Lockdown Dailies #7: Best Players

Pros v. Joes.

Best youth athlete you ever competed against/with (not how they turned out, but at the time)


Basketball: As an adult, I have played against too many guys who played major college basketball to choose one. But as a kid, I’ll never forget the first player who made me realize I did not have a future in basketball: John Gianonni. South Tahoe High basketball was a big thing when I was a kid. The program won a ton, including state championships at the highest level, and had plenty of players who went on to play major college basketball. It’s was the thing in town; the varsity guys were local celebrities.

The school held a youth basketball camp every year, staffed by current and former STHS players and coaches. Kids from all over the state came to learn Coach Orlich’s motion offense. I went every year, and I was pretty good back then. 

The camp schedule was drills in the morning, lunch, and then games in the afternoon. In 5th or 6th grade, I was put on a team with this guy John. He was from out of town. The staffers all knew me, and usually they loved me, but damn. I knew right away – John was so much better than me, and if I knew it the staffers did, too. They started calling him MJ. I wasn’t mad or sad. I was just impressed, really. He was so good. 

After we left Tahoe after my sophomore year, I heard he moved there to be part of the program, and then I didn’t hear much. But I looked him up this week. John got a scholarship to Portland State, and later transferred to Chico State, where he played with, by my count, three other guys I grew up playing with in Tahoe. 

His career seems to have fizzled in college. He ended up only 5’10, the same height I am now. But I think he was about that height in 6th grade. I think if he had continued to grow, he would have been very good.

Football: Timmy Sprinkles. Incredible athlete. Good at everything he did. Smart and nice, too. He was my quarterback, and he got a scholarship to play safety in football and also baseball at Washington State. It didn’t work out for him there, and he ended up playing QB at a small school in California, before retiring due to concussions. As a freshman in high school, though, he was big, and fast, and strong, and had a cannon arm. The highlight of film sessions each week was watching Timmy truck some 120-lb DB who tried to come up and stop him on a scramble. BOOM! 

Baseball: This is easy. Greg Bruso. I have no idea if this is true, but everyone said he threw 70+ as a 12-year old. My rough math puts that at about the equivalent of a 100 mph fastball at an MLB distance. I faced him once as an 11-year old. It was not fun, I assure you. Bruso was good and got better; he was eventually drafted by the Giants, spent a couple years in their system, reaching AA, and was traded to the Brewers for Eric Young in 2003. He suffered a shoulder injury and retired just a couple years later. 

PAL: First of all, Timmy Sprinkles is one hell of a QB name. That could be the name of a protagonist in a Matt Christopher sports book. 

Baseball: Readers of 1-2-3 know by now that I played against Joe Mauer from 6th grade catholic school league through high school. Hard to argue against a potential Hall of Fame baseball player as the best player I ever played against.

As great as Mauer was, it didn’t jump out at you. He was super athletic, but it was understated in a weird way. He had a kinda dorky demeanor about him. He was this big kid who ran kinda funny. He threw hard but it didn’t look like he was really trying to throw hard. He hit everything, but there were other players that seemed to hit the ball harder. Obviously I didn’t know what I was looking at. 

One moment has always stuck with me. We were playing Mauer’s team in Legion (16-18 years old), and we had Sean Pickert come in for relief. Pickert was probably the best player I played with growing up, and while he rarely pitched (elbow issues as a young kid), he was throwing on the other side of 90 MPH when he did. 

Mauer was 6”6’ by then, but the lefty stood – and I am not exaggerating here – 3″ from the inside corner of the plate. It made no sense to try to pitch him on the outside corner, as he could easily reach it. The only option was to punish the inside corner with the hard stuff. Pickert threw one an inch off the plate inside, so basically directly under Mauer’s hands. Mauer essentially picked the ball out of my glove – that’s how late he waited to swing – and hit a 90+ fastball on the inside corner onto the golf course fairway behind the left fielder. He inside-outed a ball about 400 feet to the opposite field with a beat up TPX bat. 

As far as college goes, I’m going to need some help from the fellas. In terms of guys I played with, Andy Salmela was pretty damn good.

Hockey: I got to play with Marty Sertich, the eventual Hobey Baker winner, for several years. Wasn’t big, wasn’t fast, didn’t have the hardest shot – but he had the best hands I’ve ever seen, and shifty as all get out. He stickhandled unlike any player. Teams could not get the puck off of his stick, and could not check him. He was so much better than any player on the team, and he legit got a bigger kick out of setting up someone else’s goal than he did scoring himself…which he could do pretty much whenever he wanted.  

