Baseball Men - The Baseball Wife

Our "Baseball Men" series continues with Sharon Hargrove, spouse of Seattle Mariners manager Mike Hargrove.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans'.

It's often said that baseball teams are like families, and there's some truth in cliché. After all, ball players travel, eat, eat, work, and live alongside their teammates on a daily basis for eight months out of the year, sharing the same experiences, goals, and fates all the while. Through the sheer quantity and quality of time involved, they can form bonds that go far beyond the run-of-the-mill in both the professional and personal.

It's no surprise that ball clubs can seem like families, but they aren't. As cordial and close as ball players might be, their real families are, well, their families. Away from their very lucrative and public careers, players have to go home to find the wives and children and extended kin who provide the most lasting, dear connections in their lives. As much as ball players might enjoy their jobs, they leave ball parks to find their true loves.

Families are baseball's real home teams, and Sharon Hargrove may be one of the leading experts on their dynamics. After she married her high school sweetheart, Mike Hargrove, in 1970, she soon embarked on a decades-long tour throughout the National Pastime, transitioning as her spouse went from Minor League prospect to Major League All Star and, finally, respected big league manager, first for the Cleveland Indians, then with the Baltimore Orioles and, most recently, with the Seattle Mariners. From 1972 to the present day, she's lived through dozens of relocations, hundreds of road trips, and the thousands of up-and-down's involved in an inherently unpredictable, demanding lifestyle.

Over the years Sharon Hargrove's counseled her fellow Pastime spouses, given speeches, authored newspaper columns, hosted a radio show, and written the well-received ‘Safe at Home' autobiography. Recently, she discussed the ways baseball life intersected with one marriage's real life:

I understand that you weren't much of a baseball fan while growing up in your rural home town.

Well, in Perryville, Texas, there wasn't any baseball to be a fan of! Those were days, in the 1950's and 1960's, before the Royals and the Rangers came to Kansas City and Arlington. At best, we might get a late-night radio signal for the Cardinals. Our high school didn't have a baseball team, even, so I wasn't exposed to the game. I didn't like baseball, no, mostly because I didn't understand it.

When did that begin to change?

Oh, you might know - I married this great athlete who played college ball and semi-pro ball! I'd go to the games but didn't know what was going on, really, so to keep me interested, more than anything, Mike got me a scorebook and taught me to keep score. That's when I learned the rules and started getting into it.

I had my own scoring rules, anyway. One time, Mike took a look at the scorecard and saw ‘BT'. He said, ‘that wasn't a bunt play'. I said, ‘I know. That stands for ‘Busy Talkin''! We still have fun, going over those old scorebooks, sometimes.

That was relatively fortunate for you, I suppose. I've heard of wives who never do pick up on baseball's appeal, no matter how hard they try.

I've come across that, too. The wives might be sitting together and someone might say, ‘this is slow, this is boring'. You know how I try to bring them into it? I'd say something like, ‘see that shortstop? His wife had a baby the other day and he flew in from the coast overnight'. Very often, women can get them interested in the human side of the players' lives.

When you were starting out, did you have any inkling about your husband's seeking a future in baseball?

No, not at all. We'd known each other since middle school in Perryton, long before that came into the picture. I knew that Mike was pretty good at baseball, but that was about it. I was kind of surprised and thrilled that he got drafted in the first place, to be honest.

I guess my question is - did you have any idea of the hardships involved in going through Minor Leagues, for instance?

Not at all. We were so young. Really, all I knew that Mike was a good man and that he loved baseball.

We knew the money was nothing - something like $500 a month - but it's not like we ever had much money to start with. Back then, we didn't have any kids or, really, established ties to anything outside Perryton. I guess we thought, ‘what the heck. It'll be exciting. It'll be an adventure'. I remember that during our first trip, to get to the Minors, we went through St. Louis and ended up going to the game that night. This was 1972. I can still see Mike sitting there, all dreamy-eyed, looking onto the field. I said, ‘what are you thinking?' He said, ‘Sharon, I'm thinking - if it takes ten years to make it to the big leagues, it'd still be worth it'.


