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Perspective: Playing the father-son game

Mayberry and Son have made baseball the family business
November 7, 2007
It was St. Patrick's Day of 1989.

Before I became a baseball writer -- and before I became a mom -- my husband and I would take Spring Training vacations. They started modestly: an eagerly anticipated long weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1985, to watch his beloved Mets play at Al Lang Stadium.

The bug bit us hard and over the next few years the trips grew in length and scope. From a long weekend in St. Petersburg to a week up and down the Gulf Coast to see how many Grapefruit League parks we could fit into a Holiday Inn budget. This was before the advent of Marriott Miles, the holy grail of sportswriters everywhere.

When the '89 preseason rolled around, I pitched a first-person travelogue about our Spring Training adventures to the suburban daily newspaper I wrote for. I plotted out a trip, bought tickets and armed with pen, paper and camera (this was pre-laptop or internet, at least for me, the technophobe), we were off.

The 1989 trip was memorable for two reasons.

The first: a telephone message I accessed by remote on our home phone (this was before the cell phone too) inviting me to interview for a job as the beat writer for the Class A Prince William (Va.) Cannons. I didn't know much about Minor League baseball, but I thought it sounded like fun.

The second: two days later, on St. Paddy's Day, an encounter we had in the stands at now-defunct Boardwalk and Baseball, then the Spring Training home of the Kansas City Royals.

It was a sunny Sunday morning when we found our seats at Baseball City, a few rows above the main concourse and right behind home plate.

Shortly after we settled into our seats, we were joined by the folks sitting right in front of us: a woman with her young son. He was clearly attired for the holiday as well, dressed in a white shirt, shorts and a green-trimmed V-neck sweater-vest. He was, frankly, one of the cutest kids I had ever seen and I couldn't resist immediately chatting with him and his mom (OK, as most people who know me will tell you, I can't resist chatting with anyone).

We quickly learned that our seatmates were Janice Mayberry, the wife of former Royals slugger and popular coach John Mayberry, and their son, John Jr., who had turned 5 just before Christmas.

While Janice and I chatted, John Jr. wandered down a few steps to the railing where a group of bigger kids (maybe 9 or 10) had congregated. The next thing we knew, we saw him writing something on a piece of paper as the kids gathered around him.

When he returned to the seat, Janice asked him, "John Jr., what were you just doing?"

"I told them who I was and they wanted my autograph," he responded.

"What did you write?" she inquired.

"J-O-H-N, John!" he said proudly.

"I hope those kids save that," I said, "because when you're a famous baseball star like your dad, that first autograph is going to be really valuable!"

I shared this story in the travelogue I wrote, including the picture I took of John Jr., hands on hips, looking pretty darn proud, even from the back, as the kids gathered around to look at his autograph.

(Caveat: 19 years later, this is how I remember the conversation and I think it's pretty close to verbatim, but my newsprint copy has long since crumbled -- maybe Janice Mayberry can correct me if I'm off).

Cute little John Jr. is no longer so little at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, but he is built more like a wide receiver while his dad was more of a linebacker. He is still, however, very cute -- I'd have recognized that baby face anywhere even after all those years (and if I haven't already embarrassed him enough by showing his Arizona Fall League teammates the original picture and sharing the story, this should seal the deal).

A Stanford graduate and 2005 first-round pick of the Texas Rangers, John Jr. clubbed 30 home runs this past season at Class A Advanced Bakersfield and Double-A Frisco, which tied him for 11th in the Minors.

Now refining his game with the Surprise Rafters in the AFL, the 23-year-old Mayberry didn't remember our original encounter first-hand, but knew about it because someone, believe it or not, sent his mom the travelogue I wrote that spring and she still has it.

The requests for autographs continued over the years, usually when he was with his dad.

John Mayberry Sr. enjoyed the best years of his career with the Royals, including All-Star honors in 1973 and 1974. Though he retired from playing in 1982, a year before John Jr. was born, he resumed his affiliation with the Royals as their hitting coach and it was into a baseball life that Junior was born.

