Meet Stan Van Baseball; Fan of the Marlins

BY: Josh Robbins, Sentinel Staff Writer

 

Orlando Sentinel (Florida)

 

Stan Van Gundy sat in front of a microphone for his postgame news conference after a recent Orlando Magic preseason exhibition. A reporter asked him for his thoughts.

“My thoughts are the Phillies’ bullpen is not real strong, and they need to hit some more home runs,” Van Gundy responded, a smile on his face.

Van Gundy’s joke revealed something about his off-court interests. He’s a baseball fan — a big fan — who relaxes by watching baseball when he’s not preparing the Magic for the upcoming season.

He undoubtedly will watch a bit of the World Series, which begins Wednesday — the same night his Magic open their regular season at Amway Arena.

That’s because baseball has linked four generations of Van Gundys — from Stan’s paternal grandfather, Johnie, to Stan’s teenage son, Michael.

“I loved it,” Stan says. “My dad was a basketball coach, and so I went to his games. But baseball was the sport I could enjoy with him, whereas with basketball, I wasn’t with him. It’s the same way with my son and me.”

Stan loves to talk about the sport. This past summer, when point guard Jameer Nelson took batting practice as a guest at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park and hit a home run over the left-field fence, Van Gundy heard about it. Nelson recalled that Van Gundy contacted him to see it had really happened.

Stan’s baseball career never amounted to much — “I couldn’t throw, run, hit or hit for power,” he says — but the memories have lasted a lifetime.

Bill and Cindy Van Gundy fueled that love for the game. They allowed Stan and his younger brother Jeff to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit train from their home in Contra Costa County to Oakland to watch the Oakland A’s teams that featured Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers. Bleacher seats out in left field cost no more than a dollar on some nights.

Jeff, who went on to coach the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets and now serves as an ESPN color commentator, rooted for the A’s.

“In my backyard, I was Bert Campaneris,” Jeff says.

Stan, meanwhile, might have been Willie McCovey in those backyard games. Stan preferred the San Francisco Giants over the A’s.

Both boys mainly played second base.

“They fielded well and played hard — just pretty much the story of their success with everything,” their dad says. “They were good Little league players and I’d say decent in Pony League. But they didn’t play after that.”

The family can trace its love for baseball back to Bill’s father, Johnie Van Gundy, who owned a service station in Southern California.

On Oct. 3, 1951, Johnie listened to the radio as his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers played the New York Giants in the decisive game of a three-game playoff for the National League pennant. It ended with one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history: The Giants’ Bobby Thompson hit a walkoff home run off of Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth.

Branca throws. . . . There’s a long drive. . . . It’s gonna be, I believe. . . . The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!

Those words from radio play-by-play man Russ Hodges stung.

Johnie put his head down on a workbench and cried.

Forty-two years later, Johnie’s family watched postseason baseball up close.

Stan had become a fan of the Florida Marlins, and he went with his family to the Marlins’ playoff games at Pro Player Stadium.

“There’s just something about baseball,” Cindy says. “You go to a baseball game and you have time to talk, whereas in basketball the action is so fast it doesn’t lend itself to conversion.”

The Marlins’ playoff run yielded Stan’s favorite baseball memory. Florida outfielder Jeff Conine ended the series by throwing out the Giants’ J.T. Snow on a play at home plate. Marlins catcher Ivan Rodriguez absorbed the collision with Snow and triumphantly held the ball up in his bare hand.

“That entire postseason was great,” Stan says. “I was there with my son and my father. So, it was sort of a generational thing.”

The Van Gundys still love to watch baseball in person.

Bill and Cindy occasionally attend games in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, a collegiate wood-bat league based in Greater Orlando.

This spring, they plan to go with Jeff to spring-training games in Arizona.

There’s just one problem: Stan will be busy coaching the Magic.

“The darn guy wins too much,” Jeff jokes. “He stays employed.”