That was something.

Were you optimistic about your husband actually living that dream, making it all the way to the Majors?

Today, I know that the vast majority of drafted players never play one day in the Majors. I didn't back then. Maybe, knowing what I know now, it wouldn't have been very easy to take an optimistic view. Maybe I would have said, ‘this is silly. We have our teaching degrees, let's settle down and lead a normal life'.

We were very, very lucky - Mike made it up after a couple seasons and never went back down as a player. We never had to deal with the Minors for years and years, or go through that yo-yo, where players go up and down from the Majors to triple-A. Honestly, I don't know what would have happened if we had to struggle through all that.

What was it like for you in starting off as a young wife in the Minors?

Oh, it was a whole new world. In [Single-A Ball at] upstate New York, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in this lady's house. She was divorced and needed some income. We paid, I think, $15 a week for a place in her attic. We had a sink and a TV and one chair. Somehow, she'd rigged this little shower. I helped her clean and fixed her supper, to work off some of the rent.

We didn't have money. We could only call home once a week, for instance, and this was a time when my grandmother was going through open-heart surgery.

There were a whole lot of adjustments. Just shopping for groceries was an adjustment. When I was growing up in Perryton, I could go into the general store and charge anything I wanted to G.K., my dad. In Geneva, though, they suddenly started asking me for something called a ‘check cashing card'. The first time I went to the store, they wouldn't let me buy groceries, and I went to the ball park, bawling, [teary voice], ‘Mike, they wouldn't let me buy groceries, wah wah wah'.

At the same time, I can't say that it was all bad. We'd never been anywhere outside Texas, and we saw a whole new part of the country in upstate New York. It was so beautiful. We'd travel up to Watkins Glen and we'd have picnics on the few days off that we had. I try to be a people person, and did meet all kinds of people in and around the ball park.

I guess most newlyweds or young couples can remember a time when they didn't have much, but they had each other. Even when the money was tight or whatever, we were still happy.

How did you deal with the unhappy occasions when you saw your husband booed on the field?

Oh, I had to learn to be a fan. I remember one time, a fan yelled, ‘Hargrove, get a lunch pail and go to work like the rest of us!' I just yelled back at him, ‘ddeh ddeh ddeh da [gibberish]!', and after the game, Mike said, ‘Sharon, was that you yelling back at the fan?'. I said, ‘Yeah', and he said, ‘You can't do that. Don't let people know who you are'.

After that, I could hear the booing and the talk, but I kept [my anger] in. Mike was right. It just didn't do any good to talk back.

When Mr. Hargrove made it up to the Majors in 1974, he had a Rookie of the Year season. What was it like for you to deal with success?

You know, that wasn't too easy. At least, not at first.

I didn't know any of the wives. I didn't know any of the neighbors. Since I didn't know how to get anywhere but the ball park and church, I just stayed back at the apartment. I didn't want to be independent, but I didn't want to get started, either. I felt like I was stuck. Mike was successful, but the life was nothing like I imagined. I had to work to overcome it, to make it work.

How did you make it work in, for instance, having your husband on the road for weeks on end?

When he started traveling I was, first of all, jealous that he got to travel to all these Major League towns I never got to see. It was just another adjustment.

Mike and I just did our best to communicate while he was on the road. We, probably, talked as much as when he was at home. I'd take a note if someone called from our home town, then I'd share it with him that night. After I got pregnant, I'd take notes on the kids and what they were doing. I didn't want him to feel like he'd missed out on those things. I'd never say, ‘Well, well, it was a fine day. Nothing much happened. Blah.'

