Scooter Gennett of the Milwaukee Brewers is among those players participating in an innovative cancer charity drive that ends Thursday night and benefits LUNGevity, “the largest national lung cancer-focused nonprofit.” An online auction, coordinated by Major League Baseball media and public relations offices, is awarding scores of unusual prizes to winning bidders. Pitching lessons with CC Sabathia or Dwight Gooden, for example. Rather than a game-used jersey or an autographed baseball, Gennett is donating his time and his noteworthy skills with ceramics, giving a pottery lesson to the winner of his auction.
MLB took this initiative in part to celebrate the life of Monica Barlow, who died earlier this year at age 36 because of lung cancer. Like a majority of people who get lung cancer, Barlow did not smoke. Gennett has gotten involved in part because his father is a cancer survivor. He discussed all of that and more in a phone conversation with FanGraphs during baseball’s winter meetings. In addition to the charity work, he also discussed how he’s preparing for the upcoming season, and further explained how Ryan Joseph Gennett became — sometimes — “Scooter.”
David Brown: Were you into Play-Doh as a kid?
Scooter Gennett: Yeah, when I was younger, I liked those kind of toys where you’d make something. I wasn’t the type of kid to play with action figures. I guess I was a Play-Doh type of kid. But once I turned 8 years old, until high-school age, there really wasn’t much for me other than playing baseball. So I didn’t take many art classes, certainly ceramics, until high school. It was all baseball.
DB: When did you start working in ceramics?
SG: Sophomore year at Sarasota High School, I took my first class with ceramics. After I graduated, I took six courses. I got a portfolio credit, I got college credit for art. I was going to go to Florida State — didn’t go — and that’s kind of where it cut off. A [feature] for ESPN the Magazine really was the last time in a while I’ve thrown on a wheel. It’s like riding a bike though; you don’t really forget it.
You roll out clay and make little coils. It almost looks like a little snake, and then you can build things from that. When you move up on the courses, you start throwing on the wheel. I was intrigued from the first day. I wanted to jump in and know everything, and do everything, but it was a process. It definitely was a way for me to get my mind off everything that was going on — in baseball, and my dad had some health issues in high school. I used it as an outlet to get my mind off things; it was nice.
DB: You alluded to when your dad had cancer. Does that also motivate you to be involved with this auction?
SG: It does. He had Stage 2 colon cancer. They ended up just cutting it out. It was tough. That was tough. At that time, ceramics became sort of like my therapy. But he ended up bouncing back quick. It was definitely a process, him getting back healthy, but they’ve said there’s a really small chance it’ll ever come back. For anybody who goes through something like that, you get a different understanding of how fortunate you are to have your health. It’s definitely something I’m happy to do.
Here’s a full description of Gennett’s auction prize:
Brewers second baseman Scooter Gennett is an artist at heart and he wants to share his talents with you. Over the years, Scooter has become something of an expert in making pottery. You and three friends will join Scooter at a local Milwaukee area pottery studio where you will spend an evening on a mutually-agreed date making your own pottery. Winner also receives four Field Infield Box tickets to a mutually-agreed game and a $200 gift card to any local Surg Restaurants, known for featuring some of the area’s finest dining experiences.
DB: Have you ever given a lesson before?
SG: Uhhhh, not like a lesson-lesson, but when I was in school, there were kids — it might have been their first time in ceramics — and I’d walk them through stuff. It’s pretty easy to give them the basics. I definitely feel proud that people would want to purchase my stuff, and my time. I wouldn’t buy my own work. Not yet. I’m definitely critical of myself.
DB: Are you tough on yourself in general?
SG: I try to be. And if you’re not, the game will do it to you quickly enough. Ceramics is something I could definitely get better at. People who do it for a living are amazing. It’s special, and I’m not at that level.
DB: Do you get into a zone when you’re doing pottery? Is it almost like meditation?
SG: It depends. When I was in class, I would make a few different pieces. I wouldn’t really take that much time on one. But if I had my own time, I would zone in pretty good. But I’m also able to talk at the same time. It’s almost like reading or doing a crossword puzzle.
DB: Do you produce ceramics that aren’t pottery?
SG: I’ve made two stadiums. I made a Wrigley Field and a Fenway Park, just because they’re easy to picture. I’d have to delve into storage to find all of that.
DB: Did you make Wrigley with lights?
SG: No! Of course not. I did the old-school Wrigley. And I tried to make Fenway with the overhang of the grandstand how they have it, but I didn’t spend too much time on either park. I tend to work quickly and move onto the next thing.
DB: Should your agents get you a gallery showing?
SG: Haha. I don’t know about right now, but maybe down the road that’d be something that would be pretty cool. I need to get my own wheel. I need to get a kiln and stuff. It’s something that, one day, I hope I can do. Right now, to do something like this, ceramics lessons for a good cause. To benefit cancer research is special. I never really thought me doing all of this stuff would benefit someone else. It’s pretty cool.
DB: When one thinks of pottery, the film “Ghost” inevitably comes to mind. Do you ever channel your inner Ghost Swayze and get all R-rated when you ceramic?
SG: Ha! I haven’t used a pottery wheel like Swayze did, but I definitely think what his ghost did was pretty cool. ESPN the Magazine superimposed by picture over his mine when they did a story. It was pretty cool. You’d have liked it.
DB: You’ve made references to “throwing it on the wheel.” Is there literal throwing involved?
