ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Isotopes proud to have followed their fathers into baseball
For this quintet of Albuquerque Isotopes, there is no doubt.
Father definitely knows best.
And today is one of the best days to let them know how they feel.
“Father’s Day is always a special day for me,” says Justin Sellers, whose father, Jeff, pitched in the majors for four years. “I always wanted to be like my dad. Growing up and being around the game, you fall in love with it, and I always wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to follow in his footsteps, and with his guidance.”
Ditto for Tony Gwynn Jr., Dee Gordon, Rusty Ryal and Matt Wallach.
Their dads are also former major leaguers – Tony Gwynn, Tom “Flash” Gordon, Mark Ryal and Tim Wallach – and are the biggest influences in their lives.
On the field and off.
“Growing up, it was a little weird, but it was cool,” Gordon, 25, says of dad, a three-time All-Star pitcher. “I had a lot of fun with it. I thought my dad was all-world. He’s a great man, a great guy. He always took great care of us to make sure we were well sought after.”
The five sons of big leaguers they say they will all be thinking fondly of their dads – and, of course, sending them well wishes – before taking the field tonight for the jobs they were destined to perform. Albuquerque plays host to Memphis at 6 at Isotopes Park.
Of course, despite the occasion, there may be some not-so-fond feelings on the field between the teams tonight. Late Saturday, the Isotopes beat Memphis 13-10 in a game delayed 25 minutes by a bench-clearing brawl in the bottom of the fourth inning (see story on this page).
Brawls, unfortunately, are a part of the game. But it’s a game the sons of major leaguers have loved since they were boys.
Ryal says he never doubted he would become a ballplayer.
The 30-year-old Oklahoma native said he grew up “basically, always having a bat and ball in my hands, in the living room, running around the yard.”
While he was a standout in a number of sports, Ryal says it didn’t take him long to understand his calling.
“I was pretty fortunate to be good at three sports, but I decided about 14, 15 to put all my eggs into one basket and go for baseball,” he said. “I think, more than anything, I take it as an inspiration when you get to follow in your father’s footsteps, whatever career it is.”
To a man, the five Isotopes said the experiences they had as kids helped them become big-time ballplayers.
And created some lasting memories.
Some, quite humorous.
“I was pretty young when he was in major leagues,” Rusty says of Mark Ryal. “I remember one instance pretty vividly. In Anaheim, I was in the locker room and Dave Winfield was at the locker next to my dad’s. I was 6 or 7 years old, and my dad went to take a shower. He said, ‘you cause any trouble, and I’m gonna let him take care of you.’
“Here’s Dave Winfield, he had just got done lifting, and he’s got this big-old squat belt on. The guy is humongous. I kind of just eased back and hid behind the clothes. I just stayed put.”
Hanging in clubhouses and with ballplayers were among the many advantages for these five ‘Topes. After all, that’s just about every kid’s dream. But there were a few disadvantages, too, like road trips when pops would be away from home for extended periods.
Then there is the expectation factor, which can be a little out of whack. Especially for a kid with the same name as a Hall of Famer.
“They have been with me since I first started playing baseball in Little League,” Gwynn says with a laugh. “Coaches expect you’re going to hit like your dad. I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m 9. I haven’t even decided I’m going to do this.’ The ball’s still on a tee, and not even moving, but everyone’s always expected me to hit like dad.”
Or field like dad – in the case of Matt Wallach.
The only one of the five ‘Topes sons who has yet to make it to the majors learned the game from his dad, Tim, a five-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove-winning third baseman.
Third was also Matt’s position through high school, but he says injuries left his junior college team short a pair of catchers, and he was asked to try playing behind the plate.
“Growing up, it was always defense first,” said Matt, 28, who is one of the organization’s best defensive catchers. “Anytime you have a bad game offensively, especially catching, you can make up for it defensively.”
Matt says baseball was in his blood ever since he can remember, as it is for his brothers – Brett, who is in the Cubs’ organization, and Chad, who was just drafted in the fifth round last week by Miami.
But Tim, the Dodgers’ third base coach and a former Isotopes manager, never forced the game on any of them.
“He always told us that whatever we wanted to do was up to us,” Matt says. “But being around the clubhouse a lot as kids, seeing those guys, especially in the sport that we loved, it’s something I always wanted to do.”
Gordon? No so much.
In fact, Dee, a multi-sports star from Avon Park High School in Florida, wanted to pursue a basketball career.
That changed, well, in a Flash.
“He didn’t help convince me to play baseball,” Dee says with an ear-to-ear grin. “He told me, ‘You’re not playing basketball. You’re playing baseball.’
“That’s my dad. I said, ‘Yes sir.'”
But an infielder? Didn’t he want to take the mound like pops?
“No chance, never. I never wanted to do it, and I never will do it. Never, ever, ever, ever.”
By the way, don’t tell Tom, but Dee let us in on the gift he sent his dad.
“A Nintendo game,” he said. “He likes to play old-school Nintendo, and I got him a system so he can go have some fun with a Father’s Day gift.”
For Gwynn, today is an incredible gift – one he wasn’t certain he would receive not long ago.
Last year, Tony Sr. underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his mouth.
“The day absolutely means the word to me,” Gwynn Jr., said. “I want to have my dad around for as many Father’s Days as possible. We all know there’s an expiration date on all of us, unfortunately.
“My dad being sick over the last couple of years, you learn to take these days and really cherish them. I will really cherish this one.”