Even now, I find myself doing the same thing. We have three married daughters, a grown son, and a daughter in high school, and four grandkids, too, so when I'm not with my husband, I try to be his CNN outlet for the Hargrove family's news. Hopefully, even when he's not around, he can still feel he's a part of it, because, obviously, he is.

Outside of your marriage, what did you see in other ball players' marriages? How did couples find a way to stay close despite the stress and loneliness involved?

In Mike's first year with the Rangers, they had a lot of solid veterans - Jim Fregosi, Jim Spencer, Gaylord Perry. I observed, right away, that the ones who seemed to be happy and successful were family men. Maybe that was just what I wanted to see, I don't know. I still feel that way - good players tend to have good families and friends.

As for making it work, everyone has a different story. Flexibility is so important, I've noticed. I'd emphasize that, more than anything. It's the ability to adjust from home stands to road trips. To adjust from one town to the next, due to a sudden trade or a promotion or a demotion or a signing. To adjust from good times to slumps.

So many times, the adjustment can be tough for the fact that a wife can be so invested in her spouse's career. Did you try to keep immersed in the game, or did you get away from it?

I always loved talking baseball with my husband, but we had an unspoken rule - we can talk about it up until the time we pulled into the driveway. Once we were in the house, we were an at-home family. It wasn't the Rangers or Indians or Mariners, it was just us.

The blessing in my marriage, I can tell you, is that Mike's never allowed the game to define his life off the field. I could walk into his office after a game and, if I didn't know the score beforehand, I couldn't tell if the team won or lost by his demeanor.

We never went to miserable to ecstatic based on outside things. The only semi-exception was in Cleveland, just before Mike was fired [as manager in 1999]. That was a tough, tough time, when I had a bad feeling about the situation, and it tore me up, because I knew he was working just as hard as he was when the team was winning pennants [in 1995 and 1997]. That was a time when we sort of stopped talking baseball for a while. It was hard to have fun and communicate. By then, we'd been in the Indians organization for 20 years.

I suppose there's no great surprise that many married ball players have been philanderers, especially during road trips. Have you ever had experience with that side of the game and, if so, how did you handle it?

Oh, in one of our first few years in the big leagues, I joined Mike during a road trip. To Seattle, of all places. We made plans to go out and eat dinner with another couple and when we got to the restaurant, they told us there'd be a little wait, so we should go to the bar in the meantime. Janet and I turned to go for a drink, but both Jim and Mike grabbed our arms as fast as can be. They said, ‘just a minute, we need to go in first, just to make sure no one's in there'.

I said, ‘you gotta be kidding me!'. Janet and I were standing there, looking at each other, kind of like, ‘what are they talking about?' We just wanted to sit down and wait for our table.

Finally, Mike came back, kind of shrugged, and said, ‘well, there's a married player in there with someone else'. I said, ‘hey, that's his problem, not mine!'. So we went on in and dang it if they didn't seat us at the bar right next to the player and his um, whatever.

Was it awkward?

He couldn't have cared less, to look at him. We just nodded in his direction and sat there, quiet as church mice, as we waited for our table.

Anyway, when we got back to the hotel room, I said, ‘Mike, you know what? I don't want that [kind of situation] to interfere with our lives'. I mean, we weren't doing anything wrong - why should we have been embarrassed? We never wanted that to affect us one way or the other.

Would you ever tell a player's wife about something like that?

Well, I'm not the kind to go ratting on anyone, but if it was the husband of one of my best friends, I suppose I may have told [my friend]. Thankfully, I've never been in that situation.

How do you feel about ‘Baseball Annies'/groupies?

I feel sorry for them on some level. They're out there beyond the gates or the lobbies, by themselves. When they're asking players to sign on their shirt or doing their little thing, that's not really a good, secure way to be, is it?

I suppose the only thing you can do is - take care of your own relationship, your own family. If things are alright in a marriage, nothing else should matter. My mom's best advice was, ‘don't blame Mike for the attention. They groupies can eat their hearts out, because he's yours'. I think that's the right mindset.