SG: Yes! Yes, there is. When you first get on the wheel, you have to slow the [rotation of the] clay down in order to get it to stick on the wheel. And you want to throw it somewhat on the middle of the wheel so you can center the clay. It moves really fast, so if it’s not perfectly centered, it’ll just wobble around.
DB: Baseball question! So I’m trying to come up with a different way of asking you about hitting lefties. Is there something new that you can share about how your preparations are going towards improving that part of your game?
SG: I get what you’re asking. I try not to read what is written, but family members will text me or send me articles all of the time. I just tell ‘em, “Whatever.” But the fact is, I didn’t really face [many] lefties last year, and the ones I did were ones who were paid strictly to get me out. I would say, for a full season, I’ll be around what I normally. I’m a little better against righties because I’ve faced more righties. Like everyone does. My first year in the majors, I think I faced two left-handed starters. In 2013, I faced C.J. Wilson and another left-handed pitcher. By playing every day and seeing those kinds of more consistently, it will be better.
I’m not changing anything in my stance, but maybe in my approach. The big thing last year facing lefties was being overanxious. I was little too excited because I wanted to show ‘em that I can hit lefties — which they [the team] already knows, and I already know I can. It’s baseball, so you want to go out there and try to do your best. I feel like I maybe tried a little bit too hard. Tried to do too much in the 30-some at-bats I think had against left-handed pitchers last year. Over the course of a normal season, playing every day, I should be hitting around the same against left-handers and right-handers. My first year, at Wisconsin (in Class A), I hit better against left-handers than I did right-handers. And I’ve definitely made some adjustments that have made me a better hitter.
I can’t wait for the opportunity to play every day and… not really show people up, but not give them anything to talk about anymore.
DB: You probably saw, or people told you about, the comments that Ron Roenicke made at the winter meetings, saying you won’t be platooned. It sounds like you’re embracing the chance.
SG: Yes, and we’ve had our discussions. Ron’s very good at communicating, and he was clear about what to expect at the end of last season what he wants to see going into the next season. This is going to be the first year in four years that’s normal baseball for me.
SG: I’m incorporating more lefty preparation into my offseason work: My B.P. throwers, one of them will be lefty. One of my buddies throws yogurt-covered raisins to me left-handed and I hit them with a little stick. Stuff like that gets my eyes used to focusing on the left side. Other than that, we’ve got to wait until the start of the season.
A lot of guys do stuff like that. Khris Davis and I will get together and hit little beans. We cover up with sunglasses just in case — but the chances of getting hit are really low. But you never know. So we’ll wear glasses and sweatpants, because if you get hit in the legs, it might sting. Haha.
Khris actually does some of the most different things you’ll see. He carries around a tennis ball with him around the clubhouse and throw it at them to see if they’re ready for the game. And if they’re not, he lets ‘em know. Haha. There’s some weird stuff that guys do, but it’s all to get our minds off the actual game itself.
DB: Davis is impressive because nobody’s ever spelled Khris that way before.
SG: Haha. It’s definitely different. He’s different, so his name should be spelled differently.
DB: The story of how you gave yourself your nickname is amusing, but doesn’t that violate some kind of rule about how you can’t make up your own nickname?
SG: Yeahhhhh. No, I think it’s my nickname because that’s what people call me, but I normally introduce myself as Ryan. Scooter is almost like an alter ego, an alias for me. At first I used it because I thought I’d get in trouble if I answered to Ryan. But then it turned into, “Well, I can mess around if I’m Scooter, but then I can just be Ryan, the good guy. So now it’s Scooter when I’m on the baseball field, and Ryan when I’m paying my bills. It changes. It’s not really a nickname, so much as the other side of me.
DB: So when you sign a check or do something official, you’re Ryan?
SG: What’s funny is, sometimes I’ll put “Scooter” on my insurance. Sometimes I don’t remember that Ryan is my legal name. So I’ll have to go to the bank and prove to them somehow that it’s my real name. I’ll show ‘em my player’s card, and show ‘em my license, that I’m the same person. I’ve figured out now to put everything down as Ryan, so I don’t have to go through stuff like that.
DB: Isn’t it weird that you named yourself Scooter when you were 5 and now here you are, a major leaguer, where “Scooter” is an ideal nickname?
SG: It’s pretty ironic. I’ve met a couple of Scooters. It’s weird. And I’m like, “Your name is Scooter? That’s a strange thing to be called.” Who is named Scooter? So I know what people are thinking every time I introduce myself as Scooter. Meeting other Scooters changed my perspective on things. I tend to introduce myself as Ryan so I don’t get judged. It’s very complex. It’s something extra you’ve got to do that normal people don’t have to do.
DB: Do you ride Scooters?
SG: Ahhh, I have. This past year, the pitching staff all had one, pretty much all of them. Carlos Gomez had one. I’m talking like the big wheel. The big ones that go 30-40 (mph). I was going to get one, but I thought twice about it because that would be too much. “Oh, here comes Scooter on a scooter.” I didn’t want that attention. Maybe I’ll come riding in on a four-wheeler this year.
Dave Brown recently joined Fangraphs and CBS' Eye on Baseball after seven years writing for Big League Stew at Yahoo Sports. He lives in Kansas City with his wife and young daughter — who appears to be a left-hander. Follow him on Twitter @AnswerDave.