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Profiles in Loyalty

Dec. 16, 1991
Dec. 16, 1991

Table of Contents
Dec. 16, 1991

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Rob Johnson
Jack Kent Cooke
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Point After

Profiles in Loyalty

Even in this age of instant gratification, there are still some sportsmen who think first of others

As a kid growing up in Philadelphia in the late '40s, Dick Steinberg finished his homework as quickly as he could and then sequestered himself in his room to score the Phillie game. Steinberg carefully penciled in the Phils' lineup. He knew the order by heart—most every kid in Philly did. When it was time for bed, around the seventh inning, Steinberg turned the lights out. He made a cave out of the blankets and brought the Bendix radio under his covers.

This is an article from the Dec. 16, 1991 issue Original Layout

"I remember it so well," says Steinberg, now 56 and the general manager of the New York Jets. "It was my birthright to be a Phillie fan, and I always knew their lineup. I knew most of the others, too—the A's, the Yankees. It wasn't hard. They didn't change much."

A generation and more later, to see what sport hath wrought, we return to the Philadelphia area, where a Steinberg-type kid might grow up today. We venture to the suburbs northeast of the city—to Newtown, Pa., home of the Council Rock/Newtown Little League. The Goodnoe Farm Owls have just beaten the Weber Hardware Robins 12-11. We ask 21 of these preteens, in the prime of their sports-loving lives, a few questions.

One can name the Phils' batting order.

Only two name a Phillie—Dickie Thon in one case, Lenny Dykstra in the other—as their favorite baseball player.

Only two name the Phils as their favorite baseball team.

The favorites of the others? Both the Owls and the Robins love the A's (six votes) and like the Giants, the Mets and the Yankees (three apiece). Here are kids, baseball's next generation of fans, on a diamond in eastern Pennsylvania, and their favorite teams and players are as much as three time zones distant. Steinberg understands. "How can anybody know these teams today?" he says. "The lineups change every three weeks, and players move constantly."

To be sure, sporting loyalty is on the wane. In 1956 the Brooklyn Dodgers traded Jackie Robinson to the hated New York Giants; he retired rather than report. By contrast, in 1990 the Cincinnati Bengals offered to pay guard Max Montoya $25,000 to spurn any free-agent offers he might get in the off-season. Montoya agreed and then jumped to the Los Angeles Raiders for a six-figure raise.

In the upwardly mobile, free-agent, global-village, instant-gratification life of pro sports, loyalty is a laughable matter. "Money is success today," says Ray Meyer, the legendary and now retired DePaul University coach who once turned down a Chicago Bulls coaching offer that would have tripled his salary. "But how many cars can you drive? How many suits can you own? I think when the big money came into sports, we lost a lot of values and a lot of loyalty."

It's fruitless to long for the golden days when teammates stayed together for entire careers. Not only are those days gone forever; they weren't entirely golden. There was, of course, an enforced loyalty that bound teams together. Will we ever know if Mickey Mantle was indeed a live-and-die-with-the-Yankees Yankee? He never had a Gene Autry waving a $5 million-a-year contract at him. Ironically, it's easier to perceive loyalty today because it's so rare.

"I think there are still pockets of loyalty here and there," says a man who epitomizes loyalty in sports, Grambling State's football coach, Eddie Robinson, a 72-year-old who has led the Tigers for 51 years. "In sports, a lot of guys are trying to travel roads others have built. But some of us aren't trying to go anyplace. It might seem strange in America today, but some people still think money isn't everything."

Robinson's right: There remain pockets, if only pockets, of loyalty. Meet three loyal sportsmen.

Bobo Brayton, the baseball coach at Washington State, is one of the greatest teachers you've never heard of. His life is lived almost entirely on campus and at his 165-acre ranch in Pullman. He loves the state of Washington so much that he says he'll never reside outside its borders. He's so loyal to the university, where he has coached since 1962, that he put up some of his own money to help build its baseball stadium. He's so dedicated to the baseball program that he has begun a fund to establish a baseball scholarship that will be awarded to Cougar players after he has died. The guy makes Tommy Lasorda look like Judas Iscariot.

