JOLIET – During last Thursday’s Old Timers Baseball Association of Will County banquet at the Clarion Hotel, guest speaker Ron Coomer, who is entering his fifth season as Pat Hughes’ partner on Cubs radio broadcasts, discussed some special teammates from his nine-year major league career.
He could not help but begin with the late Kirby Puckett, his former teammate with the Minnesota Twins.
“When I got traded to the Twins from the Dodgers at the trade deadline [in 1995], I had to get to Jacobs Field [in Cleveland] for my first big-league game,” Coomer said. “Puck came up to me and introduced himself. He knew I was from the South Side of Chicago, but he asked me where I was from anyway. I said the south side of Chicago. He said, ‘No you’re not, I am from the South Side of Chicago.’ ”
Coomer said it was about two weeks later when manager Tom Kelly put him in the 4-hole, right behind Puckett in the batting order.
“I wondered what Tom Kelly was smoking,” Coomer said. “He had me batting cleanup, protecting Kirby. Puck told me in the on-deck circle in the ninth inning that I could put my bat down.
“He told me, ‘The first slider this guy throws, this game will be over.’ Third pitch, first slider and he hits it off the right-center field seats. I just threw my bat up and said, ‘I don’t belong in this league.’ ”
Coomer said one thing about Puckett that not everyone knows is he grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago.
“When I was a rookie, Puck made me promise not to tell anybody, but he bought me some suits and had them tailored for me,” Coomer said.
That was Puckett, who already was in the Hall of Fame when he passed away in 2006 at age 45.
Coomer also played with the Cubs, Yankees and Dodgers. Among other teammates he mentioned were Derek Jeter, Paul Molitor, Sammy Sosa and Rickey Henderson.
“As great as all those guys were, I think Paul Molitor was the best ever,” Coomer said. “I’m hitting behind Paul. Last game of the year, last inning. Cleveland is going to the playoffs, we’re going home.
“He hits a little dribbler between the pitcher and first base and goes flying down the line. He dives head first across the bag and is safe by an eyelash, and we’re down six runs. No way we were going to win the game. But to a great player like him, you do not play the game any differently because of the score.”
Of Jeter, Coomer said, “He was the best big-game player I played with, by far. He is the ultimate winner.”
Then there was Henderson, not only the greatest base stealer and arguably greatest leadoff man ever, but a one-of-a-kind character.
“I was with the Dodgers, and I thought, ‘This team stinks,’ ” Coomer said. “Nobody plays to win. It was the most selfish team I ever played on.
“Well, then we signed Rickey Henderson, and in a month he knew three people on the team. He called me Crooms. With two days left in the season, when he had been with us for three months, he asks me, ‘Crooms, what’s the skipper’s name?’
“It was Jim Tracy.”
Great players may have some power in baseball, but former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was in a class by himself.
“I was with the Yankees, and we were in first place but going the wrong way, moving back toward Boston in the standings,” Coomer said. “It was raining, drizzling, but not enough to bother that day’s game. We’re in the locker room and [manager] Joe Torre comes in and says, ‘Game’s off, get out of here.’
“What happened was, God [Steinbrenner] called and said, ‘My boys are tired, we aren’t playing.’ Imagine to have that kind of power where he can dictate whether a game will be played when the weather conditions were not bad enough to call it off.”
WORKING WITH PAT
As much as Coomer enjoyed his association with Puckett, Molitor, Jeter and other outstanding teammates, and as much as he was in awe of the power Steinbrenner wielded, he is enamored with the opportunity to work with Pat Hughes.
This will be their fifth season together in the Cubs’ radio booth, and the partnership will continue. Coomer signed a three-year contract extension in December, and Hughes also is right where he wants to be.
“Pat will be a Hall of Fame broadcaster very soon,” Coomer said. “He is the most gracious human being you will ever come across. He has worked with Billy Packer, Al McGuire, Bob Uecker, lots of the greats. He just told me from Day 1, ‘Every day, I want you to say anything you want to say.’
“He said at the convention that as long as I am broadcasting, ‘I want Ron with me.’ Well, that goes both ways.”
Coomer feels his own broadcast work from the time he signed on with the Cubs in December 2013 until now “is night and day. I played with great players like Kirby Puckett, Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, and when it comes to broadcasters, Pat is one of the best ever.
“When I stepped into a situation with a guy that had his kind of conscientiousness, I couldn’t help but get better. If Pat is at my side every day for the rest of my broadcast career, that would be great. I’m so fortunate to be with him.”
Coomer said a story Hughes likes to tell is the time Ron Santo’s toupee caught fire in the radio booth at Shea Stadium.
“The Cubs were playing the Mets, who Ronnie hated to the max,” Coomer said. “It was cold that day, and heaters were above them. He caught his toupee on fire in the booth, and he takes it off and starts beating it to put it out. Then he puts it back on and says to Pat, ‘How does it look?’ And Pat says, ‘It looks great, Ronnie.’ ”
No doubt Coomer has learned much about broadcasting from his future Hall of Fame partner. His work also is getting positive reviews, including a compliment that came during the Old Timers banquet from former longtime major league umpire Bill Haller.
“What I like about you is you are a broadcaster. You don’t try to be an umpire,” Haller said.