Baseball people tend to have an odd attachment to names, and Jason Hawkins, head baseball coach at Division III Occidental College in Los Angeles, readily admits his guilt in this area. Hawkins named his first son Will, as in Clark, and his second Cal, as in Ripken. Cal would have been named Pete, had Hawkins' wife, Angela, not intervened and objected, citing certain gambling issues. Poor "Charlie Hustle" is having trouble getting into both the Baseball Hall and the Hawkins' home. This big league appellation attraction extends to Hawkins' pitching coach, Adam Morgan, who recently became the proud pop of a little boy named Cy. He's a newborn, so he's quite young, if not Young.
"Baseball types," Hawkins said, "we're all a little weird." We can only imagine, then, how excited Hawkins must have felt last fall, when he heard through the Oxy grapevine about a certain freshman enrollee. A kid named Ty Cobb. "At first," Hawkins said, "I thought it was a joke. And then I thought maybe it was just a coincidence." Turns out, it was neither. This was, indeed, the great-grandson of the great Tyrus Raymond Cobb. An honest-to-goodness byproduct of "Georgia Peach" genealogy. Hawkins' wonder, naturally, was, "Can he play?" The answer was an emphatic yes. Ty Cobb plays basketball. "It's my first love," he said. A 6-foot-5, 215-pound freshman forward on the Oxy basketball team, Ty is starting to see more minutes and proving himself to be a hustler and hard worker. He's pursuing his love, as every kid ought have a right to do. Still, something about Ty's story, as told by the Los Angeles Times last week, just didn't feel right. For here was the namesake of one of the first five members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, a kid who pitched and played first base in high school and American Legion ball and was offered a spot on the baseball team for several D-III schools, eschewing hardball for the hardwood. It seemed unnatural. But don't mistake Ty's decision for a lack of appreciation of his roots. "I've always felt connected to Ty Cobb and the history of baseball," said Ty, who got the behind-the-scenes treatment when his family visited Cooperstown a few years ago. "Just carrying his name, it's a little weird, but it's always been positive. I've met some older men that say, 'I remember watching Ty Cobb play and meeting him once.' It's cool to know he had an effect and an impact on a lot of people's lives. I'm proud to carry his name on." That pride runs past the original Ty Cobb's reputation as perhaps the meanest player in the history of the game. We tend to think of Cobb as a reckless baserunner who would deliberately sharpen his spikes to inspire fear in opposing infielders. He's been accused of gambling, racism and possessing a crazed, combative personality. But stories passed down in the Cobb family paint an entirely different picture. Ty's father, Herschel, spent summers with Cobb until the "Georgia Peach" died in 1961, and it's his contention that Cobb's reputation has been largely exaggerated or, in some cases, fabricated. "My dad knew Ty Cobb as a loving grandfather and a really generous man," Ty said. "He had a great sense of humor about life. He was a proud grandpa." And he'd be proud of his great-grandson, who is a polite and well-spoken young man, a diligent student (Ty did this interview while doing some late-night economics homework after a full day of classes and practice) and a fierce competitor in his own right. "My only goal is for the team to win," he said. "I'm just out there to sit in with the team. I'm only a freshman this year, but I want to help my teammates win as many games as possible. Maybe in a few years, I will come to be a more prominent player, but it's all about helping the team as best I can." The original Ty Cobb had the same attitude. It made him a shrewd batter and baserunner who hit a Major League-best .366 for his career, held the all-time record for runs scored for more than 70 years and the all-time record for hits for nearly 60 years. This brings us back to that whole baseball thing. Surely, there must be some strand of DNA tucked somewhere deep in Ty's body that longs to hit the diamond, right? When the Times profiled him last week, Ty made an off-hand remark that he might play intramural softball this spring, and he joked that, if Hawkins tossed him a jersey, he might give baseball a shot. That got Hawkins' attention. Within hours, he had arranged a meeting with Ty and asked him to throw a bullpen session. "I'm a 6-foot-5 lefty," Ty said. "I guess we're always in demand." The other day, Ty threw off a mound for the first time since his high school graduation last June. Yes, Ty was rusty, but Hawkins was pleasantly surprised with what he saw. "I think he can help us," Hawkins said. "I also think he can make some mechanical adjustments that might make him a legitimate arm in our conference." The plan was for Ty to join the Oxy baseball team in the dugout for their season-opening series and perhaps join the team outright, once basketball season is complete. "Hopefully," Hawkins said, "there's a really good story that comes from this." One all of us "weird" baseball types would enjoy.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.