by Larry Hodges (alias larrytt)
Visit to the Orioles Clubhouse
Yesterday was an incredible day. As noted in yesterday's blog, we were invited to give a demo and take challenges from the Baltimore Orioles baseball team in their clubhouse/locker room. They have a nice Killerspin table and lots of room. Many of the players have been playing regularly for the past few years - and it showed! This was not a bunch of "basement" players; they were surprisingly good. About a dozen of them could show up at any table tennis club and battle with the regulars.
We were supposed to be there from 2-3PM, but the Orioles kept challenging and challenging, and we ended up taking them on for three hours, from 2-5PM.
There's already been a lot of media coverage. The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN, home of the Orioles and Washington Nationals) did a special pre-game show on it, but I haven't seen it yet. (They just emailed me that they'll mail me copies of the video next week.) There's a short article in the Baltimore Sun, and an article and video (1:19) on the Orioles home page. The video has a great interview about us from Orioles Manager Buck Showalter - you should hear what he had to say about us! They also have video of me, Tong Tong Gong, and Derek Nie in the stands watching the game that night, which started at 7:05PM. (Orioles beat Tampa Bay Rays, 4-2. We sat directly behind home plate! They showed us briefly on the Jumbotron. Nathan and Qiming couldn't stay for the game.)
The players from the Maryland Table Tennis Center were:
Playing for the Orioles? Over half the team was at tableside nearly the entire three hours, cheering and jeering. Here are the ones that I remember playing against us: Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Steve Pearce, Taylor Teagarden, Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, and Chris Tillman. (I probably missed a few.) Also playing was former Orioles star centerfielder and now VP of Operations Brady Anderson. Their best player, shortstop JJ Hardy (about 1800), has had recent back problems and so didn't play - but he acted as the scorekeeper for many of the matches.
Here's a group picture taken near the end - many of the players had already left. Tomorrow I'll put up more photos taken (mostly by Qiming), and hopefully identify the players. (I don't have time now - this is a rather rushed write-up, as I didn't get to bed until 2:30 AM this morning, and I have to leave to coach shortly - I'll be coaching until 8PM today.)
To get a flavor for what this was like, image playing table tennis with these stars, with over half the rest of the Orioles all gathered around watching! Many of the players kept coming up to me to ask table tennis questions, and I bravely introduced myself to some of the others. I met and spoke with Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts, JJ Hardy, Manny Machado, Nate McLouth, Matt Wieters, Taylor Teagarden, Alexi Casilla, Steve Pearce, Miguel Gonzales, Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Troy Patton, Chris Tillman, Brady Anderson, Manager Buck Showalter, and former hitting coach Terry Crowly. I mostly let the kids play, but I did play Tillman and Brady Anderson, and at one point I did an exhibition with Nathan, and at JJ's request, demonstrated my ball-blowing trick where I blow the ball in the air sideways, keeping the ball in the air by spinning it with my breath. Derek was especially in demand - everyone wanted to challenge him, and he ended up playing nearly half the team.
Much of the time I was standing next to Chris Davis, who leads the majors with 46 home runs after hitting another last night. We talked for 20 minutes on how players develop in skill sports, and how China is developing players in sports school funded by the government. He said that it's almost impossible to make the major leagues these days unless you have systematic training from the time you were a little kid, and that he'd been trained as a baseball player since he was four. Adam Jones and a few others joined in the discussion. When Chris had to leave, he pointed at his large locker area and said, "While I'm gone, Larry, my office is yours." (Here's a picture of Qiming Chen and Chris Davis.)
We owe JJ Hardy (the Orioles power-hitting and gold-glove winning shortstop) and Orioles Media Manager Jeff Lantz a huge thank you for all of this. They invited us, and made all the arrangements. When we first arrived, J.J. Hardy had set up an ambush for Orioles outfielder Steve Pearce, who had no idea what was going on. Pearce, apparently the Orioles third best player after JJ and Brady Anderson (if he counts, since he's not front office) didn't know what hit him when JJ suggested he play this little kid, who happened to be the 70 lb, 2291-rated Derek Nie. Pearce quickly realized he'd been had as the MASN cameras caught it all! So began the night. (Derek was nervous at the start, and since we didn't want to alert Pearce to what was happening, he didn't get any warm-up - and so started shaky, missing a couple of easy shots as Pearce tied it at 2-2. Then it was all Derek the rest of the way, 11-3.)
For the first ten minutes or so, the kids were very nervous, but the Orioles were so welcoming and friendly (when they were jokingly trash talking) that they quickly relaxed. At one point Tong Tong disappeared for a while; it turned out Steve Pearce had taken him out to the batting cages, where Tong Tong got to take ten swings against a practice partner pitcher. (Tong Tong and I were the two who knew all the Orioles; Nathan, Derek, and Qiming were all more or less baseball novices.)
Some interesting notes on the players: Nick Markakis plays with sandpaper, and can both chop and attack. Steve Pearce has a nice forehand sidespin loop. Chris Tillman has a pretty good smash. Manny Machado had incredible enthusiasm, never wanted to stop challenging us. Darren O'Day had lots of equipment questions and can keep the ball in play. Brady Anderson is an all-out forehand player, and can really move - he's in incredible shape, and wore both Derek and I out. He's improved dramatically since last time we played when I gave him a lesson at MDTTC in May. (He said he'd been playing nearly every day since then.) Near the end Derek and I played him a series of games. At first he was getting only 2-4 points a game against us. Near the end, as I tired and as he energetically continued to move at full speed, and he got used to my serves, and our last three games were actually close, including one game where (with a little net and edge help!) got to deuce. Derek and I both estimated him at 1800. He may give JJ a run for it now.
Afterwards player after player invited us to come back again, and based on the video interview with Manager Showalter (see link above), he seemed to like it to. Since the Orioles won that night, we are now their good luck charm!
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