A balding 66-year-old who looks like a cross between Don Zimmer and Jerry Tarkanian, Brayton has a grand-fatherly manner. He's a teller of tales, like the one about how he stalked and killed a deer 40 years ago in the Yakima River Canyon, dragged the deer across the river and over to the cold storage room at Virg Wilson's apple warehouse, washed up and still made the Yakima Valley College football game in Wenatchee, two hours away, that afternoon. You listen to him talk, and you wonder where this sweet guy got the competitive gumption to be the NCAA's fifth-winningest major college baseball coach ever, with 1,062 victories.

On the day we visited Brayton, baseball practice was scheduled for 4:00, but now, at 2:45, owls were the subject. Brayton was driving down a long gravel road toward his ranch house when his wife, Eileen, suddenly said, "Wait, Bobo—here's where those owls live." Brayton stopped, backed the car up, craned his head out the window and searched the evergreens for signs of the five great horned owls known to nest there. No luck. Two ladies from the neighborhood, who were happening by, joined the search. No luck.

"I see 'em when I'm walking on the road sometimes," said one of the ladies.

"The adults—wait till you see the horns on those jobbers," said Brayton.

The Braytons pressed on, past their teetering red barn. Brayton said he hoped to have a barn-raising soon. A barn-razing and-raising, he explained—15 or 20 farmer neighbors would come, just as they always have, for a century or more, in these rolling hills of wheat and lentils and peas. They would tear the old barn down and build a new one. When work was done, the Braytons would throw a big feed and dance in the new barn.

The car went forward, for 20 yards. "I see the rooster," Eileen cried, pointing at some pheasants.

"You see the rooster? What great eyes you have!" said Bobo.

He and Eileen stopped and looked at the pheasants. Uh, baseball practice, Bobo—at four o'clock. "We'll get there," he said.

Bailey Field looked beautiful. Lushly sodded from pole to pole, the field was unmarked, a sea of perfect green. An eight-foot-high red plywood fence 330 feet down the leftfield line stretched in a semioval to 400 feet in dead center and then back to 330 feet in right, WASHINGTON STATE was scripted in white on the fence in left-center, COUGARS in right-center. Ten-year-old evergreens dotted the hills beyond the fence. The dugouts were made of cedar. In the stands were 25 boxes, each seating four to six people. Brayton personally markets these boxes each winter to local businessmen. In addition, the stadium had 3,500 gleaming bleacher seats. There is no nicer Class A ballpark in the land, and probably not a better one in Double A. Kevin Costner's house may not be behind the first base stands, but this is Brayton's field of dreams, where you step back in time, in many ways. It feels good.

Brayton had wanted a place like this ever since he took the Washington State job. However, the university was having enough trouble keeping up with the Pac-10 in other sports, never mind building a new baseball stadium. Finally, in 1979, Brayton borrowed $20,000 from the bank as seed money and set out to make a deal with Sam Jankovich, the Cougars' athletic director at the time and now the CEO of the New England Patriots. Baseball backers will build the place, Brayton told him, if we're allowed to fund-raise to buy the materials. Fine, Jankovich said.

Brayton succeeded. He got the money for bleachers from donations. More than a dozen farmers and townspeople, along with some paid contractors, poured the concrete foundation for the stands, built the dugouts and sodded the field—working whenever they could, often after dark with car headlights turned toward the nascent diamond.

The next year, with the field and bleachers in, Brayton kicked off his Farmers for Lights project. If farmers didn't have money to donate toward night baseball, they were asked to pledge bushels of wheat. "Some old Cougars gave 600, 700 bushels, and we'd make $5,000 after harvest, when the crops were sold," says Brayton. The lights went on in 1984.

Brayton twice has had heart bypass surgery, the second time in December 1987. Bad timing. That was when he had to get a new outfield fence built. Just had to. From his hospital bed after the operation, he called one of his loyal Pullman guys, farmer Girard Clark Jr. "Can you get some guys together and finish that outfield fence for me?" Brayton asked.

"I didn't realize that he meant he wanted it done now," recalls Clark. "But when he called me back a couple of weeks later and asked how it was going, I knew he meant now—for this season. So I got a crew together, and we got it done."

Phil Hinrichs, a pitcher for Washington State from 1978 to 1979 and now a grain trader, drove a semitrailer all night long to get the wood. "Why'd you drop everything to build Bobo a fence?" Clark is asked. "Good question," he says, laughing. "I guess because he's one of us."

