The Remarkable Life and Times of Dr. Tom House – Sports Illustrated

Posted: September 9, 2020 at 10:53 am


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The Tom House story could just as easily be titled the Mad Scientist and a Series of Most Fortunate Events.

But is it at all fortunate if every last success is warranted? Is there anything at all mad about employing science and psychology to the brute practice of throwing an object?

I always thought I was going to be a big-league pitcher. I mean, I didn't ever think about anything else, Dr. Tom House tells me over Zoom call. He wears a ball cap and glasses, the epitome of a scholarly ballplayer who made it his passion to study every nuance of the game.

And he made good on that dream; he also managed to fit in an extra dream or two along the way, becoming a pitching coach for the Texas Rangers, helping out the likes of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan. He also transitioned rather nicely into something of a quarterback guru. Two of his more noteworthy students you may have heard of, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

The man who never stops teaching, never stops caring about moving sports forward, is launching yet another endeavor.

At 73-years-old, he is still holding class and doing so with modern vigor. Last week, Mustard began welcoming interested parties. You can now sign up and test out a new app that finally makes world-class analysis accessible to the masses.

In a sense, its kind of like your very own Dr. House on the go, offering digital analytics and tools to help those athletes be the best they can be.

Throwing a ball is remarkably simple but profoundly difficult to master.

If your career depends on such things as velocity, trajectory and accuracy you go see a man who knows about such things.

Dr. House is the guy you shut up and listen to. Whether its on the field, glove in hand, neck crooked to the side as you stare at him holding class. Or whether its on a Zoom call as he goes on about a life unusual, a life filled with what certainly seems like happenstance.

Dig deeper and it all makes sense why he was there to catch Hank Aarons historic home run while waiting out in the bullpen. Its obvious why his coaching would resonate so well with someone like Nolan Ryan. Its clear how a small adjustment from House would benefit the already stellar Randy Johnson.

And I am quite convinced that there is nothing coincidental or mystic about the fact that he guided two of the best arms in the NFL in Brees and Brady.

One chapter after another unfolds and you are left bewildered. He jokingly refers to himself as the Forrest Gump of sports, finding himself at the right place at the right time. The preposterous notion is funny but not the entire picture.

House was born in Seattle in 1947, but his family moved to La Puente in 1960. He was dropped into a Southern California area that was still evolving from a sprawling patchwork of groves and possibility, to an industrial gateway to Los Angeles.

As he tells it, there was just one thing the kids did in his neighborhood, and that was play baseball. Not that his parents were all that enamored with sports.

My mom was a no way, no play, parent. If we didn't get As in the classroom, we couldn't play sports, House recalled. She knew that playing sports was fun; getting a degree, getting a good education was a lifetime thing.

He quickly discovered that being a left-handed pitcher with a curve was a useful commodity at the ballpark. The only thing valued at home, however, were grades.

Id come home and say, Hey, dad, I threw a no-hitter today, he recalled. He'd go, That's great. Whats a no-hitter? My dad was kind of a nerd and my mom would say, That's wonderful. Did you get an A in English?

Dedication and a strong work ethic were cultivated at home while House worked on his pitching when he wasnt earning money the, well, rewarding way.

I grew up just south of Alta Dena Dairy, House said. In fact, my brother and I used to go shovel shit out of the stalls before we went to school. It was like $3 a stall and you would just take a quick shower and go to school; it was pretty cool.

House is quick to dispel the notion that he is somehow special in this regard. To him, taking pride in your work is a generational thing, something people his age dont just take satisfaction in but take as a given. You put your head down, work and worry about accomplishment over accolades.

Eventually the legendary USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux came calling, explaining to House that he may not necessarily have baseball in his future but a degree from the prestigious university meant that he would, always have a job somewhere.

So, becoming a Trojan was a no brainer, and it was as eye-opening an experience as it was humbling. One of his first forays on the bump, a bullpen session with Dedeaux nearby, House met someone who would go on to light up the Majors in the years that followed.

While House tossed a bullpen, he heard the sonic boom of a baseball hitting a catchers glove from the rubber next to him.

His skipper went over to House, placed a hand on his shoulder and inquired, Tommy House, what do you think of young Tom Seaver?

Obviously, young Tommy had a question himself. Was Dedeaux hoping his lefty with a looping curve would suddenly catch lighting and become a fastball specialist like his USC counterpart.

Dedeaux shot back, I don't want you to be Tom Seaver, I want you to be Tommy House. Hes gonna be after the bat and you're going to be before the bat, and you're both going to win thirty games for me.

Seaver would go on to garner a 35-3 record; House would collect 33 wins and five losses for the Trojans

Eventually, it was time for House to take his talents to the next level. But before he put pen to paper, his USC skipper had one more stroke of genius for House. Dedeaux allowed me to sign if I would ask for my education through my Ph.D. program, House said.

