I love watching tough players. I loved competing against tough players. The toughest players make you raise your game; they make others around them better. If you were to visit locker rooms across the country you would hear coaches telling their players they need to be tough. They need to show toughness, both mentally and physically. But what do they really mean? What makes a player tough?
If you watch games on television or in person today, it is hard to cut through all of the flash to recognize a tough player. Crazy hair, 2-foot-long beards, and oversize jerseys present players as more concerned with their appearance than their play. Throw in the ridiculous bat flips, players jawing at each other, and other forms of “big leaguing” and it becomes even harder to understand if players truly know what it means to be tough.
I often wonder if these players realize how they come across – not only to other players and coaches, but to recruiting coordinators. Over and over, I hear how important it is for a player to get recruited – by a college, a university, or a professional team. Everyone is focused on getting recruited. It seems that if being recruited is a top priority, being a tough player should be a top priority, as well.
I was fortunate to learn what it means to be a tough player at a young age. My parents were incredibly supportive of my desire to play professional baseball. My father spent hours upon hours working with me and talking through the various aspects of baseball so I could better understand the game. And it paid off. At an early age, I was playing against players four to five years older than me and doing well. My father never let that go to my head, though. He always said to me, “Remember, there is always going to be someone out there better than you. Just focus on getting better each day.” He wanted me to be a tough player.
This desire continued through my high school years when I transferred high schools to Omaha Westside to play baseball for Coach Bob Greco. That transition was one of the hardest transitions I have made in my life. I lived away from home, knew only a handful of people when I started, and went back to my hometown of Fremont, Nebraska, on the weekends. It wasn’t ideal, but I knew I had to be tough. Luckily, my family, close friends from Fremont, new friends from Westside, and all the families that let me crash on their couches supported me. Looking back, if I hadn’t stuck with it, I would have missed out on some of the best years of my life and might not have met my wife (you’re welcome, honey.)
Coach Greco is the best high school baseball coach in the country. And that’s not just my opinion. Last year, he deservedly was named the top high school baseball coach in the country by the American Baseball Coaches Association. Year after year, Coach Greco produces winning teams and championships for Omaha Westside. His intense focus on creating tough players and building tough teams causes that to happen. Coach Greco has no time for soft players, and he made that clear to me one day during my junior year. I remember him pulling me into the dugout during practice and saying to me matter-of-factly, “Tom, you’re pitching like a scared little boy. If we are going to win the state championship, we need you pitch like you can. You need to pitch like a man.” And that was it. He told me to get back to practice. His words were to the point and incredibly impactful.