"Why'd I build the stadium?" says Brayton. "I wanted to set the standard. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to give something to a place that's been so good to me. You know what a great school this is? Washington's big and diverse, a great place to recreate. The hunting and fishing are super. You meet people for the first time, there's a smile on their faces. They want to help you."

Through the years Brayton has had feelers from Arizona State, cross-state rival Washington and two other colleges. "You want to know why I've never left?" he says. "It's the people. You don't party with 'em. You don't go to their houses. But when it comes time, they're always there."

Brayton tries to instill the same sense of responsibility and loyalty in his team. In agreeing to play for Brayton, a player must commit to some physical labor. Players helped install and paint the present fence. Brayton's next project is to build a stadium club, so box-seat fans can enjoy a meal before games. Players will help build that. "It's just part of the program," says pitcher Aaron Sele, who was an All-America the past two seasons. "Nobody minds, because you know about it coming in."

On the field, Brayton's players must be disciplined, and they must respect Cougar tradition. Between games of a double-header last spring, he caught redshirt freshman Doug Allen sitting in the stands! Sin. Next, Allen was caught smooching with his girlfriend! Mortal sin. Brayton pulled Allen into the dugout and said, "You don't know what it means to be a Cougar!"

Capital punishment—the Run to Idaho—swiftly followed. That's what Brayton imposes when you really screw up. Allen had to run to Moscow, Idaho—seven miles away—and back.

On the day we visited, Brayton raked the dirt around home plate after practice. Sele, who would soon become a first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox, raked the dirt between home and first. Brayton was asked what he'll do when, in three to five years, he retires. "Groundskeep," he said. "Full time. I'm going to take care of this field so it's the most beautiful field you've ever seen. Can't wait."

That won't be Brayton's only job in retirement. Tending to the F.C. Bobo Brayton baseball scholarship fund will occupy much of his time. The fund is already worth $170,000; the goal is $1 million by the time Brayton dies. By stipulation, no more than 10% of the money will be used in any one year.

Brayton has one other rule for the fund: Not a dime can be spent in any calendar year until that season's baseball schedule is posted on his tombstone. "The theory is that I'll be working for the Cougars when I'm dead," says Brayton. "Even when I die, I'm not leaving here."

Since when does a 26-year-old football practice jersey make a grown man emotional? Since mid-May. That's when Bryan Hinkle, an outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, walked by the equipment room at Three Rivers Stadium and ran into equipment manager Tony Parisi. "Hey, Hinkle!" Parisi hollered. "That jersey's history! Don't bring that thing around no more! Can't even wash that thing anymore!"

Hinkle glared back. "This jersey," he told Parisi, "has still got some life in it."

A few words about this jersey. It is, as noted, 26 years old. In its early days, when no one in Pittsburgh had heard of coach Chuck Noll or even of Three Rivers Stadium, it was part of the Steelers' stock of loose-fitting yellow practice jerseys. In the early '70s, when Parisi handed out new, sleek practice jerseys, the faded yellow ones were shelved.

Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, who was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1974, stumbled upon one of the yellow numbers in Parisi's quarters in the late '70s and wore it to practice for a couple of years. Hinkle, drafted in 1981, found another one around 1985. He has been wearing it ever since. He even rescued the thing from a garbage can in the summer of '89, when Parisi tried to throw it away. Hinkle paid a seamstress in Latrobe, Pa., $20 to patch it. "Worst thing I've ever seen," she told him. "This is just a bunch of rags."

"It's comfortable," said Hinkle, trying to explain.

At 220 pounds, Hinkle is a bit light to be a linebacker. He speaks quietly, never with a hint of bravado, and it's easy to tell that he doesn't like talking about himself. "Maybe the shirt shows something about my character, I don't know," he says. "We're both worn and torn, but you can't throw us away."

The Steelers found that out about the 32-year-old Hinkle last winter. The NFL's Plan B free-agency system allows each team to protect 37 players on its roster. The rest can seek contract offers with other teams. The Steelers wanted to keep Hinkle, then a seven-year starter, but they also wanted to leave him unprotected so that they could use one of the 37 slots on a younger player. Football development director Tom Donohoe called Hinkle to feel him out. "If you need to protect somebody, go ahead," Hinkle told Donohoe. "I won't leave."

Other teams did indeed show interest in Hinkle, and two made him offers. Hinkle says one of the offers—he doesn't want to identify the team—would have paid him $605,000 this year, a $230,000 raise over his Steeler pay. Hinkle said no. "In the '90s," says former teammate Jack Ham, "that's just not something you see very much."

In football, as in most pro sports these days, honesty and morality consistently come in behind the bottom line when contracts are negotiated. One Pro Bowl player, reflecting on his own situation, which was not unlike Hinkle's, says, "I told our people to put me on Plan B, and I wouldn't go anywhere. But if they did do that, I'd be gone. They take advantage of you in negotiations, and this way, I'd be able to take advantage of them."

Hinkle wasn't into this two-wrongs-make-a-right logic. "I had given the Steelers my word," he says. "It was never really an issue. There's something about the Steelers, about being a Steeler, that's hard to describe. The Rooneys, Chuck Noll, the city, the organization—it's just a feeling you get playing here. I don't think I'd ever want to play anywhere else."

Hinkle doesn't know where the roots of this do-the-right-thing thing got started. He doesn't believe it's necessarily from his middle-class upbringing in a Navy family near Washington's Puget Sound, where he played all the major sports and hung out with all the guys. Average kid, average life. Maybe, he says, part of it stems from his college days at Oregon. There, he seemed the ultimate team guy, the guy who would do anything to help the team win. He moved from quarterback to safety in his first three weeks of practice, and to linebacker a month into the season. He twice came back from season-ending knee injuries. He never made excuses. He just competed. "He wasn't emotional," says Vince Goldsmith, who played defensive tackle alongside Hinkle and who played in the Canadian Football League until this past season. "He was the guy we drew inspiration from."

The Steelers, with their friendly owner, Art Rooney, who didn't meddle; a great coach, in Noll; and superb players who had won four of the last seven Super Bowls, quickly instilled the same loyalty in Hinkle. "Pittsburgh is just...." Long pause. Hinkle is thinking. "Different. If I were somewhere else, who knows what would have happened or would happen? I don't know. It's just that I've always been happy here, and I've never thought anybody owed me anything."

So loyalty came easily to Hinkle. Hinkle loves his place in life, and loves to follow through when he gives his word. The man with the 26-year-old practice jersey claims he hasn't had a second thought about having turned down the big money last spring. "No," he says. "I never want to make a decision for money, then regret it later on. This decision I'll never regret."

Coach Wes Unseld's loyalty to the Washington Bullets and their crusty owner, Abe Pollin, is the stuff of quiet legend along the Beltway. Unseld once played half a season for the Bullets without a contract. He and Pollin just didn't get to it, and Unseld trusted Pollin to pay him what he was worth. One year Unseld turned down a raise, telling Pollin the franchise couldn't afford it. When he became an assistant coach in 1987, moving from the front office to do it, Unseld said, "I'm a Bullet. I've always been a Bullet, and I always will be."

That's a look at Unseld's loyalty to his team. The examples of his giving outside the arena are extraordinary.

Unseld's wife, Connie, was teaching school in Baltimore in the early '70s while he was playing in the NBA. She wasn't happy with the education the students were getting, especially the youngest ones. So in '78 she opened a day-care center in Baltimore that was designed to do more than babysit. Wes paid what the parents' fees didn't cover, and Connie took no salary.

When their kids had completed the preschool program, parents Urged Connie to do more. She decided to open a real elementary school. "Are you kidding?" Wes told her, when she announced she wanted to found a school. "You have no idea what you're getting into." She wrote a proposal for the school and handed it to Wes. In time, he bought it. And then he paid for it. "Wes has been our seed money," she says.

Now the 175-student Unseld School serves toddlers through fifth-graders and has a 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio in the elementary school, 3 to 1 in the preschool. In the lobby of what was a former nursing school hangs a portrait of Wes. To some students, that's a picture of the bus driver—before Wes became head coach of the Bullets he occasionally drove the school's bus. One day last May he picked up the 12 fifth-graders and took them to lunch at Baltimore's Inner Harbor; this had become an annual event for each graduating class. In June, these new alumni spent a weekend night at the Unselds' home in Catonsville.

