Garth Brooks on spring training with Pirates: ‘This is heaven for me’
BRADENTON, Fla. — As much as Garth Brooks enjoyed having a locker stall between Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer and sharing left field and a batting cage with Corey Dickerson, the country music legend will leave Pirate City cherishing another memory.
Brooks was as thrilled about kneeling down to have a conversation with Manny Sanguillen and having Steve Blass drape his arm around him as anything else. Hanging with a pair of Pirates legends from their World Series champion teams brought the 57-year-old Brooks back to his childhood.
“These are the guys I grew up with,” Brooks said. “It’s cool. I love this team. … I had all their cards as a kid. This is heaven for me.”
Brooks joined the Pirates to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his foundation, Teammates for Kids, which has raised more than $100 million for children’s charities by partnering professional athletes with sponsoring companies to make donations for their statistics. For example, if a player is willing to donate $100 per home run, the foundation finds a company willing to match or exceed that amount.
“I tell all these athletes, ‘You’re helping kids you’ll never meet in your life.’ That’s a pretty sweet thing,” Brooks said. “I hope all of them go to bed understanding the contribution they’ve done, the way they’ve turned what God has given them out to children who need it. I’m very proud to be their teammate.”
This is the fourth baseball camp for Brooks, who also had stints with the San Diego Padres (1999), New York Mets (2000) and Kansas City Royals (’04) and has partnered with the NHL, NFL, MLS, NBA, NASCAR, PGA and Professional Bull Riders.
Brooks wrapped up his two weeks at spring training with the Pirates on Friday, just as they break camp and move to LECOM Park for the start of Grapefruit League play. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called Brooks a “welcome addition to camp” and said he was impressed by how Brooks conducted himself around the players.
“The respect and passion he has for the game stood above everything else while he was out here,” Hurdle said. “We folded him in. This wasn’t a distraction. This wasn’t another part of camp. He came in, did the drills and did the work and was one of the men embraced by the team, so I thought it went very well. I know the players appreciated it. I know he appreciated it. And, obviously, his charity is going to be very, very appreciative of it and the families that this is going to help benefit.”
Brooks joked he can perform with comfort at a concert before tens of thousands as long as he has a guitar, but he’s never been so scared as to stand in the batter’s box facing a fastball.
“The crazy thing is, when you wear one of these,” Brooks said, tugging on his Pirates jersey, “you get treated like one of them. As much as I’m thankful for that, it also worries me because I don’t want to get in the way. You want to respect the game, respect the league, respect your brothers out here playing, so you just want to kind of move quietly and get in and out of the way — but the coaches won’t let you. You get your (butt) in there and take your hits with everybody. It’s awful sweet to be treated like that.”
Brooks, who starts a stadium tour next month that includes a May 18 concert at Heinz Field, cracked that he had less patience teaching the Pirates how to play guitar than they did giving him tips in the batting cage.
“I told him I butcher his songs, but he’s my No. 1 karaoke choice,” Taillon said, “and he said that’s the biggest honor he can get, that I play his music.”
Brooks joked about how the catcher was singing “Ring of Fire” as he stepped into the batter’s box for live BP against Clay Holmes.
“That’s really not fair, man” Brooks said with a laugh. “I’m trying to concentrate, and these guys are having a blast.”
Taillon even teased Brooks about willing to face such an imposing presence on the mound.
“I was like, ‘Hey Garth, I heard you stood in on Holmes. That’s probably the last guy I’m getting in there on, stuff-wise. He’s 6-6, throwing a bowling ball 97 (mph) with a hammer curveball,’” Taillon said. “He was like, ‘No, it was great. I want to see these guys up close. Don’t take it easy on me.’ I saw hitting him early work on the cage. The dude didn’t want to embarrass himself. He actually wanted to kind of contribute.
“It’s cool to see he’s wired a certain way, to want to be great. He was talking about how on stage, he can kind of fake it if he forgets the lyrics, he can play guitar — whatever you need to do — but on a baseball field, when it’s your time to play, you can’t fake it. He respects what we do here, likes getting up close and seeing the talent on display.”
Brooks drew the biggest crowds at Pirate City, drawing cheers whether he went down swinging or hit a bloop to shallow right. He graciously interacted with the crowd, signing autographs and taking pictures and reveling in his short stint as a Bucs player.
“One of the things we do talk about in our organization is that you model the behavior you want to see in others,” Hurdle said. “You want to see somebody model proper behavior, follow him around. We got to be a part of his world. … It’s incredible what he gets done and the touches he has daily and the impact he has on people. It’s because he cares. Every conversation that he had with somebody, it was eyeball to eyeball. It was face to face. There were fingerprints. There were handshakes. There were touches. And they were real. And it was a very positive impact.”
The positive impact wasn’t just the one Brooks had on the Bucs, but the one playing baseball has had on him.
“I think there is a similarity between sports and music,” Brooks said. “If you play this, there’s got to be a kid in there, a kid that you can’t lose.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .