If Mickey Cobb was ever self-conscious about his twisted legs, 30 years of locker room razzing has knocked it out of him.
"They kid me a little bit about the way I walk or the way I run," said Cobb, the slight, soft-spoken trainer of the Kansas City Royals. "But there's an old adage that if they don't speak to you, they probably don't like you."
He grins and settles back on the dugout bench. "They must love me."
Mickey Cobb is a paradox of professional sports. Born prematurely and not expected to survive a bout of polio as an infant, he was never strong enough to play competitive sports. But in the classical sense, Cobb, at 42, may be the best athlete in Kansas City--a man whose physical struggle has made his character strong.
"I've never had the experience of throwing or hitting or running the bases in front of 55,000 people in Memorial Stadium," said Cobb, looking out over the empty stands. "But I do know what it feels like to struggle physically.
"I don't think of myself as handicapped. There are things I can't do, things I probably wouldn't attempt. But my parents always insisted that I be treated just like everybody else, and that's how I feel."
On opening day in Baltimore last year, there was an unguarded burst of laughter when Cobb ran from the dugout to tend a shaken outfielder. Cobb may have made his peace with the world, but his players are still on guard: the gentlemanly George Brett, invisibly shortening his stride, ran in tandem with Cobb all the way back to the dugout.
"I'm not afraid," said Cobb, "of getting out on the field and running in front of 66,000 people in the playoffs, or running on TV."
Instead, he invests his pride in the players. When he describes the thrill of "seeing a player who's struggled with an injury rehabilitate himself," there's a glimpse of the small-town Georgia boy who couldn't walk until he was 4. And when he praises Hal MacRae, saying, "I can design a program, but the player has to do it," he is talking about a determination like his own.
But it's strength, not weakness, that Cobb understands. He quotes former Royal Darrell Porter, a recovered alcoholic/addict, as saying, "There's nothing better than being normal." Cobb agrees--but he isn't thinking about himself.
Cobb started as a student trainer in high school, and continued training through college (Georgia Southern) before taking his master's at Indiana University. He taught at DePauw before joining the Royals' organization in 1971, and worked his way up to the major leagues six years ago.
Cobb's humor is disarming, a little gentler than the usual "Ball Four" badinage. His locker-room nicknames, for example, include some that "probably can't be published," but he admits to "Egghead" and "Baldy."
"I don't mind going bald," he said in a typical aside. "I get more of a suntan."
More importantly, he said, "if they're getting on me they're not getting on each other."
Cobb uses the dugout as an observation deck, positioning himself according to the play. He moves toward the plate when the Royals bat, stands in the middle to watch the defense. He watches Brett run the base paths, and keeps an eye on Willie Wilson on the long flies ("he plays with such intensity, he may go into the wall").
This constant surveillance is his substitute for speed. "I'm not as fast as other trainers, but I know what I'm going to do when I get there."
Training techniques are always changing. Even in winter, Cobb goes to Royal Stadium three days a week to pick up the mail, keep track of clinics and the like. He enjoys lecturing, and is updating his 1974 book, "Baseball Injuries and Training Tips."
He's begun another book--"It's taking me an awful long time"--about himself and about how handicaps tend to be in the eye of the beholder. "Even my children, who think they know me, might find out a little more about me as a person.
"I would not want to be different, physically or mentally," Cobb said. "I've had a great life . . . one divisional championship, one World Series and one All-Star Game. But I'd trade it all for a healthy season."
And, as usual, he isn't thinking about himself.