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Sports Corner

Catching up with Joan Ryan

Remember seeing Joan Ryan’s byline in the Chronicle almost every day? She covered Olympics, World Series, Super Bowls, as well as local-interest stories for the Metro section. She is widely regarded as a pioneer female sports journalist. She won bucketfuls of awards.

But the course of her life sharply changed in 2008 when her son was in a skateboard accident so serious he almost died. She decided that the peripatetic life of a sportswriter was less important than staying home with her son and husband (sports broadcaster Barry Tompkins).

Ryan’s book about her relationship with her son, The Water Giver, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2009. The book earned high praise, as did her first book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, which was published by Doubleday in 1995. Sports Illustrated named Little Girls in Pretty Boxes one of the top 100 sports books of all time.

In 2009, Ryan approached Giants executive Larry Baer about being a media consultant. “We discussed the shrinking traditional media, and that in-club outreach would be crucial in the future,” Ryan explains. Baer was sold on the idea. “The job is to help players tell their life stories, and make it easier for journalists to latch on to interesting aspects of the players’ lives.” She also helps the players with media training — making them more comfortable in front of journalists and cameras.

She continues to write blogs for the Two Brandons (Belt and Crawford), and for Gregor Blanco. But her first blog was working with Bengie Molina, the beloved, solid, slow-footed catcher who helped solidify the Giants pitching staff into champions. Molina was with the Giants from 2007 to July 2010, when he was traded to Texas to make way for Buster Posey.

Ryan formed a friendship with Bengie Molina that survived the trade, and the two have been working on a book together. The as-yet-untitled book is about Bengie and his two Major League brothers, Yadier and José. And it is also about their father, Bengie, Sr. In this age when vast quantities of athletes are tracked before they are in puberty, the Molina story is less about talent and more about perseverance.

Ryan says about Bengie, Jr., “I love that he’s all about team. All about making those around him better. It’s no coincidence that the three brothers are catchers. On their teams they’re like the dads on the family.”

Ryan notes that during the baseball season, Bengie’s left hand (the one in the mitt) was usually swollen twice as large as his right hand. “The left hand looked like a piece of meat. The tips of his fingers were black, blue, and red.”

Bengie was an undersized and slow outfielder, infielder, and pitcher. After junior college in Arizona, he went undrafted, and returned to Bayamon, Puerto Rico to play in amateur leagues and work in a factory making electric sockets.

As Ryan recounts, one day Bengie’d had enough. He announced his retirement by tying the shoelaces of his baseball spikes together and tossing them over a 25′ telephone wire: inaccessible, and forever. That afternoon, his brother José pounded on his door and said, “You have a tryout with the Angels!” The scout was there to see José, but the boys’ mother, Gladys, had waved a newspaper article about Bengie’s Puerto Rican league exploits in the face of the Angels scout and convinced the scout to give Bengie a look. Bengie was fed up, but his mother convinced him to go. And his baseball spikes were up on the phone wire.

Using borrowed spikes that were too large for him, Bengie pitched and played the outfield. Like all the other scouts before him, the Angels scout was not impressed enough. He asked Bengie to go behind the plate and make some throws to second base. The scout’s eyes lit up. The Angels signed Bengie, who was 19 at the time, which was a bit on the old side for a Puerto Rican prospect.

After eight years of minor league ball, in 2000, Bengie became the full-time catcher for the Angels. He won a World Series ring with the Halos in 2002. (A digression: All Giants fans now turn to your dartboard and bombard your ragged, faded, mangled printout of Dusty Baker giddily removing a dominant Russ Ortiz in the 7th inning of Game 6 with the score 5-0 Giants. Now back to our column.).

In the last decade, the three Molina brothers have revolutionized and exemplified the position of catcher. On baseball and softball pickup fields across the world, players deciding positions for the day do no ask, “Who’s going to be the catcher?” but rather, “Who’s going to be the Molina?”

These days, Bengie is a coach with the Cardinals, the same team that employs Yadier. Bengie is certain that he wouldn’t have made the majors without the intense encouragement of his father. Bengie, Sr., was a second baseman and is in the Puerto Rican Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame. He coached thousands of kids in little league. He was an untiring champion of his boys.

Bengie, Sr., died in 2008 at age 58 while coaching a little league game. He had spread his love of baseball to so many kids over the years that more than 1,000 people attended his funeral. Much of the heart of the Molina-Ryan book is about the boys’ relationship with their father, and how, at the height of their careers, his death affected them.

After the Molina book, Ryan is in the planning stages on a book an elusive subject: team chemistry. As we go through the teen years of the 21st century, we might lack Joan Ryan’s writing popping onto our Chronicle every morning. The tradeoff is that she is writing profound books. We have less quantity, but a deep quality that is rare in sports.

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Steve Hermanos is the author of Orange Waves of Giants! The 2012 Championship Season. E-mail: steve@marinatimes.com