JUPITER, Fla. -- Chet
Lemon appeared to be having a serious conversation with his team at the WWBA
World Championship Saturday morning, but the grins and smiles on his players'
faces quickly gave him away.
Lemon, a three-time
all-star during his major league career, was doing what he enjoys the
most, coaching his players on Chet Lemon's Juice, pointing out their
mistakes, applauding their accomplishments, telling stories and
keeping them loose.
"Oh, he's a
character. A fun character, though," Luke Weaver said after pitching a
two-hit shuout Saturday against the St. Louis Pirates. "It's fun playing
for him. He's always smiling and keeping us loose and ready to win
Lemon, 55, spent 16 years
in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers. He made his
MLB debut in 1975 when he was just 20 years old, not much older than the high
school kids he's coaching now.
Lemon played his last game
in the major leagues in 1990. He began his own youth baseball program in
Florida in 1993 and had three teams in the Chet Lemon Juice organization this
year with a 13U, 14U, 16U and 18U club. He's in Jupiter this week with the 18U
team, competing against some of the top travel teams in the country.
He appears to enjoy
great," he said after the Juice beat the Pirates in an important Pool
game. "I'm loving every minute of it."
Youth baseball, especially
at the elite level, is much different than when Lemon was growing up in
the Watts area of Los Angeles, playing ball and hanging out with boyhood pals
like Ozzie Smith and Eddie Murray, just three kids with big dreams. They played
on the same teams.
"There were times
when they would pick us up early in the morning," Lemon recalled. "We
were in the back of a flat-bed truck and we'd change uniforms. We'd go from
Little League to Babe Ruth to Connie Mack. I mean, it wasn't until the sun set
that we were going home. But we all played together and that's the way we grew
Baseball helped keep them
out of trouble.
"It was a tough area
where we lived," he said. "Now, if you look back, you say it's a good
thing we got out of there."
Lemon, Smith and Murray
all made it to the major leagues at an early age, and all three enjoyed
long, productive careers, exactly what they envisioned as kids.
"For us, becoming a
major leaguer was reality, because everybody dreams big in California,"
Lemon said. "You know, Hollywood is right there. You just believed that
that's what you're going to do."
Lemon was one of the top
defensive center fielders in the major leagues during his career, able to get
great jumps on the ball and turn doubles into outs. Known for his work
ethic and hustle, he routinely dove into first base and four times led the
American League in being hit by a pitch, evidence he was always willing to
take one for the team.
Lemon hit 215 homers,
drove in 884 runs, collected 396 doubles and hit .273 for his career. He helped
Detroit win the 1984 World Series and was an American League all-star in 1978
and '79 with the White Sox and 1984 with Detroit.
"Chicago raised me,
and Detroit taught me how to win," he said.
Now he's trying to teach
the players in his program how to win. Times have changed since he
was a kid, and Lemon says he's always looking for new ways to instruct his
players and help them improve. Getting them immersed in high-level travel ball
is a key ingredient.
"I think it's a new day.
It's different," he said. "I think this kind of baseball, in many
cases, is replacing high school baseball."
Lemon was a high school
coach for 11 years in Florida and won two state titles, so he
knows the benefits of prep baseball and the important role it plays
in a young man's life. "But it's nothing like this right here," he
said. "You get to compete against some of the best players in the
Players get to test
themselves at events like the WWBA World Championship,which features 85 teams
from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.
"I think that the
scouts and the colleges are getting a real feel for what kids are capable of
doing," he said. "The time where you could go and find a kid in the
back woods in the country somewhere that nobody knows about, you don't see that
any more. Most of the players that can really play, you see them at events like
this. They're find their way to places like this."
And Chet Lemon, a three-time
all-star, is helping to point the way.