Joe Mathews: The summer of our disconnect

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Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Ken McMullen in a 1963 issue of Baseball Digest. Photo credit: Baseball Digest, page 15, March 1963 issue

Only the most dedicated of Dodger fans will remember Ken McMullen. The journeyman infielder was a solid if unspectacular player during two stints with the L.A. club in the 1970s and 1980s. But McMullen will always hold a special place in the heart of Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews. In his youth, Mathews attended a baseball camp run by McMullen in Santa Barbara County. The experience left an indelible impression, especially the lessons Mathews learned about how to teach others. He’s finding comfort in revisiting those lessons in what’s been a very trying season.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Dreams of field

Have any strange dreams during this crazy California summer? Me too.

Mine compressed time. In dreamland, I toggled between the smoky claustrophobia of summer 2020 and childhood memories of the Santa Barbara-area baseball camp I attended in the 1980s.

What took me back to Ken McMullen Baseball Camp in Carpinteria?  Maybe it was because this summer my three sons were stuck at home, glued to their screens. Maybe it was the cancellation of youth baseball during the pandemic. Maybe it was the power of geographical suggestion; to beat the heat, we twice drove through Carpinteria on our way to cooler, less-COVID-plagued San Luis Obispo County.

Or maybe those dreams came because the steady spirit of that camp seems so rare right now.

Ken McMullen was a dependable third baseman for five teams, hitting 156 homers in a  career spanning 1962 to 1977.  Ken was someone who knew his role, and reliably performed it—the sort of person in short supply these days. Dodger fans remember him as a skilled pinch-hitter for the team that won the National League pennant in 1974.

Late in his career, he started a kids’ baseball camp near his hometown of Oxnard, where his father had run a service station. Family members were constant presences at the camp, though the location moved around, to wherever he could find fields and dorms. He wanted dorms to recreate Dodgertown, the Florida camp where Dodger players lived and trained each spring.

“It was a boarding camp—and you had to stay there,” Ken, 78, recalls. “That way you could have the camaraderie with the kids, and it wasn’t just us teaching them. The kids could coach each other.”

In the 1980s, Ken moved camp to Cate School, in Carpinteria. My parents generously sent me for one week each summer. I was just 10 my first year—it was my first and  only sleepaway camp and I was nervous about going.

The feeling didn’t last. The camp coaches were welcoming—and kept you busy. Tough football coaches hold twice-daily practices. Ken McMullen Baseball Camp held three practices daily.  While all coaches preach teamwork, the camp actually practiced it—teaching the myriad details of backing teammates up, and communicating on the field. At each week’s end, campers were sent home with written report cards.

My report cards said I was a smart aleck, who often challenged other players and coaches. So the camp’s coaches encouraged me to rededicate my critical energy to watching the game intently, and taught me how to anticipate pitches before they were thrown, and read bats to see where the ball would be hit.  At age 12, I won the camp’s award for Best Attitude, and asked if it was a joke. Ken told me I had the best “bad attitude” he’d seen. It may be the finest compliment I’ve ever received.

In essence, the camp wasn’t just teaching us baseball; it was teaching us how to teach others. I started coaching Little League at age 14, using McMullen drills, and still coach today. Many campers became educators and coaches themselves.

“The philosophy behind the camp was fun but not just that: We’re also going to teach you a lot, and hopefully you’ll take some of this home,” says Scott Young, who started as a camper, became a  camp counselor, and went on to be a coach, teacher, and principal in Orange County.

I moved on and the camp eventually ended, but Ken McMullen never left my brain. In one dream this summer, I played in the campers-versus-coaches game—which Ken often won with a pinch-hit—and flew out to center. In another dream, I was running the bases endlessly, trying to make sure I hit each base on the inside corner.  

Then I woke up, still stuck at home. I wish I were still on base.


Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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