Do you feel that some baseball wives are tempted to compete with their husbands' fame, whether through modeling or careers in the media?

We've all heard about some of those. Back in the 1970's, I remember Cyndi Garvey getting on TV all the time.

I just try to joke about it. Maybe it's my hometown upbringing, maybe it's because I'm 55 years old now, but I just see it as funny. My favorite part of a baseball is meeting the people, sitting on the stands, eating some peanuts, doing the wave, cheering like an idiot. It's corny, but hey.

People are different, though. I don't have a thing in the world against someone who wants to go with the fancy clothes and fancy purses. Personally, I'd rather do something else.

Has your family been treated differently for the fact you've always had a famous name in the community?

Well, I didn't worry about it too much. I'd like to think it hasn't affected me too much, but that wasn't necessarily the case with the kids. For instance, when they went to high school, most teachers would introduce them by saying ‘well this is so-and-so, his dad's a player with the Indians'. Even if they didn't get introduced that way, it would be a part of their lives because people would find out.

It's not a normal situation, in everything from ‘oh, can I be friends with you?' to ‘oh, I bet you think you're hot stuff'. From the positive to the negative. I didn't like it, but I just tried to keep an eye on it, told the kids to be themselves, and hoped the right friends ended up in their lives.

It's unlike anything else, I'd imagine. Your husband's name is in the newspaper on almost a daily basis, complete with exhaustive statistics and constant commentaries on his every move on the job.

(chuckles) It is kinda strange, isn't it? I don't wake up in the morning and see a box score saying, ‘Sharon went 5-for-5 because all five loads of laundry got done in the afternoon. Yeah, yeah, Sharon'. I mean, no one's applauding or booing ordinary life, but for a ball player, everyone's applauding and booing, every day.

The crazy part was when the salary information started coming out. Did you know how much money your parents made when you were growing up?

No. I really didn't want to know, either.

I didn't know what my dad made, either. It's private, but in baseball . . . I remember one time, right before Opening Day, the newspaper printed the salaries for all the Indian players. My little daughter said, ‘dad makes $400,000!', and I said ‘no, no. The paper makes mistakes all the time'. I just think that was wrong.

You can get the feeling that the public owns part of their lives.

I thank God that my kids have turned out to be relatively happy, well-adjusted people, but there is a balancing there. Along with the rewards and the attention, you have to realize that you may not have the privacy that you'd want in a perfect world.

What do you remember about your son's experience in coming up as a youth baseball player?

I can remember from when Andy was in t-ball, the crowd would get more excited during his at-bats, because they knew he was Mike's son. Again, in those situations, I tried to stay down to earth, to realize that we were no better or worse than anyone else just because Mike had a job in baseball. I put it this way, ‘it's our livelihood, not our life'.

What was it like, on the family level, to make the transitions from Cleveland to Baltimore and, now, Seattle?

It was tough, especially in Cleveland, because, as I said, that had been our home for 20 years. We still have family ties to that city, and it's a wonderful place. But, looking back, it was time to move on. It was OK. I always go back to my belief that everything happens for a reason, you're always where you're supposed to be.

On the family level, I'd just emphasize that every place has been special to us. Baseball's a very personal and everyday thing. It's the people - the ushers, the babysitters, the neighbors. All those personal relationships were there regardless of how things go up and down in the standings. When we returned to Texas or Cleveland, for instance, we'd never say, ‘well, you're the bad guys now', and I hope no one who knows us would ever say that, either.

The money's been good but I do believe the biggest blessing in our years in baseball has been the people. You know, I'd put baseball people up there with the very best of them.

After more than 30 years in the game, are you more of a fan, less of a fan, or about the same?

Oh, much more of a fan. Much more of a fan. It's a wonderful feeling to raise your family in baseball, knowing that some of your best memories and relationships are tied to the memories and relationships of so many others. I love the game.

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