Over the course of his time as a Major League Baseball player, Al Oliver was great because he showed passion for the game. A .303 batting average and seven All-Star appearances in the Major Leagues proves that in spades.
And as a public speaker, Oliver’s passion in that line of life is just as obvious.
On Saturday evening, Oliver spoke to a near-capacity crowd as part of the 12U Ohio Major Division State Softball Banquet, which was held by West Portsmouth American Little League in conjunction with District 11 the SOMC Friends Center in Portsmouth, where the legendary Portsmouth native and Portsmouth graduate made yet another legendary speech.
As part of dealing with teenagers, Oliver felt that his best way to relate to them was to expound on his own experiences as a child. Oliver had to deal with tragedy in his immediate family from an early age, as his mother died when he was 11 years of age and his father, on Sept. 14, 1968 — the very day that Oliver was called up to the Major Leagues — passed away when Oliver was 20.
“When I was 11 years old, I lost my mother,” Oliver said. “It was a very pivotal time in my life. My father had three children that he had to be in charge of. When I was 20 years old, I lost him on the same day that I found out that I was going to the major leagues. Neither one of my parents ever saw me play in the major leagues. However, I can always say that my Dad always knew that his son was going to make it in the major leagues, because whatever I set my mind to, I did.”
Still, Oliver knew that his main job, with his father in the final stages of his life, was to take care of his younger siblings. They were just 18 and 11 at the time of Al, Sr.’s passing.
“He said, ‘Son, the only thing that I want you to do is to take care of your brother and your sister.’ I told him, ‘You got it.’ At that time, he knew that his time was short on this earth. I made arrangements for his funeral, and after his funeral, I took off, headed to Pittsburgh to become a Major League Baseball player, and haven’t looked back since.”
And it was that home training that guided Oliver into the discipline hitter, and disciplined human being, that he is so lauded for today.
”I had two great parents,” Oliver said. “I listened to them while I had them. My Dad said, ‘Son, you might always be around people who act a fool, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be one too.’”
“He said, ‘When you are right and fair, it’s better to be alone rather than be in a crowd and be wrong,’” Oliver continued. “You must be able to walk away from trouble. If you see your friends or the people that you are keeping company with doing the wrong things, you have to be able to walk away. Don’t get caught up in what they do.”
ADVICE TO KIDS, PARENTS
From those life lessons, Oliver became the feared player that is still well-respected today, as well as the well-respected human being that he is as of now. The outfielder/first baseman, in addition to his .303 batting average and seven-time All-Star appearances, Oliver collected 2,743 hits, hit 219 home runs, and obtained 1,326 RBI. He even posted an on-base-plus-slugging mark of .705 or better in 16 of his 18 Major League seasons, including a mark of .800 or better in nine seasons, posted an OPS of .800 or better in five consecutive seasons from 1976 to 1980, and posted a lifetime wins above replacement (WAR) mark of 43.7, all according to Baseball Reference.
But the best statistic of all? Oliver, never once, was in any disciplinary trouble or in a situation that compromised his own playing career.
“Listen to your mothers and your fathers, your grandparents, your guardians or whoever is in charge of your household,” Oliver said. “Listen to them, because they have been through what you are going through now. I’m glad that I listened to them while I had them. I respected my coaches, the elderly people, and the adults in the community. They only want you to grow up to be good people, good adults, and productive citizens.”
For future student-athletes coming up, that’s a mark that concerns him going forward.
“We, as parents, have to become parents once again,” Oliver said. “Our young people are looking at us for discipline. They want discipline. Do not allow your children to run the household. Today’s society is enabling, and allowing, children to run their houses and homes. How can they be in charge of a house when they don’t have a job? Let’s become parents again. Let’s instill discipline and confidence in our kids so that they can grow up to be productive citizens, make the right choices, and be able to walk away from trouble.”
The foundation of that mindset, however, is one that Oliver said can be greatly assisted by the example that parents set in the sporting arenas. More than ever before, the behavior of parents, especially when it comes to criticism of and pressure on their own kid, concerns the 18-year Major League veteran.
“Sportsmanship is lacking today,” Oliver said. “Let the young people have fun. Let them play the game. Don’t be screaming and hollering at them. Yes, pull for them. But don’t knock them down if they make an error. They feel bad enough as it is. You always want to encourage your young women here.”
And as with any contest, confidence in one’s own abilities, as well as the abilities of others, is a must.
“You must have as much confidence in your teammates as you do yourself,” Oliver said. “That is what makes teams win. You’ve got to have that confidence. When you go to the plate knowing that you’re going to get a hit, or knowing that you’re going to make a pitch or a defensive play, that’s big. Believe that you can make the play. Do not lack confidence. If you make an error, shake it off. We’re all going to make errors. The next ball that comes to you may be a game-saving play.”
As a whole, enthusiasm is a big indicating factor in how successful a program is. With the rise of fast-pitch softball, and the increasing quality of standout softball players across the country, it is clear that the game is one that is growing in quality — and in rapid form at that, according to Oliver.
“40 to 50 years ago, we may not be seeing what we are witnessing here today with all of these young girls playing softball at such a high level and at that age,” Oliver said. “It wouldn’t have happened. There may have been pickup games, but if it was organized, I didn’t see it. And I love the enthusiasm level. I love enthusiasm. You must have that quality when you take that field.”
That growth, however, has been sustained because of the passion that remains in the game as a whole.
“I enjoy watching college softball,” Oliver said of the most watched part of the sport. “Give me one of those games over a Major League game any day, because they are playing some ball. I enjoy watching them play any day because it seems as if they are never tired. I can’t believe that a Major League Baseball player could possibly get tired of playing baseball. I mean, what are you doing? You go to the plate and you hit. You go to the field, catch a ball, and go back to the dugout. If you’re tired, sit down, and let somebody else play.”
Wheelersburg, as a whole, is a prime example of that growth.
Since Teresa Ruby accepted the Lady Pirates’ head coaching post in the summer of 2013, Wheelersburg has been to five consecutive Division III, Region 11 Tournaments and collected three consecutive OHSAA State Final Four appearances from 2015 to 2017 — winning the Division III State Championship in 2016 and finishing as the OHSAA Division III State Runner-Up a year later.
That success has trickled down to the feeder system, where the Wheelersburg 11-12s won its fourth consecutive Ohio U12 State Championship in that particular age group on Monday and will be, likewise, playing in its fourth consecutive Central Region Tournament in late July.
And it’s something that Oliver believes can be duplicated in Portsmouth, with the appropriate blend of commitment and will involved.
“From the time that I left town to the time that I came back, I started hearing about Wheelersburg,” Oliver said. “Back when I played, Portsmouth was it. It was the mecca of sports in this area. Now, it’s Wheelersburg. I said, ‘That’s interesting.’ When I came back, I had a chance to go to Wheelersburg and see the things that they have done over the years. I have to commend them for the things that they have done. It’s a community who has come together and supported their teams. I believe that it is an outstanding situation. I believe that the same thing could be done in Portsmouth if we would just get up and do what we are capable of doing.”
In addition to Oliver’s speech, a dinner was provided by the members of the West Portsmouth American Little League.
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT