Wills still a Dodgertown staple
Legend keeps active 56 years after first arriving in Vero Beach
Maury Wills remembers his first trip to Spring training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla.
When it is very quiet, he can close his eyes and hear the humming of the train that took him from his hometown of Washington, D.C., to Florida.
Wills was a passenger in the coach section and the trip took 2 1/2 days.
"I spent most of my time looking out the window and dreaming of becoming a teammate of Jackie Robinson in two years, three at the most," recalls Wills.
The year was 1951 and Wills, then a pitcher, had been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers on the first day of the year. He was 18 years old, stood 5-foot-11 and weighed all of 150 pounds.
When it came time for the players to report for their first day of practice, there were more than 300 candidates who showed up to compete for jobs in the Dodgers' Minor League system.
"All of us assembled on one field and we were asked to go to our positions," says Wills. "It seemed like half of the guys were headed for the pitcher's mound and they were all big fellows who looked like they could throw a ball through a wall.
"I noticed there were only a few guys who had gone to second base and so I told a coach I had played some second and asked if I could go to the position. The coach smiled and said OK."
Maury Wills had to make a quick adjustment on the spot and change the direction of his career. It was to become his trademark.
From my viewpoint, the best part of Spring training at Dodgertown this year is to find Wills on the practice fields at the age of 74.
He is healthy and happy to be making a contribution to the organization he loves as an instructor who specializes in basestealing, baserunning and bunting.
It also is a very special spring in that Wills has a very special student in new Dodgers center fielder Juan Pierre.
Pierre reported to camp early because he was anxious to get started working with Wills. "When he was with other teams in the National League, he would see me at Dodger Stadium and come up and start picking my brain," says Wills. "I used to smile and tell him he was in the wrong uniform for me to be giving too much information."
"When Juan was introduced at the press conference at Dodger Stadium he said he was looking forward to having the opportunity to work with me. That was a thrill to have him say that about me," said Wills.
When the young player and the veteran coach spotted each other for the first time at Dodgertown, they ran to one another and embraced. They hardly have been separated since that time.
"I think Juan can become one of the great bunters and basestealers of his time," said Wills. "He has all of the speed and ability in the world and he wants to learn everything he can about the game.
"He has posted good numbers in bunt hits and stolen bases but he never has been on a team that encourages basestealing until now. I'm sure he must have felt all alone at times last year in that he played in a small park at home (Wrigley Field) where you tend to rely on the long ball."
Wills believes Pierre will gain the support of the fans at Dodger Stadium and create havoc for the opposition. It is an atmosphere where Willis thrived as he rolled up a career mark of 586 stolen bases.
Wills also believes Pierre will benefit by having shortstop Rafael Furcal working with him at the top of the order.
"I was fortunate in having people like Jim Gilliam and Ted Sizemore hitting behind me and I know how much that means to a basestealer," he said.
You can hear the excitement in Maury Wills' voice as he talks about his new protege.
It now has been 56 years since Wills first roamed the fields at Dodgertown. At that time he was just trying to get noticed and have a chance to advance in the Dodgers' farm system.
He was to spend 8 1/2 years in the Minors before he finally got his chance with the Dodgers and he went on to a career that has him eligible for the Hall of Fame in the Veterans Committee voting that will take place in another week.
Wills doesn't talk about his accomplishments and never mentions the Hall of Fame in our conversation.
He's much more interested in helping a young player be the best that he can be.
I think that's one of the reasons I always have had so much respect for my friend Maury. He has never forgotten the train ride and dreams that delivered him to Dodgertown for the first time.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice president and general manager. His book, "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue," was published by SportsPublishingLLC. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.