How about you? Who was the best you ever shared the field/rink/court with/ 

More Dailies: 

  1. Your favorite baseball cleats
  2. Greatest game you ever played in
  3. Glove Rules
  4. Coaching Unis
  5. Best Fields/Courts/Venues you’ve every played on
  6. Favorite players (by decade)

Email: 123sportslist@gmail.com

10 thoughts on “Lockdown Dailies #7: Best Players

  1. Phil, we played with some pretty good guys in perfect game. I played HS basketball against NFL TE John Carlson, was unreal. His freshman year at Notre Dame, a few guys got hurt and they asked him to play basketball after the year started. Probably doesn’t happen a lot.
    Neil Wagner, closer At NDSU played in the bigs for a handful of years, threw hard.
    Played against a guy Rod Shafer in town ball. Rumor was he was the alternate for US Olympic team in the early 80s. Never saw a catcher like that, sorry Phil. Dude still catches, he’s almost 60, no knee protectors.
    Played Terry Steinbech’s brother in town ball. People said he was better, just liked booze too much. Came in relief in a state tourney game, was in his Mid 40s, didn’t warm up, had regular stirrups, throwing mid to upper 80’s.
    Last guy that stands out, Tim Haines. Another townball legend. Played for the Wisconsin Badgers when they had baseball. Elbow problems and rumor of drugs derailed his career. When drafting pitchers was a thing for regions and state tournaments in baseball, he would get drafted, could pitch all 9, then was done for a few weeks. Would literally put his elbow in a pail of ice in between innings, then go out and pitch again. Then in games he didn’t pitch, if the team was away, they would hit him 3rd, list him as pitcher or catcher, have him hit, play him
    1 pitch on defense and pull him out. He would wear his Wisconsin batting helmet. Saw him hit a 3 run homer in the top of the first in a state game, ended up winning 3-2. Still lead off for his team well into his 40s.

  2. In 1987, I moved to Spokane to coach CC baseball. The other assistant was Tim Rypien (father of Brett, brother of Mark). We ran together for a few years, before people started getting married. We competed at everything…golf, pickle ball, hoops, cards, shuffleboard, you name it. A bar had put in a batting cage, so of course we hung out there, often leaving drenched in sweat, with bloody hands (no wonder we were all single!). Tim made it to AAA with the Blue Jays as a catcher, and could really swing it. There was world-class shit talking, as you could imagine. Mark could really swing it too, and was really feeling it that night, saying he could have been a big leaguer (two years into his NFL career). I went home to see family a week or two later, and while visiting my grandma, she pulled out a box of scorebooks that she kept, for my grandpa, my uncle, and me. She saw and kept score for every game I played until college.

    As I was looking through them, I saw a game I had pitched when we played Shadle Park, Ryp’s alma mater. I looked down the lineups, and froze…”Rypien”. I punched him out, three times (I wasn’t very good, but could really spin a curveball). I borrowed grandma’s scorebook, and headed back to Spokane. When the time was right (at the bar, of course), I walked out to my car and got the scorebook, dropped it on the table, and said “maybe we should have the machine throw curveballs, huh Ryp?” The boys completely lost it, and we damn near got thrown out of the bar. He took crap for months over that.

    A side note: a few years later, I was invited to the Rypien home for a Super Bowl party. After many first-half beers, we went out at half time to play football in the street, in about 3 feet of snow. Mark was the QB for both teams…the next year, he was the MVP of the Super Bowl.

    Second place: As a junior, we played North Central High School in football…they were historically lousy, we were very good. We got beat, we couldn’t stop their QB, running or throwing…It was Ryne Sandberg, who walked away from a football scholly at WSU, to sign with the Phillies.

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  4. Live in Santa Monica from ’03-’07 and was actually at my athletic peak at that time. This chubby kid started coming to the park I played pickup games at every other night. He wasn’t very good, was a ball hog, but all the regulars let him run with us. That’s because his dad was Mark Jackson and a couple times Mark came down and played with us. I only played at that park from ’03-05, before I got my indoor game lined up, so this was right after he retired. Certainly not in the best shape, but I got to guard him for a couple trips up and down the court. Always fun to say you got to run against a Hall of Famer.

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