Facing my first baseball season after retirement I began thinking about players I had coached and coached against. This story from “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…” is about the best player, in my opinion, I ever coached against and a very special baseball team.
“Two, three, the count with nobody on
He hit a high fly into the stand
Rounding third he was headed for home
He was a brown eyed handsome man.
That won the game; he was a brown eyed handsome man”
“Brown-eyed Handsome Man”-Chuck Berry
The 1992 Riverside baseball team began the season hotter than any team I have ever coached and finished the regular season ranked second in the state just behind Belton Honea-Path. With playoff brackets already drawn, everyone circled the second game of the upper state series. Riverside would host Belton in the second round winner’s bracket game if the baseball gods saw fit. Unfortunately, sometimes the baseball gods get a kick out of not allowing things to happen as they are supposed to. In a game we could not have played any better, we lost to eventual state champion Lugoff-Elgin, one to nothing in extra innings. Riverside still got to host Belton but it was in the loser’s bracket. Belton had also gone down to defeat in its respective first round game. I could hear the giggles from above.
Belton was a perennial upper state power we had faced in the playoffs my first year at Riverside. I was almost tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail when I opted to put their best hitter on with the bases loaded, even though it walked in a run. I did this rather than risking a grand slam homerun with the score six to two in our favor in the seventh inning. Six to three sounded a lot better than all tied at six. As I retreated to the safety of our dugout I was serenaded with a chorus of boos, accusations of cowardice and a couple of descriptive terms or phrases questioning my canine parenthood or when exactly I might have been conceived as compared to my parents’ wedding date. The hitter I had walked, Chad Roper, might have been the best high school hitter I had ever seen and in 1990 was just a sophomore. We escaped with a victory although BHP got their revenge later in the playoffs. Roper had the game winning triple in that revenge game and pitched BHP to a two to one victory.
As a senior, Chad stood about six foot one, weighed two hundred pounds and in addition to his ability to hit, had sprinter’s speed. On the mound Chad was also a pro prospect. He truly was the total package. Unfortunately, for him, a freak preseason horse riding injury had limited his innings on the mound. Prior to this 1992 edition of what became a mutually respected, if somewhat one sided rivalry, I had made the decision we were not going to allow Chad to beat us with his bat. We were not going to give him an opportunity to hit anything good. What should have been sound logic turned out not to matter at all. He hit two solo home runs on pitches that were well out of the strike zone. One low and inside pitch was golfed over the left field foul pole, the other pitch thrown up and way away was hit over the trees beyond the left field power alley and into orbit…around Pluto. (I spoke to several of my pitchers from this era and no one will own up to being the guy who gave it up) When I decided to intentionally walk him, he stole second, then third and scored on a ground out. We played well; he played better, eliminating us from the playoffs. We went home for the summer while he went on to win the State AAA title. I guess I should have said BHP went on to win the state championship, but they would not have won it without this rare player.
I have always had mixed feelings when a season has ended. You are sad that you lost your last game, on the one hand, and question yourself on what you did wrong and congratulate yourself on what you did right. On the other hand, you are a little glad because the hard work is over until you realize spring football practice has started so your own work goes on. After the great season we had just completed, I was a little sadder and questioned myself even more about what we could have done differently. As I puttered around the dugout, picking up gear, speaking to parents and waiting for the field to clear, I picked up a box that was supposed to be full of unused game baseballs and found it to be empty. I knew we had not used that many balls. We started with one and one half dozen baseballs and I could account for six we had used. I am not a mathematical genius but calculated quickly twelve baseballs were missing. As I looked around, I found twelve of my players in a huddle around Chad Roper. They were getting him to autograph the baseballs. There was also a lot of joking and laughing taking place between Chad and my team. That brought more than a little clarity to the importance of losing a baseball game. Mad at first, I suddenly found myself smiling as I realized how young people could put the minor bumps in the road into perspective so quickly. As disappointing as losing is, baseball was and still is a game to be played and not a life or death situation. Most of these young men would not play baseball past high school but would be successful in so many ways. My third baseman William Patton comes to mind. He was offered a full scholarship from NASA and it was not to play baseball. He was unable to find Chad’s home run ball either though I understand he sent several unmanned space probes out to try.
Chad was drafted in the second round of the Major League Draft in 1992 by the Minnesota Twins and spent ten seasons kicking around the minor leagues never rising above double A. He seemed to be one of the unlucky ones who were unable to overcome the obstacles life sometimes places in your way. Sometimes success is the biggest hurdle to overcome. I am sure some people would say he was a failure because he never got to the “Big Show.” I believe those people were wrong and narrow minded. Chad got to do something he loved to do for ten years longer than most of us and got paid for doing it. Professional sports are professional sports at any level, and it takes a special talent to get paid to hit or field a baseball wherever you play. How was that a failure? I believe it was pretty special and would have given up a reproductive body part to have had the same opportunity. My biggest regret from that particular day was not getting him to sign my baseball.
Inspirational true stories in WINNING WAS NEVER THE ONLY THING by Don Miller #1.99 on #Kindle goo.gl/DiO1hcX