This NBA coach is clearly a hands-on philanthropist. During road trips he buys books for the school library. When Connie wanted a second playground, Wes found a man who made outdoor wooden play areas and helped the guy install one. When Connie wanted to buy computers for each classroom, Wes told her to make a computer room instead. "You don't want those wires in every room," he told her. "Kids will trip, and the wiring can be dangerous."

She said they didn't have room. He looked at the blueprints of the school building and drew new floor plans. The school now has a computer center. "The loyalty between us is what's kept us together," Connie says. "He's a loyal husband, loyal father, loyal friend, loyal benefactor to the school."

He does pretty well in his full-time job too, considering that the team he coaches is the Bullets. At the start of each season, Unseld tells his players that he expects respect from them, because he's the coach. Loyalty, well, that's another thing. "I tell them, 'I'll have to earn your loyalty,' " he says.

For Unseld, that's never been a very hard thing to do. As a 6'7" center out of Louisville, he was named the league's MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1968-69. He enjoyed an excellent 13-year career with the Bullets, being chosen for the All-Star game five times. He has always been there for the club, as a vice-president, assistant coach and, since '88, head coach. "I'm the first person in the office most mornings," says Susan O'Malley, the president of the team. "I got that from Wes."

A Bullet, says Unseld, "is a person who, once he steps on the court, is willing to do all he can to help that team be a winner. When he steps off the court, the same thing applies. Rightly or wrongly, I've helped fashion what a Bullet really is. I take a lot of pride in that. If I get guys who don't take a lot of pride in being a Bullet, we've either got to have a meeting of the minds or he has to leave."

The Bullets finished the 1989-90 season at home with a game against the Indiana Pacers on a Sunday afternoon. The next morning, at eight o'clock, Unseld walked into O'Malley's office. "Unseld here," he said, "reporting for duty."

There are many more examples. When he took the head coaching job, Unseld asked Pollin to reinstitute what had been a Bullet tradition during Unseld's playing days, the Pollin Christmas party, at Pollin's house. "We needed to build some endearment," says Unseld.

One day Unseld spent hours in a studio, cutting a season's worth of Bullet commercials.

To stir up ticket sales for a four-game package at Baltimore Arena, Unseld gives an annual clinic for businessmen—the Make You Sweat Happy Hour. At the NBA league meetings every summer, Unseld takes the Bullets' front-office folks out for dinner. The family dinner, he calls it. "It's hard to go to league meetings and listen to other club executives say, 'We can't get our coach to do anything for us,' " says O'Malley. "Wes does all this, and he has never taken a dime for it."

The results show: Bullet season-ticket sales are up from 4,000 in 1989-90 to 5,000 in '90-91 to 6,000 this season despite a decline in the standings throughout that period. "Loyalty is like anything else in the game," says Unseld. "It's something you need. You've got to have some shooters. You've got to have some horses up front. You've got to have some runners. You've got to have a man down low. You've got to have unselfishness. And you've got to have loyalty.

"That's where I come in. I've got to work hard to earn the loyalty of the players and to make them loyal toward each other. You can't be a bad guy on a team that's not very good. We're not very good right now. We need a group of guys who will give you everything they've got."

"There's a lot of internal dilemmas that we're living with as a society," says George Sage, a sociology and kinesiology professor at Northern Colorado who has written about the demise of loyalty in sports. "This compulsive quest for material things and status competes in our minds with the traditional moral and ethical things we've been told are right."

The internal dilemmas in sports today make loyalty increasingly rare. But some people, as we see, dare to be different.

"You hear the stories that people aren't loyal or moral," says Eric Wagner, who has taught a sociology of sports class at Ohio University for 15 years. "But there is what I call a quiet America, which is still pretty moralistic and loyal. I think there are still some athletes like that." There are.

PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINEBrayton is at the center of things in Pullman: coaching, fund-raising, groundskeeping.PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINEBrayton's second home is the stadium. Why not? He's the man who got it built.PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINEHinkle's 26-year-old practice jersey symbolizes what the Steelers mean to him.PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINETo the Bullets, Unseld's the man. At the Unseld School, he's the founder's husband.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERUnseld's work today is as challenging as guarding Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once was.