“I’m not going to really worry about giving up 2, 3, 4, 5 runs … If he pitches six innings, I’m going to pitch seven or eight,” and added the importance of pitch location, changing speeds and keeping the ball in front of the fence.
Murphy also knows Greg Maddux, through baseball camps in Las Vegas, Nev.
“He was quiet and very soft-spoken,” Murphy recalled. “When he talked, it was like E.F. Hutton as everybody got quiet. … Greg had a sense of humor about him and made us all feel important.”
Maddux’s humor was there when he said he and his teammates, when he was with Atlanta, “all loved seeing Bobby Cox thrown out of a ballgame.” The fiery Cox holds the MLB record for ejections. He, like Mike Maddux but a quarter of a century earlier, also played for an Albuquerque minor league team.
As for the book: “I loved it,” Maddux said. “I loved all the pictures in it. Jean did a great job with that.”
He said some of the photos reminded him of playing Wiffleball on the beach, as he lives south of L.A.
He hung around the ballpark to sign copies of the Fruth-Idelson collaboration.
Signings this summer at the world-renowned National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown and the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., are also on the calendar. The tour will hit three MLB teams along the way – in Chicago, St. Louis and L.A. – and minor-league teams in Oklahoma City and Amarillo, besides Albuquerque.
Still to come: July 22 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, with Jim Thome;
Aug. 20 at the Little League World Series, Williamsport, Pa., with Fergie Jenkins;
Sept. 13, “Grassroots Baseball Day” at Guaranteed Rate Field in Cleveland with Jim Thome; and
Sept. 15, a book signing at August House (with Mike Veeck.
That line-up of baseball greats mentioned above will support the Grassroots Baseball program and celebrate the launch of the new book by participating in the signings.
“Grassroots Baseball: Route 66” is available in bookstores and at Amazon. Net proceeds from book sales are being donated to the Grassroots Baseball program, to further its mission.
(Grassroots Baseball’s mission is to promote and celebrate the amateur game around the globe, with a focus on growing interest and participation at the youngest levels. The overarching goal of Grassroots Baseball is to give back by providing inspiration, instruction and equipment to help ensure more children have the opportunity to learn, play and enjoy the game. For more information, visit GrassrootsBaseball.org.)