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The road to becoming a professional athlete is not an easy one. It’s a highly competitive arena with a large number of talented individuals vying for a finite number of opportunities. Greg Pryor, of the 1985 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals, shares his experience and wisdom showing us that if you know what you really want, no one can stop you from achieving it.
Dennis: You never know when you're going to bump into somebody and strike up a great conversation and every conversation is interesting. Xpelli recently was at Licensing Expo in Las Vegas where we were showing our product and ran into Greg Pryor. And some of you may know Greg from his days with Kansas City Royals, the World Series Champions of 1985. And with me today is Greg. Greg, glad to have you here.
Greg: Dennis, it's great to be here. I'm so excited that we did connect at a show in Las Vegas. I was in the booth next to yours and luckily, the lady in the booth next to yours told me that you were from Kansas and I said, “Well, I'm going to go meet somebody from Kansas.” And that's how we met.
Dennis: That's right! It was our neighbor there that was so kind to send you in our direction which was great. Greg, I want to go back in your life a bit. You had a dream as a child that you wanted to play baseball. And would you tell me about that dream, please?
Greg: Well, it was kind of a, it fermented, because luckily, I was born to parents that were both into sports in high school. My mom and dad, George and Martha Pryor, grew up in West Virginia. And they both were presidents of their glee clubs way back.
Greg: Yeah, it was back in the thirties. And they had six children and in the process of having children, you know, they showed us the joy of playing sports. My dad bought me my first baseball glove when I was seven years old at a Western Auto store.
Dennis: Western Auto!
Greg: Yeah, he taught me how to play baseball. He got me in a position where I could play on team up in Ohio, East of Akron, Ohio in the country. And I just fell in love with the ability throw a round object and catch it with a piece of leather and hit it with a piece of wood. And it was so much fun to do that. Even though my dad was a football player, I really was drawn to baseball only because I hadn’t done golf yet. But golf has always been my first love.
Greg: But I've always played baseball and luckily, I was able to earn an income from doing it.
Dennis: But earning an income… I remember our conversation earlier that it wasn't quite as going from straight from East of Akron, Ohio to the major leagues – am I right?
Greg: Well, that's what I'm hoping to put in my book that I'm writing right now. It's been quite a journey, you know? When I was young, I went to watch major league baseball in Cleveland when the Cleveland Indians were in the Lakefront Stadium. And I kind of… I saw that eighty-thousand-seat stadium as an eight- or nine-year-old and I never imagined that I would be down there performing someday. But it wasn't a dream of mine to ever get on that field because it did seem like it was so far from the realm of possibility in my life. Because when I graduated from high school, I was 5’6”, about 150 lbs. I played high school baseball but I wasn't drafted by the pros and I did not have a scholarship offer. So, you know, why would anybody ever think they could be a professional at anything if nobody wanted them to perform? So my dad bribed the college coach at Florida Southern College…
Greg: Which was in Lakeland, Florida; my older brother was a very good pitcher in college. And my dad told the college coach to give me a small scholarship or he was going to take my older brother out of his college. And so the coach gave me a $250 scholarship, toward tuition of $2500 a year. This was back in 1967.
Dennis: All right.
Greg: But I think I really didn’t know that until after I graduated. The coach told me, he says, “You know, Greg, you got here on a bribe. I really didn’t want you, but your dad forced me to take you.”
Dennis: No kidding!
Greg: So I got to college. I really didn’t perform well in my first two seasons. In fact, when I was nineteen, I was playing in a – still in college – I was playing in a summer college league in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Dove to my left for a ground ball and dislocated my left shoulder. And three weeks after the dislocation, the doctor told me that I'd never lift my left arm for the rest of my life because I had torn all the nerves and the nerves control muscles and I had no muscle contraction on my shoulder.
Greg: So I went from that to not really believing that he was telling me the truth because my first thought when he told me that I’d never lift my left arm again was that I really didn’t want to play golf one handed for the rest of my life. It wasn't that I was going to not be able to play baseball. It was golf.
Dennis: No kidding.
Greg: And so I think that I started thinking that he was lying me to me because, obviously, I healed. And it took a lot of time to heal. It wasn't… I started brushing my teeth left handed. I started eating left handed. Anything I could do with my left arm, I would try to do it slowly. And I started climbing up a wall with my fingertips, trying to go as far as I could. But I went from that to you know, getting a little bit better in college baseball. And then they started telling me that I was going to be a professional someday. And I couldn’t believe that they were saying that to me because I always had a knack to hit a baseball.
Greg: I think sometimes when I teach young kids to hit, I think some kids have the knack to hit and some kids don't. And I think that knack that we have in our lives to do something better than somebody else or to improve on, we really have to know if we have the knack to do something. And it could be in playing the piano or a violin. Some people’s hands are more suited to play a violin than other ones. But I do think that most people can improve no matter what they want to do with the right attitude and the right opportunity.
Dennis: Well, I think it's interesting. I mean, so you loved the sport, you got into the summer league as a child and then after high school, you didn’t get drafted and didn’t get a scholarship, your dad bribed your coach to bring you on to the team, you kind of… first couple of years weren't so great and you tore your shoulder up big time. I mean, the injury you were talking about back in that day, I'm surprised it didn't stop your career, actually. Because I mean, sport medicine’s improved so greatly over the past couple of decades here. But that didn't stop you. You kept going. You kept sticking to it. So, you said later in your college career, people were saying that you're going to be a pro someday. You still didn’t quite believe them. Is that right?
Greg: No, I didn’t believe it because as I said before, I go to college in Lakeland, Florida – that's where Florida Southern College is. And luckily for me (or unluckily, whatever) the Detroit Tigers used that as a spring training home. That's where they trained. I got to see the likes of Al Kaline…
Dennis: Oh wow!
Greg: And Bill Freehan and all the old Tigers that played in the late 60s. You know, they played in the World Series, I think in ’67 or ’68. And I went out there to watch them playing spring training games. And I watched them throw and they were tremendous. And it even set my belief further back that I could never get that good because the infielders never missed a ball, you know? And I was not that good. So I did get a chance to sign a professional contact in ’71 with the Washington Senators.
Greg: I got $10,000 to sign, which was a lot of money to me back in 1971. And then I go to New York-Penn League up in Geneva, New York. I played for the Senators, so that's the lowest league that they had. And I didn’t have a good game up there one time and the manager of my first pro team, in front of the whole team, told me to take my uniform off and he didn’t care where I went because he didn’t think I was good enough to put on that uniform. And I had just signed the contract. And hearing my first manager telling me I'm no good. [Laughs]
Dennis: Holy cow! How do you bounce back from that?
Greg: Well, you know [laughs] I was seriously thinking about joining a commune, right? Because you know I'm from the 60s and I'm thinking, you know, I started rationalizing the importance of the game of baseball; I'm thinking, “Well, how important is this game where you take some yarn, you wrap leather around it and you go out and play it for money?” I said, “It’s not really that conducive to helping humanity.”
Greg: But I was getting paid $500 a month and the guys on the team, they patted me on the back. And I didn’t hardly look at my manager because I knew he didn’t like me. But I hung around until one of the scouts from the Senators came into our town and he saw me taking ground balls and hitting before the game in practice. And he told the manager, he said, “Hey, put the Pryor kid at shortstop I wanna watch him play.” And I got in and I started getting and I started hitting. And the manager couldn’t get me out because I was getting hits in every game. And I played the rest of the season there in Geneva. And I was getting ready to go back to Florida Southern to finish my last semester. I had to leave early to go back and register. And I'll never forget this: I was in the shower, taking a shower with my manager and he looked at me and he goes, “Don't you think you could stay around here for two more days because we have three games left and we have a chance to finish in second place. And I really need you to play shortstop.”
Dennis: Wait, this is the same manager who told you to take your uniform off your first day there?
Greg: Yeah, same manager. So under my breath, I said “I can’t believe you're giving me a break now. I hope I never see you again.”
Greg: So I left there and then unfortunately, the next season I jumped A-Ball. You know, it goes from Rookie League A, Double-A, Triple A, Major Leagues. And I jumped A-ball where he was the manager and I was so happy that I got sent in Double-A Pittsfield, Mass, back in the Eastern League. And then I didn’t do well up there because I saw snow drifts in April and I’m from Orlando, Florida, you know, so I didn’t like the snow. So I didn’t hit very well my first month and a half and I got sent down to the Carolina League, to Burlington North Carolina where my old manager didn’t think I was very good.
Dennis: No way!
Greg: So I had to go back, you know? I had to go back. My advice for anybody trying to get better is don't burn bridges because you might have to go back and cross that bridge again, before you can cross the others the next time. So I got out of that league and I finally got a chance to play in the big leagues. And then in 1976, the Senators became the Texas Rangers in ’71. So in ’76, I played well enough in Triple-A to be called up to the big leagues for three weeks. And I was so excited that I finally, finally made it to the big leagues. The Rangers traded me to the Yankees over that winter. So in ’77, I go to a spring training with the New York Yankees in Fort Lauderdale and they went on to win the World Series that year. And Billy Martin, the manager of Yankees in ’77, he didn’t like me either, so he sent me to Triple-A in Syracuse in New York. And I quit. I'm so close to the big leagues and I quit.
Greg: Because I didn’t feel like the Yankees were being fair to me. And you know, I didn't know that just because somebody is not fair to you in life doesn’t give you the right to quit, you know? I didn’t see any alternative. I didn’t want to go to Syracuse. I was raised to play in the big leagues. I was ready to be tested at the big leagues level. Not to say I knew I was going to be a player that would play for nine years in the big leagues but I knew that I could not… I was a professional at Triple-A and I proved that I can play in Triple-A. The Yankees didn’t want me so they sent me to a Triple-A in Syracuse. That was my third year in Triple-A. And I quit until my salary was going to start. Then I was broke, so I decided to go back to start collecting some money and begged them to trade me.
Dennis: Really? And where did they trade you to then?
Greg: They didn’t. They didn't trade me. They made me go to Syracuse. But you know, one of my best, most fun stories I like to tell is when I decided I would report to Syracuse, I told the manager (his name is Pete Ward) I said, “Pete, I’m gonna be the worst nightmare you’ve ever had as a player.”
Greg: And he said, “Why?” And I said, “I think I belong in the big leagues and the Yankees have traded for me and they're making me play Triple-A baseball again and I don't wanna be on your team. It's nothing against you, but I'm going to do all I can do to get traded.” So the Yankees’ rules for modern leagues back in those days (and I think it still is today), is that you couldn’t have any facial hair.
Greg: But when I got to Triple-A spring training, they said, “Well, Greg, you'll have to shave your mustache or you won’t be able to play.” And I said, “Why would I have to shave my mustache?” And they said, “Well, there's no facial hair in the Minor Leagues for the Yankees.”
Greg: So it really got me mad. Not only did they trade for me and slow up my career and not put me in the big leagues, they made me shave my mustache.
Dennis: Did you shave it?
Greg: I did. And every time I shaved it, I was saying, “I'm going to get you back. I'm going to get you back.”
Greg: So I go to Triple-A and I'm doing the job and I'm playing shortstop, I'm the best player on the team and I decided to have a mustache revolt. I got all twenty-five guys on the team in a room and I told them, I said, “You guys are just as much of a man as the guys on the major leagues Yankees.” I said, “You guys deserve to grow a mustache.” I said, “If you if you feel like you deserve it and you're man enough to grow a mustache, raise your hand and sign this paper.”
So I got all the signatures of all the players on the team and I took it to the manager's office. And I laid it in front of him, I said, “We’re growing mustaches.” And he looked at me and he goes, “Pryor, you're really gonna get me in trouble for doing this.” So I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, I have to report to this to the Yankee farm director.” I said, “Go ahead and report it because we're growing ‘em.” And they started threatening us, you know? They started threatening everybody: “If you don't shave, you're going to be sent down to Double-A. If you don't shave, we're going to release you.” But I was hoping that they would release me. My whole goal in this was not really to grow a mustache…
Dennis: It was to get traded.
Greg: …so much that they would say, “Pryor, you're released. Get out of here.”
Dennis: Yeah, right. Right.
Greg: But three weeks after I organized the revolt, I was the only guy growing a mustache.
Greg: And then after a game in Pawtucket, Pete Ward came in after the game and he reported that the farm director just approved facial hair for the minor leagues. They just changed the rules.
Dennis: [Laughs] So, you didn’t get traded, but you got to keep your mustache instead?
Greg: Well, the guys were patting me on the back and I'm upset. I'm not happy about it.
Dennis: [Laughs] No, it wasn't what you were shooting for.
Greg: My point is, no matter what job you have, you might not like it. And if you want to buck the system, go ahead and try but it might not be the best thing for you.
Dennis: [Laughs] That's a great lesson in there. That's a great lesson. But you finally did make it to the major leagues, right?
Greg: Yeah. Turned out that during the season, I could become a free agent. I just had to play out the final season in Syracuse; I was going to be a free agent the next November. And I got drafted by five teams; among them the White Sox, the Chicago White Sox. I signed a one-year contract with the Chicago White Sox. I got play for Bill Veeck in Chicago. I got my first year in and then I signed a two year contract with the White Sox during that season. And then I signed another one year contract. And then I got traded to the Royals. I played 5 years as an infielder for Kansas City Royals. And ’85, I was on the ’85 World Champion Kansas City Royals as an infielder.
Dennis: That's such a great story. I mean, you started with this small town kid or whatever in West Virginia. Your parents gave you a ball and a glove to get you started. And through all the ups and downs and going up to the major leagues and back to the Triple-A leagues and so forth, you didn’t give up. You didn’t quit. What made you believe to keep moving forward? You didn’t have a scholarship going to college. You found out later your dad bribed the coach to get you in there. What made you believe you could do this? To keep yourself moving forward?
Greg: You know, it's kind of like, baseball is such a game that you have to play… a lot of people don't like baseball because it's so slow, they think. But the great thing about baseball is that you just never know when the ball is going to come to you. And you really don't know how fast or how slow the pitcher is going to throw it and whether he’s going to throw a strike or not. So it's actually a very exciting sport to play. And it's exciting to try to improve at it. And the reason I kept going was, number one, I considered the alternative. I was wondering what I was going to do if I didn’t make the major leagues. You know, it was basically a fear of not making it.
Greg: I didn’t know the alternative. And I'm not ashamed to admit that. I think a lot of people succeed out of fear of what happens if they don't.
Greg: And it wasn't that I went out on the field and was afraid of failure because it was a knightly challenge to perfect the ability to catch a ground ball and throw it to the right base, perfect the ability to hit the ball hard enough every night to have an average that would cause people in baseball to take notice of me and give me a chance.
Dennis: I appreciate that. And the fact you mentioned earlier about that some people have a “knack” to do something. You had a knack for swinging a bat. You know, you played up to that strength of yours. I think that the fear of “what if I don't succeed? What's my alternative if I don't move forward?” is an interesting way to look at it. What was the hardest part of you trying to move forward? What obstacles besides managers that didn’t like you, what else was out there that was holding you back from pursuing this dream?
Greg: That's a great question. And it's something I like to talk about especially with young athletes that are trying to get better because there's a lot of athletes and I've played with Bo Jackson, who was probably the best athlete in the history of the world. I don't think anybody in any sport could say that they were as good as Bo Jackson at running and throwing like he was. But there's a lot of guys like me that… I didn’t have that ability that Bo Jackson had. I was very slow. I had clumsy feet. And I was a bad fielder. In 1973, I made over 40 errors in short stop for my team in the Carolina league in A-ball. And when I was playing in minor league infield, you know, wearing spikes, and when I crossed over for a grand ball to my left, I was so clumsy that I would kick my left ankle with my right foot and open up a gash at least once a week. And I wouldn’t even look down because I knew it was bleeding.
So an answer to your question, I had to overcome being told by my farm director that I could never play infield because I wasn't good enough fielder. And I had to overcome being very clumsy in the field and having very slow feet. So I made it an issue to become more coordinated with my fielding hand. I used to just do drill after drill after drill to try to improve the quickness of my left hand and keeping the ball in my glove. And then to make fielding a little bit easier – you have to have very quick – when you go after a ground ball, you have to have that really quick first start to get your feet in position to field. Because baseball in the infield is basically it’s kind of like a ballet… you do a ballet but there's a ball involved because you have to contort your body in so many different ways to catch it and then throw in while on a run sometimes. So I worked on my coordination on my fielding hand, my left hand. And then I worked on improving on my feet quickness over the winter. Between seasons, I’d go out and I would do drills to improve the quickness of my feet and getting my body strong so that I could play good enough over six or seven month period so that I could be looked at as somebody that may be good enough to play in the big leagues.