Like many Major League offspring, Mayberry knew from an early age that he wanted to be a ballplayer when he grew up. His earliest memories of baseball are of the Royals clubhouse in Kansas City, where he grew up with his parents and older sister.

"I'd always be in the locker room after the games, just hanging out," said Mayberry, who was nicknamed "Knucklehead" by his idol, Bo Jackson. "Seeing the lifestyle and the fame that goes with it was definitely appealing."

Luckily, Mayberry had the talent and tools to match the desire.

Nature or nurture? It was probably a little bit of both. Despite the fact that his dad served as the Royals' hitting coach when John Jr. was growing up and spent significant time on the road, there was plenty of father-son quality time and much of that was spent playing baseball in the backyard, a treat that not all baseball kids get to enjoy.

"My dad wasn't one of those pushy parents who just forced baseball on me, I definitely chose it on my own," Mayberry Jr. said. "But he was definitely very hands-on. As far back as I can remember my dad has thrown me BP, hit me grounders or flies in our backyard or at the games. Even when he was a coach with the big-league team he always made time for me."

Even after Mayberry Sr. retired from coaching, baseball remained a big part of his life. He has been active in the Royals alumni association and continues to be a big fan of the game.

"Whether it's been at the ballpark or having him home watching baseball every night, I've always been exposed to it," Mayberry Jr. said, "and just gravitated towards it."

But big league dreams notwithstanding, the Mayberry family always kept the bigger picture in mind. So when the Seattle Mariners selected John Jr. with their first-round draft pick in 2002 when he graduated from Rockhurst High School, he and his parents made the tough decision to postpone pro ball so he could attend Stanford University.

It came down to the wire, until he walked into his first college class.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said of walking into the writing class and knowing that the negotiations were officially over. "Walking in there, I realized I was beginning a new chapter of my life and that I couldn't look back, I just had to look forward to the future."

The Mariners knew that Mayberry had committed to Stanford, a school that offers such a good combination of top-tier baseball and elite education that it can be tough to tempt a student away, no matter how good the offer. The process was tense but not contentious.

"It was very difficult, because you're talking about turning down the opportunity to do something you've wanted to do for your whole life, being a big-league ballplayer," he recalled. "But my thinking was that if I performed the way I thought I was capable of, I'd be in the same position three years later."

He did and he was, and with a Stanford degree in political science just a few credits away (he finished it the next offseason).

Three years later, his name was once again called in the first round, this time by Texas with the 19th pick and this time with different results. When the draft began, Mayberry and his Stanford teammates were flying home from the NCAA regionals at Baylor after they fell out of College World Series contention. He spent the time wondering where his next flight might take him.

"As soon as we landed, I called my parents and they gave me the news," he recalled. "At that point I think I was ready to go."

Mayberry signed quickly and made his pro debut soon after at Spokane of the Class A Short-Season Northwest League, where he hit .253 with 11 homers -- third in the league -- and 26 steals. He spent the next summer at Clinton in the Class A Midwest League, batting .268 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs, again finishing third in the league.

His batting average has lagged behind his power, however. This year he batted just .230 at Class A Advanced Bakersfield and .241 at Double-A Frisco, combining for 83 RBIs and 16 steals.

"I've come a long way since college but I still have a way to go," he admitted, adding he was excited to hone his game in the Arizona Fall League with baseball's top prospects -- including former Stanford teammates Jed Lowrie (Red Sox) and Sam Fuld (Cubs) with Mesa and Donny Lucy (White Sox) with Phoenix. "Everyone out here has the opportunity to impact their big-league team sooner rather than later, so I'm happy with the situation I'm in being out here."

And it may not be much longer before my prediction about the value of that little piece of paper is correct. I hope whichever of those kids that went home with it still has it.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com.