And in those days, they gave college scholarships away as part of signing bonus because nobody ever went back to school.

The move set House up for life. He probably figured I'd never play in the big leagues, but if I could get my education paid for through my Ph.D. program, I might turn out fine, he said.

The deal was lucrative, I got more of a signing bonus than Tom Seaver did because the Braves were still paying for my education when I was forty-four years old.

It was a decision that helped House eventually garner not just Bachelor of Science in marketing and Master of Business Administration degrees, but House would move on and collect a Ph.D. in sports psychology once his playing days were over.

Life in the minors is never glamorous, but Houses first foray in Triple-A was particularly humbling. He recalls actually thinking he was getting the ax when manager Clyde King strode over to him and asked to speak to him. Thats normally the kiss of death delivered with a cordial gesture.

Instead, the insightful King relayed a thought he had on Houses strengths.

The lefty was great the first time through a lineup, battered around the second time through and, well, its best not to discuss what happened if he ever saw the lineup a third time.

King saw a perfect pitcher to come out of the bullpen, using him more often in shorter stints.

I was in the big leagues the next year, House recalled.

Something became quite apparent to him at a young age. Embracing a mentors wisdom is the secret to success.

Wherever I went, someone put their hand on my shoulder and told me what I needed to do to get to get by, House explained. And so where people will say, oh, you know, you've had this, that, whatever, I've always had someone mentor me at the right time at the right place for the right reason.

Theres a picture hanging on Dusty Bakers wall. Its a moment in time, when Black and White players didnt often interact with one another. Let alone in southern cities like Atlanta.

Yet, theres the picture, Baker, Ralph Garr, Hank Aaron, Maximino Len cutting it up with Satchel Paige in the dugout. And there in the picture, hanging out with his baseball buddies, is Tom House.

House was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1967, entering professional baseball alongside Baker and Garr.

Sidebar:

Ask House to tell you a story and hes going to shoehorn in what he calls a sidebar. The term connotes a superfluous anecdote but it's so often the heart of a story that would otherwise go missing.

I liked the idea so much Im going to employ it here.

You see, Toms mother was an orphan from Marathon, Iowa. Its perhaps that reason Houses parents didnt hesitate to welcome in a boy by the name of Richard Rice when he himself found himself without a home or family.

Being an African-American during a time when racism was painfully overt, Rice experienced society's ills while shopping for shoes.

Toms mother reprimanded a store manager when one of his workers would not size Rices feet for shoes although he gladly sized House and his brother.

House remembers his mother saying to the manager, I expect my whole family to be treated the same.

And growing up in La Puente, attending Nogales High School, House was surrounded by a predominantly Mexican-American student body.

I never really understood the color issue, House said. It just didn't make much sense to me.

It never entered House's mind to ever treat anyone differently. He would quickly become pals with Garr and Baker.

Baker tells me that House was one of the rare White ballplayers to hang with his Black teammates: Back then with the Braves in the south, you didnt do that.

Baker remembers their chats, which were immersive and covered a wide range of topics including race.

Housey and I, you know, we hit it off, Baker recalled. We had some pretty heavy conversations.

Its quite possible that his friendships help cultivate another relationship with a man renowned for his prolific power.

I'm guessing in retrospect that one of the reasons that Henry probably was comfortable with me is that Dusty and Ralph were his go-to guys in that clubhouse, House said.

But dont think for a moment that any of this was a conscious effort, because House was just being a decent human, a profundity of the time.

I remember I was absolutely clueless; I was just happy to be alive, happy to be playing baseball, House explained. Obviously, getting to the big leagues was a dream come true. And the fact that Dusty and Ralph, who were, you know, they were stars, didn't treat me any different.

Now for someone who spent his entire life throwing the ball, House sure did become famous for catching one.

April 8, 1974: Hank Aaron surpasses the great Babe Ruth with his 715th home run, a shot that landed in left-center, right into the outstretched glove of Tom House.

On the mound was Al Downing, a pitching facsimile to House, a left-hander with a good fastball, a curve and a changeup he would throw off his fastball.

There are so many stories about the harrowing journey Aaron embarked upon as he chased the Babe, and the iconic moment is filled with so much heart and pageantry with Aarons mother embracing him at home plate and the great Vin Scully calling that particular game.

But there is a story just to the periphery that signals the kind of teammate House was. The lefty spent eight years in the Braves organization, five with the big-league club from 1971-1975.

As House puts it, that home run was the apex of his eventual eight-year career.

The good news is that's probably the highlight of my major league career. The bad news is that's the highlight of my major league career, House recalled with a smile.

Images and the video of the game show Aarons historic home run trot, fans coming to offer in-person accolades and a triumphant legend reaching home. But look closely and you see House catch the ball and eventually meet Aaron at home, joyously giving him the ball.