Dennis: Interesting. So you just kept at it. You kept improving the bits and pieces that could make just that much of a difference giving you a bit more of an edge toward being the player that people want to have on their major league team, basically.
Greg: You know, another thing too that people should know is that you can work on improving your skills no matter what they are. And sometimes, there's not people around you that are saying, “Wow, Dennis, you're really getting better! Greg, you're really getting better!” They're not around. You have to really have that feeling inside that you are getting better. And you really have to be honest with yourself as to whether you're getting better or you're just kidding yourself.
Dennis: That’s valuable.
Greg: You have to know whether you're good enough or not. And that's the tough part of being a professional in any field is you have to know what your strengths are and you know what your weaknesses are. And you have to you know; it’s easy to say “work on your weaknesses” but I think that if you work on your strengths, your strengths will overcome your weaknesses.
Dennis: That's great advice right there!
Greg: I've talked to so many people now, you know, I'm 65 years old and I've been out of baseball for 30 years but I’m talking with so many guys that say “Oh yeah, I was player in high school but I got hurt. I was a player in college but the coach didn’t like me.” And there are all these excuses of these people that didn’t make the major leagues in baseball. And I don't tell them that they're just kidding themselves, but I wish that people would understand that most of the time, if you really understand what your strengths are and you know what you really want, the bottom line is nobody can stop you, you know?
Dennis: That's true.
Greg: And you have to get ready for that opportunity. You can’t sit around and you know and, it’s a cliché, but you know, you’ve got to swim out. You can’t wait for the boat to come in. You’ve got to swim out and meet it.
Dennis: Absolutely right. In this long journey of yours that you're on and everything or even up to today, what's been the biggest surprise? What are some surprises that popped out at you?
Greg: Oh, how much life imitates baseball.
Greg: You know, I tell people I think baseball is the greatest team sport ever invented. You know, the football fans and the soccer fans and basketball fans will all argue with me, but assuming similarities between life and baseball is, when I got out of baseball, I could have stayed in and managed probably but I wanted to get out and find out what life was away from baseball. I really didn’t want to be in baseball my whole life.
Greg: Sometimes, I wish I would have stayed in because I still love it and I still love watching it. But I think that the things I learned in baseball are basically the same things you learn in life. If you wanna have a good organization, you need to create a good team and you have to find people that believe in themselves and could make their own minds up about how they're going to work, how they're going to perform. And you have to have a scorecard, you have to have a box score, you have to know how to put people in the position to win. And you know, baseball and businesses there's so many similarities among both industries. And I like giving talks and telling people that no matter if they didn’t play professional sports or college sports, they're doing the same thing as baseball players do; they have to do good each day and they can’t wait around for someone to pat them on the back. They have to pat themselves on the back. And I like also to use the idea that in baseball, when I played, my box scores were in the paper every day and my question to everybody is “If your box score was in the paper every day, would you work any harder? If the box score of your work was in the paper of every newspaper in the country, would you work any harder to make your box score better?”
Dennis: Interesting. Because none of us have a box score that's sitting in the paper of our daily work, but a professional athlete lives and dies by those statistics that everyone sees every single day.
Greg: You know, I hit three walk-off home runs in my career and that means that you're up in the last inning and you hit the home run to win the game and everybody leaves. And I never imagined that I can ever be in the position to do that. And when I did it the first time, it was like, “Oh, my gosh! I ended the game!” It happened and the only reason it happened was because of all the work and preparation I put in to learn how to be a major league hitter and how to stand and how to be ready and in years and years of practice. And all of a sudden, sometimes you do something in life or business that it just happens and you can’t explain it. You really didn’t try to do it; it just happened. And that's the glory of being alive and being productive and helping people enjoy their day or helping a fan enjoy the money that they spent to come out and watch a major league baseball game. You sent them home happy.
Dennis: That's beautiful! Greg, this has been great. I really, really appreciate your time today. It's been great talking to you, sharing your stories. It's a great story. I'm Dennis Hodges for Xpelli. Dream. Believe. Do. Thanks, Greg!
Greg: Hey, my pleasure! Thanks for the great questions.
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