One of the greatest rewards of coaching is being able to visit with former athletes and see their growth as people. Friday I had a wonderful two-hour visit with two former White Sox players – Kinnis Pledger and Ed Smith. I had not seen them for at least 17 years. I first met them in June 1987 at the draft mini camp in Sarasota. They had just signed with the White Sox after being drafted in the 1987 amateur free agent draft. Kinnis was a year older than Ed having attended a year of junior college. Ed was drafted out of high school in New Jersey. They were just kids starting a journey as professional athletes. For them as for all those kids it was rude awakening, it was now a job, no longer just a game you just played for fun. It was hot and expectations were higher than the Florida heat. They were young immature kids, Kinnis was a little cocky but as he admitted on Friday (something I recognized back then) it was a cover-up for his insecurity – he was an athlete who had not played much baseball. Ed was quiet and determined; he also had not played much baseball. He had been a football standout in high school. They both had to learn the game and they had to learn how to train – that is where I entered into the picture.
They certainly were already very good athletes, but my job was to teach them to be better, how to warm-up, to stay injury free, to get stronger and faster. Just like most young players they did it without any particular buy in at first. But over the next several they began to understand that I was there to help them not punish them and they got bigger, stronger faster and more agile. Kinnis eventually broke the organization record in the 5-10-5 agility test. Ed improved his forty yard time two tenths of a second and his ten yard time down in the 1.66 second range. They also improved as baseball players. They were considered among the White Sox best prospects.
Unfortunately they were unwitting victims of a failed experiment in teaching hitting. The White Sox owner was sold a bill of goods by a hitting guru who imposed a flawed style of hitting on the organization from top to bottom, from the major leagues to rookie ball. Players were forced to conform or they were not allowed to play. They might as well have taken the bats out of the players hands it was so bad. It was tough to watch. In retrospect Kinnis and Ed were probably hurt more than most by this failed attempt at cloning because they were power hitters who were robbed of their power. To their credit they stuck it out. Both ended up with other organizations sometime in my last three years there.
They both advanced as high as Triple A – one step from the major leagues. Kinnis stuck with baseball and played until 2001 even being named MVP of one of the independent leagues along the way. Ed left baseball in 1995 seeking an improbable career change to professional football. The story gets real interesting here, it reads like a sport fantasy tale.
Ed’s brother Erv was a standout tight end at Notre Dame and the first round pick of the New Orleans Saints. Ed became discouraged midway through the season when he saw his baseball career stagnating so he floated the idea of playing football by his brother. His brother encouraged him. He finished the season. Ed said he played some his best baseball ever because he felt like a weight was off his shoulders when he made the decision to play football. Not quite clear on the details of the chronology since was not taking notes, I was astounded at the story, but the bottom line it has been close to ten years since he had played high school football. This was not the typical career path to the NFL. He began preparation in earnest. He got his weight up to 254 and started looking for opportunities. It came in the form of a tryout with the World Football League (NFL Europe) who were already a week into training camp when he got the call. He started out as the fifth tight end and made the team. He played in Europe that year and then went to training camp with the St Louis Rams and was the final cut. He was picked up the Redskins and eventually landed a season or two later with the Atlanta Falcons were he was on their Super Bowl team. You could not write a better story, talk about grit!
They were both in town for the annual gala hosted by Dick Vitale to raise money for the Jimmy V foundation to fight cancer. Dick Vitale invited Ed and Ed invited Kinnis as his guest. It was so great to see them, two young men I admire for their dedication and perseverance and two real good people. I am looking forward to staying in touch. Guy’s thanks for making my day on Friday I am still glowing from the fond memories and the stories.