Mickey Cobb gripped the banister as he negotiated a few stairs inside his Lees Summit home. Sunlight streaming through the kitchens bay windows bounced off the diamond-encrusted 1985 World Series ring loose on his right ring finger.
By MARÁ ROSE WILLIAMS
The Kansas City Star
Its clear that every step the former Kansas City Royals trainer takes these days is a struggle.
Except when hes at home, Cobb, 71, typically uses two hiking sticks to keep his balance. But if he were to tumble, it wouldnt be the first time. Born in a three-room shack in rural Waycross, Ga., Cobb came into the world three months prematurely, with infantile paralysis polio, maybe even a touch of cerebral palsy. Hes never walked completely normally, and hes fallen too many times to count.
Hes good at falling, said Cheryl Cobb, his wife of 23 years.
But I always get back up, Cobb fired back. When I was a boy, a teen, a young man, I wouldnt let anyone help me up. But Im an old man now, and Ive learned to extend a hand, to take the help, including from old Royals he runs into from time to time.
I used to take care of them; now they take care of me.
Accepting help is a lesson he said it took him nearly a lifetime to learn. Along the way, he overcame a lot: not taking his first steps until he was 4; growing up in a prejudiced household deep in the segregated South; vying for acceptance from children who didnt have disabilities; and getting a chance to work as trainer for a major-league ball team.
I was hoping to be with the New York Yankees, though, Cobb said with a smile.
Cobb has told pieces of his story to family and friends over the years, but now hes put it all in a self-published book, A Step and a Half, that chronicles his life from birth through the 19 years 1971 to 1990 he spent as trainer for the Royals, including the teams glory days.
I want my children and my 13 grandchildren to know who I am, Cobb said. Oh, they know me as a father, a grandfather. But I want them to know the man and understand the family history.
Cobb said hes also hoping readers see triumph in the book not only that he rose above his physical challenges, but also above the cultural ignorance that surrounded him as he grew up.
Since leaving the Royals, Cobb and his wife have traveled the globe. For 18 months after leaving the Royals, he presented athletic training workshops around the world. When that was done, he traveled to immerse himself in different cultures. Perhaps, he said, it has something to do with him having to rail against the single-mindedness and segregationist attitudes taught to him as a child.
Even though I worked in professional baseball and it had men of color, it took a long time to understand and accept, Cobb said.
With the All-Star Game coming to Kansas City this summer, Cobb has been thinking a lot about some of his old buddies from the 1970s and 80s, when he was taping knees and ankles and recommending rehabilitation regimens for some of the Royals most famous players, including George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson guys who to this day consider Cobb a friend.
Off the field during games, Brett said, he would always find a seat on the bench next to Cobb. Brett didnt want to relive his at-bat.
He was just a good friend to talk to. He was a good relief for me, Brett said.
They spent a lot of time together. I had five knee injuries, torn ligaments a separated shoulder twice, Brett said. ... I entrusted my career to him.
White and Wilson attended Cobbs 70th birthday party last year. The next day Cobb went skydiving. He said hes pretty fit for an old guy. Hes on the treadmill in his weight room for two or three hours every day. It looks like a shrine to baseball. In one photo, Cobb stands beside a group of Georgia Southern University baseball players. He was in his 30s then.
Look at that foot, its flat on the ground and my back was straight up and down. I was in the best shape I had ever been in, Cobb said.
That image is in stark contrast to the posture he describes having as a child.
I walked with knees bent, hands flailing and my foot stabbing at the ground every step. I was different from everyone else crippled, as people said back then. But I never accepted that.
Cobb recalled that at 14 he was walking toward a storefront window one day and glimpsed his reflection.
It scared me, he said. I remember saying to myself, Who the heck is that? I looked over my shoulder and realized it was me. He thought, How am I ever going to be anything?
Cobb took on that challenge. He was used to doing for himself anyway. His mother never let anyone pamper him. By the time he was 16, he was doing everything other children did, including running.
One day, peering through a fence and watching the Atlanta Braves practice, he noticed a man with a black bag sitting with the players. He later found out that man was a trainer. Cobb decided that was the career for him.
But he would work a lot of odd jobs before getting the one he wanted. He was fired from the trucking company where he was responsible for handing out tools. I didnt know one tool from another, he said. Later he worked at a magazine company, typing mailing labels all day long. Banging typewriter keys for hours straightened his stiff, gnarled hands and made them extra strong. In fact, later as a trainer and massager of sore muscles, he was often told by players he had the strongest hands in the business.
Cobbs heart was set on becoming a major-league trainer. He remembers that someone in the baseball business told him hed never make it.
He said you cant be a trainer because you cant run to center field, Cobb recalled. I could run. And I could run to center field, just not as fast as the other guys. And by the time I got there, I knew exactly what I was gonna do.
Cobb started his climb to the major leagues by training student athletes, first at Georgia Southern University, his alma mater. He graduated with a bachelors degree in 1964. He also trained student athletes while he worked on a masters degree at Indiana University, then headed to work for DePaul University, where he became head trainer.
In 1971, Cobb went to the Royals, training rookies at the teams baseball academy in Sarasota, Fla. Thats where he met Willie Wilson, fresh out of high school.
He was easygoing, always happy, honest, and he always seemed to have the answers, said Wilson, who credits Cobb with saving his life. After a shot of penicillin for a cold, Wilson became sicker. Cobb was the one who figured out Wilson was allergic to the antibiotic, got him first to the hospital and then back on the field.
Mickey was a 24-hour trainer, Wilson said. He told us we could call him any time of the day or night. We did. Sometimes we would play practical jokes on him and call him at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m.
Wilson said players had a lot of respect for Cobb.
His physical challenges were never an issue for me and I dont think for any of the team. Just because someone didnt look like you doesnt mean they couldnt take care of you, Wilson said. Mickey never felt sorry for himself, and we never felt sorry for him, either. He took care of some very important people who had to be on that field. Mickey got them on the field.
Spread throughout his book are accounts of how he treated various players for muscle pulls, ligament tears, sprains, blisters and bloodied hands from batting without gloves. He gives two paragraphs to managing Bretts infamous World Series bout with hemorrhoids in 1980; it actually was an assistant who made the 2 a.m. visits to apply cold compresses to the affected area.
When Cobb left the Royals in 1990, newspaper accounts said he resigned. Cobb calls it fired. He was 48 and said he held a grudge for seven years. At the time, he said, the thought of no longer being a major-league trainer made him physically ill.
Its been 22 years now. When he talked about the end, the smile disappeared. Im not bitter, Cobb said. But I would have been happy if I had died in that training room.
White said Cobb gave so much of himself for such a long time, and he made it pretty simple. He was the last to leave the place every night.
Wilson and White said they thought there should be a spot in the Royals Hall of Fame for Cobb. His wife said she thinks it would really be an honor for him.
Getting to the World Series twice and winning once were good times, Wilson said, but hard work for everyone who was there. Cobb was there.
Hes the man that kept us players on the field, White said, and that kept the team in a position to win. If a radio broadcaster can be in the Hall of Fame, then why not our trainer?
Cobb shrugs off the idea. He said hes got enough trophies, rings, photos and memories.
My prized possessions from my years with major-league baseball are the people I got to know.
To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.