Tournaments : : Story
Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lemon Keeps Them Laughing -- And Winning

Jim Ecker        

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 ballgames."


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 himself immensely.


"It's been 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 up."


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 country."


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.

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