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Lyle Spencer

Baseball has a rich history of big league role models

Young players have always cherished interactions with their heroes from childhood

Baseball has a rich history of big league role models

The son of a United States Army officer, Bruce Bochy was born in France and moved around in his youth, gaining exposure to a wide range of cultures and people that would serve him well in his future career as a baseball manager.

It was during Bochy's time living near Washington, D.C., that he developed a fondness for one of the Senators in flannels: Frank Howard, the mammoth slugger with a gentle nature that belied his stature.

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Howard played 1,077 games for the Senators before they moved to Texas, twice leading the American League in home runs with 44 in 1968 and '70, and also leading in RBIs with 126 in '70. He was fifth in the AL Most Valuable Player Award balloting that year with a team that lost 22 more games than it won.

"You'd be out in the backyard playing Wiffle ball, trying to emulate your favorite player," recalled Bochy, manager of the two-time World Series champion San Francisco Giants. "Naturally, I'd try to hit just like Frank Howard. I had the chance to watch Mickey Mantle, and he was tremendous, of course. But big Frank was my favorite. I loved watching him play and hit.

"As it turned out, Frank was my coach when I was playing in New York [in 1982, with the Mets]. He was the hardest-working coach I've ever seen -- and the most polite guy you'd ever met. I went out to shag [fly balls] in the outfield one day, and Frank called me in and told me to go to second base and take some ground balls. I'd just gotten there, and maybe he didn't know I was a catcher -- and I was catching that day.

"So, he keeps hitting me grounders, back and forth, really working me. I think he just wanted somebody to hit to, and I didn't want to tell him I was a catcher. Just being around the guy I grew up admiring was a thrill."

Don Mattingly also got the chance to spend some quality time with his boyhood idol after arriving in the Major Leagues.

"Rod Carew was the player I wanted to be like," said Mattingly, the Dodgers' manager who grew up in Evansville, Ind., and became a Yankees superstar in the 1980s. "I was always trying to hit like him when I was a kid. I'd try his stance, his swing, his mannerisms. I hit the ball all over the field then, like Rod. Of course, I couldn't bunt and run like him.

"Rod was my guy, and he knew it. When I got to New York, I'd get to first base after a base hit, and he'd ask me why I was doing something. He always took an interest in me. That meant a lot to me."

Mattingly, at 23, made his first All-Star Game appearance in 1984 and went on to win the AL batting crown with a .343 average. Carew, having moved from the Minnesota Twins to the California Angels, was an All-Star for the 18th and final time that season. Carew won seven batting titles en route to the Hall of Fame.

"Rod came over [in the clubhouse] when I got to that All-Star Game [in San Francisco's Candlestick Park] and gave me a bat," Mattingly said. "He wrote, 'Don -- continued success. Rod Carew.' That was a real thrill for me."

Understanding firsthand the impact a professional athlete can have on impressionable youth, Bochy, Mattingly and others in their positions are able to convey to players their responsibilities as role models.

"That is so true," Bochy said. "Sometimes I don't think they realize how much influence they have on young people. There are kids out there watching everything they do. That's why it's important to run hard down the line every time, to play the game the right way and treat people the right way.

"It's like that classic Joe DiMaggio story, about how he played the way he did because he said there might be a kid there who had never seen him play before."

Hailed now as the best all-around player in the game, Mike Trout was a wide-eyed rookie appearing in his first All-Star Game in the summer of 2012.

Growing up in Millville, N.J. -- small-town America -- Trout played shortstop until his senior year of high school when he became a center fielder and lights-out pitcher. He loved the Phillies, but his favorite player was Derek Jeter. Trout is hardly alone in that; Jeter's admirers are found in every big league clubhouse.

Jeter, being Jeter, readily made himself available to Trout when they became teammates for a day in Kansas City in the All-Star Game.

"He's a great guy," Trout said. "Everything I've heard about him is true. Great person, everything he does is the right thing. He's out there playing hard. He's great with the community. He's a great role model."

Trout also left an impression on Jeter, who responded with an act of kindness when Trout and the Angels visited Yankee Stadium the weekend after the All-Star Game.

Hearing that Trout's parents, brother and girlfriend were coming to the game, Jeter offered them his personal suite for the series opener.

"It was pretty neat, really nice of him to do that," Trout said.

Jeter had spoken favorably of Trout at the All-Star Game.

"It goes without saying he's talented," Jeter said, "but I always look at how people play as opposed to the results. It seems like he plays hard all the time."

Trout clearly has taken the compliment to heart, racking up historic numbers in his first two full seasons.

Youngsters frequently adopt as role models stars who play their position. That was the case with Colorado's Nolan Arenado, the National League Gold Glove Award-winning third baseman in 2013 as a rookie.

"I'm a huge fan of Adrian Beltre," said Arenado, who grew up in Southern California while Beltre, now a Rangers star, played for the Dodgers. "I've always looked up to him, being a third baseman. I love the way he plays the game, everything about him."

They play in different leagues, but Arenado and Beltre have met, briefly, on the field.

"I talked to him one time, at third base," Arenado said. "I don't think I was able to tell him how much he meant to me."

Like Jeter, Beltre is enormously admired within the fraternity of players for his character and engaging nature.

Growing up in Pine Bluff, Ark., Detroit Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter was a football player first. He was drawn to baseball by Andre Dawson, then the star of the Chicago Cubs and visible on WGN-TV, which gave young Hunter access to the game.

"I copied everything Andre Dawson did -- his stance, the way he ran and threw, everything," Hunter said. "He was my man. When I finally met him, he was everything I imagined him to be. That's kind of how you want to be like when kids meet you."

In baseball, to borrow from a Beatles classic, the respect you get is equal to the respect you give.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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