HEY?! HEY?! HEY?! HEY?! HEY?! WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!
OK … that was too easy.
How do you write about Dennis Haskins – who you and I both know as Mr. Belding – and not go straight to his catchphrase?
Well, here’s the story behind the story.
Last year, I began writing for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Alumni Affairs department. On my first-ever trip to Chattanooga, I was invited to a ceremony honoring Haskins, a UTC alum, who was making a sizeable contribution to the university’s library – his scripts from the “Saved By The Bell” series.
Haskins played Mr. Belding, the principal on “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” “Saved By The Bell,” and “Saved By The Bell: The New Class” from 1987-2000 – a run of nearly 250 episodes.
After the ceremony, I was introduced to Haskins. We exchanged pleasantries, we took a picture together (which I’m including for your viewing pleasure), and we started the process of setting up an interview – which we later did for UTC.
During ensuing conversations, I learned about his love of music – and his love of baseball. I knew at some point I would want to share that with you.
You see, he gets invited to attend minor league baseball games – as Mr. Belding. During summer months, he can be found on the Mr. Belding Minor League Tour, where he goes to minor league parks across the country and does autograph signings, VIP meet-and-greets, and the 7th-Inning Stretch. Playing a principal in a family entertainment show has the fans lining up to meet him.
We recently talked by phone; Dennis was in New York – the day after Mr. Belding attended a Hudson Valley Renegades game (Hudson Valley is a team in the Class-A New York-Penn League).
Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I see you all over the place. Tell me about the Mr. Belding Minor League Baseball Tour.
Dennis Haskins: “I'm invited to go. It's a wonderful thing. The really nice thing for me is that ‘Saved By The Bell’ was family entertainment. Parents could let their kids watch and not worry about what was being said. It was enjoyable for kids and a good moral was portrayed every episode.
“And minor league baseball is family entertainment. I've been to over 90 ballparks, and every ballpark wants to make sure that not just, quote, ‘the fans’ – but the fans and their kids have a great time at the ballpark; that it's a whole experience for them. From having kids parade around the outfield before games and having first pitches thrown from a variety of people to in-game between-inning contests, it's really a fun time so families come back. Because as you well know, players come and go.
“I met a guy by the name of Erik Haag a long time ago, and he was the general manager of the Southern Illinois Miners baseball team in addition to some other stuff. And I was talking about a karaoke CD. His holding company had a record label, but he said ‘Why don't you come to the ballpark because I think the fans would like to meet you, and you can do karaoke afterward?’
“Well, Erik and I now have worked together for over nine years, and that's how it began, just randomly. But it's really been a wonderful relationship with me going to the ballparks and meeting the fans. Lines lasting from the 2nd through the 6th inning that you've got to cut off because I do the 7th-inning stretch with kids on the dugout. I let the kids sing, do it a la Harry Caray, ‘A one, a two, a three.’ And by the way, last night I was in Hudson Valley with Josh Caray, Harry Caray's grandson – who was doing the games. How about that? Anyway, it's just a wonderful, wonderful experience for me, too.
“You know, Chuck, how can you not enjoy having person after person after person walk up to you with a big smile on their face and telling you they’re glad to meet you? Telling you that you helped raise them. Telling me about their favorite episode.”
Of the places you’ve been able to visit, what's your favorite ballpark?
“You know, I can't pick. I'll tell you why. Because there are Triple-A ballparks that I can go into this year; for example, I’m going to Columbus for my fourth year in a row. Then there's A-ball like the (Hudson Valley) Renegades.
“There's a different level of competition at every ballpark, but the experience for the fans is the same. Regardless of what the physical plant is, everybody that I've met associated with minor league baseball loves the game. They love to be part of it, from the interns to the presidents of the clubs to the general managers. I mean, it's really something. It's really something to see, it really is.”
I know you sign autographs, you throw out the first pitch, you sing the 7th-Inning Stretch. Do you have any memorable stories to share?
“I have a pretty cool first pitch story that I like to tell. When Steve Gliner was down in Fort Myers, he brought me to down there for a Fort Myers Miracle game a few years ago; they were part of the Twins organization then. Paul Molitor was down there working for the organization, and he actually knew ‘Saved By The Bell,’ which blew me away.
“So I'm out throwing the first pitch, and everybody's waiting, and I bounced it. And that's the cardinal sin of throwing first pitches. And I said, ‘Give me the ball back,’ to the catcher. And I threw it again – and I threw a strike. So as I'm walking off the field, and as only Paul Molitor could say, he said to me, ‘Life's about second chances, son.’ It was just so nice of him. He's a Hall of Famer and he took the time to make me feel better for throwing two pitches, you know.”
When I was in Chattanooga I visited the legendary Engel Stadium. Growing up in Chattanooga, did you get to a lot of games there?
“Engel Stadium, when I was a young guy, was a Twins franchise. Harmon Killebrew came through and played there, but I did not get to see him play. But I was a member of Joe Engel's Knothole Gang. And for those of you that don't know, a knothole is what kids used to look through from the outfield so they could see the game without having to pay. So that was a cool thing.
“And cut to the '70s when the stadium wasn't being used anymore. It was used for ‘42,’ the Jackie Robinson story. So it's had some film work, but it wasn't being used. And Atlanta and Nashville had summer concert series they did for free, and I thought, ‘Why not us?’ And this kid, who was a member of the Knothole Gang, Dennis Haskins ... To cut a long story very short, I was in charge of this series of ‘Concerts in the Park,’ I had the keys to the stadium. I would open it up and I would close it down. Me and Engel Stadium; I get chills all over me, man. Just us. What an amazing thing to be in there by yourself with all those memories of people that had come and gone, all those hopes and dreams, all the fans that had come to the games. How can you not love that? I don't think I've told that to too many people.”
Major league game or minor league game: Which do you prefer to watch?
“Well, it's two different things. It's apples and oranges; it's not apples and apples.
“I've seen great games in minor league ball. I saw a three-pitcher no-hitter. I believe it was in Columbus.
“I went into a Double-A game in Reading where I saw a young man named Matt Rizzotti play. I heard that this young man had hit three home runs in four days. He suited up and wanted to take a picture with me. I said to him, ‘Hey, you think you can hit a home run for me?’ And he said, ‘Aw, man.’ But guess what? He hit a home run in the 7th inning, and everybody goes, ‘And the ball was Bye-bye Belding.’ It was out of here, you know? And it made the national sports news; it made the sports bar because I asked and he delivered.
“I thought, ‘I'm never going to get another chance to ask a ballplayer to hit a home run for me.’ It’s not quite the old story of the sick kid in bed dying and ‘I'll hit one for you.’ But I thought, ‘Why not ask?’ And son of a gun, he hit it.”
I'll stay on that topic for a moment. How important has Principal Richard Belding been to your life?
“One of the nice things is that most people say, ‘Mr. Belding’ when referring to the character. ‘Hey, Mr. Belding. Hey Mr. B.’ Because the writers made sure ... the role of the principal is the job he had. Mr. Belding was the character he was, and he'd always make sure to do what was best for the kids.
“I don't think I can put into words how important having played Mr. Belding is. Just today, I got to go see a young lady that's become a friend of mine who's on the Today Show, Dylan Dreyer. And then I got to go see S.E. Cupp, who is at CNN. And these things happened as a result of them liking my show and me liking theirs, and we kind of met each other. But those are things that would never have happened if I hadn't played Mr. Belding.
“I got to stand in the Oval Office of the White House years ago in the Clinton administration because of playing Mr. Belding on ‘Saved By The Bell.’ I was recognized in Bucharest, Romania, while I was there. This guy walks down the street and he looked at me and he pointed at me, and then he goes, ‘Teacher?’ Then he goes, ‘Principal.’ Because the first American TV show aired in Romania after the Ceausescu regime was overturned was ‘Saved By The Bell.’ I mean, you can't make this up.
“Just today leaving the CNN Building with S.E., she said, ‘Oh, I think somebody's recognized you.’ And this guy … he had this wonderful smile on his face and wanted to take a picture. And we did – and that is priceless to me. That's something you can't go, ‘OK, that's worth $10,000. OK, that's worth $500.’ No, that's worth an unbelievable amount of joy and love, and there's not a price on it.”
Final question: I know singing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” at Wrigley Field is on your bucket list. How cool would it be to do the 7th Inning there?
“How could you top doing it at Wrigley Field with Harry Caray having been the legend ... every ballpark I go to, I do ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame’ a la Harry Caray. ‘A one, a two, a three.’ And everybody knows right when to come in. It's baseball. I can't imagine anywhere better to do ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame.’
“But I have to tell you, last night in Hudson Valley near Poughkeepsie, with 10 kids on that dugout singing their hearts out, some with the words, some not. You can't top that, either. I mean, those kids had an experience they'll never forget, and their families and the fans got to see kids singing ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame’ at America's pastime, a baseball game.”