Getting to that point, however, took a lot of practice.

Henry had trouble with left-handed pitchers who could throw a change that went away kind of like a screwball, he explained. So, two to three times a week and every spring training for the eight years I was with Henry we go out to diamond six and I would throw him a bucket of changeups and mix in an occasional fastball.

That relationship not only helped Aaron polish his game, it gave House the perfect vantage to pick off that home run.

You see, prior to the game, Braves pitchers essentially chose where they would stand when Hank came to bat, claiming their ground for what would be a fortuitous catch. House knew exactly where that ball was going. His friendship and hours of lending a literal left hand paid off.

If I would have stood still without a glove, it would have hit me in the forehead, House said of that home run ball.

As for Aaron, he wasnt just good with the bat: He had an eidetic memory where he could remember what a pitcher did to him seven years ago in that situation.

When his throwing career was finished, House polished the next chapter of his profession. He broke in under Roger Craig at the San Diego School of Baseball, became a minor-league pitching coach with the Houston Astros, spent time with the San Diego Padres and eventually found his way to the Texas Rangers.

Its there that he had an impact not just on a Rangers star in Nolan Ryan but another pitcher who wasnt even on the team.

Back in 1992, Randy Johnson was with the Seattle Mariners, he had made the All-Star team in 1990, and had amassed 707 strikeouts through four previous seasons. In 92, he would go on to garner 241 punchouts. But he also had a propensity to walk batters. The 90-92 seasons accounted for the three highest totals of walks in his career.

One day in Seattle, Ryan and House are in the dugout, watching a frazzled Johnson throw a bullpen.

House recalls him asking Johnson how he was doing, to which he remembered the then 28-year-old saying, Tom, I'm doing horse shit if I cant start throwing strikes they're going to send me out.

When youre as gifted and polished as Johnson was at that point in his career, sometimes it takes but a minor adjustment to bring everything back into alignment and harness more consistency.

Johnson remembers that at that time, with the Mariners and Rangers playing so often, Ryan and House were familiar with his delivery.

They just kind of saw some mechanical flaws, if you will, Johnson said. They basically asked if I was interested in watching Nolan Ryan throw the next day, and I said, sure. So, they pointed out what he was doing and what I wasn't doing. And in essence, then, I needed to try to start working on that with the understanding that that could help me a little bit more than where I was at the time.

It may have been easier to listen to another coach when the man giving a recommendation is one of the best to ever play the game.

Randy asked me what was going on with him and his career at the time, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan explained. I shared my opinion with him and thought it would benefit him and his career to talk with Tom House.

House, the Rangers pitching coach at the time, took a look at this Mariners star pitcher, prepared to make an already great fireball pitcher that much better.

He showed up the next day we're talking and we made one small suggestion to him, House recalled. He was a heel strike and spin guy, so all we did was say, you know, do everything you're doing the way you're doing it except land on the ball of your foot.

Johnson was already a formidable pitcher. But he does admit that there were the occasional issues with consistency.

I would have highlights of striking out fifteen in the minor leagues or, you know, even in the major leagues early in my career, he said. But then there could be the next start where I didn't appear to be the same person.

Johnson went from issuing 144 walks in 1992 to 99 free passes the next season. He would not allow more than 86 in any season the rest of his career.

It was just simply how I was landing on my feet, how my feet would work in my balance of landing a certain way, Johnson said. It was a small fix, but a big improvement.

The mad scientist doesnt bother with the opinions of others. The thing that has made House such a staple across myriad rotational sports is his dedication to his craft. The science leads the charge, and people can either follow or be left behind.

Getting pitchers to buy into tossing the football around seemed silly at the time, but it became more ingrained into the sport as time went on.

He was one of the first guys to throw a football, so I threw the football in the offseason, Baker said.

As time went on, House became something of a household name in athletic circles. And his coaching caught the attention of Cam Cameron who was the offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers from 2002-2006. That happens to coincide with Drew Brees tenure as the teams quarterback from 2001-2005.

Cameron had heard about House and realized he was nearby coaching in the San Diego area, so he reached out and asked to come by and see him coach pitchers.

House accommodated, not realizing his life would take another turn all thanks to again saying yes to the opportunity.

Cameron was blown away and realized he found the extra tutelage he had hoped to garner for his budding young quarterback.

He asked if House might want to come by and chat with Brees, himself and then quarterback coach Brian Schottenheimer.

Cameron remembers at that meeting House telling Brees, Now, Drew, you know, I know nothing about football. But I tell you what, youll be my guinea pig and I won't charge you a dime.

The relationship flourished even during one of the most harrowing moments of Brees career. On Dec. 31, 2005, Brees suffered a dislocated shoulder, putting his entire career into doubt.

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The Remarkable Life and Times of Dr. Tom House - Sports Illustrated

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September 9th, 2020 at 10:53 am

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