© 2007 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
04/04/07 10:00 AM ET
Tribe wins Spielman over
Batting practice makes former football great a baseball fan
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
Gone was the helmet. Gone were the shoulder pads. Chris Spielman sported a Cleveland Indians uniform, but he was otherwise unadorned. "You look at a guy like that," said Indians outfielder David Dellucci, "and you think about all those bone-crushing tackles he would put on people. But up close, he becomes a human being." Spielman is the same human being who first made a name for himself as a Massillon, Ohio, high school football All-American. He was on a Wheaties box at a time most kids his age were worried about finding a prom date. A stellar career at Ohio State, where he was a two-time winner of the Lombardi Award as the finest linebacker in college football, and in the NFL, where he was a four-time Pro Bowler with the Detroit Lions, followed. As all that time elapsed, Spielman, as you might expect, never picked up a baseball bat. So when the Indians invited him to take batting practice and shag fly balls last month at Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Fla., the 41-year-old Spielman had an unfamiliar feeling -- one that rarely, if ever, popped up on the football field. He was terrified. "I was afraid I couldn't hit the ball," he said, "because I haven't actually swung at a pitch since I was 12." Luckily, Spielman, who's now an ESPN college football analyst and co-host of a sports talk show on Columbus, Ohio, station and Indians affiliate 1460 The Fan, had some good coaching at his disposal on this day. Dellucci, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez were all in his hitting group. And after they watched him top the first few fastballs thrown his way by the Tribe's Latin American field coordinator, Minnie Mendoza, they offered some helpful tips. "He started out a little bit rough," Hafner said, "but he was very coachable. He hit a lot of ground balls early, but he did a lot better as it went on." So what's the scouting report on Spielman? "He's a dead-pull guy," Hafner said with a smile. "I think he's susceptible to the right-handed slider, down and away." Actually, if Spielman was susceptible to anything, it was probably his own body, which, eight years after his retirement, still looks suitable for linebacking duties in the NFL. "I think his neck muscles are too big for him to be able to swing," Dellucci said. It was the size of Spielman's heart that drew attention in 1998, when he took a leave of absence from the Buffalo Bills for a season to stay home and take care of his wife, Stefanie, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Stefanie has had three bouts with the disease, and her husband has done his part to support her every step of the way.
"You learn to enjoy each day," Spielman said. "I know that's a cliché, but it's true. She's doing well. She's never really been sick. The only time she's been sick is when she's on medicine, which is really strange."
The Spielmans' fight against breast cancer is far from a small endeavor. They started the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research in 1999 and have since raised more than $4 million toward the cause. Spielman is currently working to organize a cruise to the Caribbean for Buckeyes fans in which the proceeds would go to the fund. Kirk Herbstreit, Craig Krenzel, A.J. Hawk, Eddie George and Troy Smith are among those expected to attend, at Spielman's request.
"I'm just the laborer," Spielman said. "[Stefanie] works out in front and also behind the scenes. I'm more just out in front. She's very active. It's a part-time job for her."
Spielman's part-time job as a ballplayer was brief. When the little workout session was over, he had gained a greater appreciation for the skill it takes to play the sport for a living. Sure, the game is played at a slower pace than anything he was ever accustomed to. But that doesn't mean it comes sans the mental grind.
While standing out in center field, Spielman asked Sizemore how he maintains his interest in the game, even during the lulls.
"He told me he plays the scenarios in his head over and over," Spielman recalled. "He thinks, 'If the guy hits a single, where do I go? If he hits a double, who's my cutoff man?' I thought to myself, 'That's a pro.' They're always aware of being alert and ready to go."
Spielman was in town as part of the Tribe's annual "Wahoo Radio Week," in which several radio affiliates do their broadcasts from just beyond the outfield fence at Chain of Lakes. He said he's been amazed at the passion that central Ohio sports fans have for the Indians.
"The Indians' winter caravan came through, and they had close to 1,000 people show up," Spielman said. "I thought that was remarkable."
After his exposure to a day of Spring Training camp, from a ballplayer's perspective, Spielman said you can now count him among those Tribe fans.
"I'm a baseball fan again," he said. "Once you get to know these players, you become emotionally invested. Now, I'll be obsessed with David Dellucci's at-bats."
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Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.