By HAL McCOY
COLUMBUS — It isn’t often, if ever, that a person can sit in a comfortable swivel chair in a gorgeous venue and be transported 58 years back to re-live some of the best times of his life.
That, though, is what happened to me Thursday afternoon. For a day, I was 17 again.
On a bright, muggy afternoon in wonderful Huntington Park, home of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, I sat all day watching the Ohio High School Athletic Association state baseball tournament. As I watched, I felt as if I was wearing uniform No. 23 for Akron East High School, playing first base, in a game at Firestone Stadium in in 1985, a park where Babe Ruth once played an exhibition game.
I remember how I felt and how these kids must feel playing on a magnificent diamond with fans in the stands, music blaring, four umpires and Major League scouts sitting behind home plate.
In a flash and a grinding of gray matter, I remembered Philadelphia Phillies legendary scout Tony Lucadello inviting me to a tryout camp after one of those games at Firestone Stadium and how I felt I was on my way to The Big Show. I wasn’t, but in the end that invitation was almost as good and the letter from the Phillies is tucked away in a scrapbook somewhere in my home office.
After covering more than 7,000 major league games over the last 43 years, this was the first time I sat and watched high school games. And what a delight it was.
It reminded me of the Kevin Costner movie, ‘For the Love of the Game.’ That’s what these kids are doing, for the love of the game, to challenge themselves, for the pure competition with few pretentiousness of future greatness.
It is grass roots baseball at its best, nothing close to the major leagues — and that’s a good thing.
The first game began at 10 a.m., an hour when most major leaguers haven’t even ordered room service breakfast. Major Leaguers don’t take infield practice any more, but these kids do and they do it with game-like enthusiasm. You can almost tell which is the better team and which is going to win by the confidence and savior faire displayed during infield practice.
And I was correct after the first two games after only watching infield practice and having never seen either team.
In the first game Defiance High School put on a peppy infield display and I was startled when they ran off the field after infield practice that their fans gave them a standing ovation.
It was disconcerting, because of watching major league ball for four decades, to see that Defiance pitcher Shay Smiddy batted leadoff. And he walked to open the game and later slid across home plate to score the tournament’s first run, dirtying up his uniform before he threw his first pitch.
And the kid can pitch. He pitched a complete game five-hitter to beat Steubenville, 6-1. Impressive? He throws strikes, with fastballs touching 86 miles an hour. He threw 91 pitches and only 30 were out of the strike zone. If only the Cincinnati Reds bullpen would take note.
There were many things that were delightful: No egos, no bat-flipping, no strutting and preening, no loud and obnoxious walk-up music that says, “Hey, look at me, I make millions and you don’t.”
It was stunning to see players run to the batter’s box and run back to the dugout after making outs and run on and off the field between innings. No lollygagging and sauntering. They act as if they want to be out there and they do, they definitely do.
One often hears major league players talk about respecting the game, but most don’t. These kids definitely respect the game, try to do things the right way, the way to respect the game.
Even the fans seem more passionate, even if they are smallish in numbers. In the Hamilton Badin-Poland Seminary Division II semifinals, Badin trailed 3-1 after five innings. When the sixth began, the mostly green-clad basin fans turned the caps inside out — rally caps — and their screams and shouts sounded like 20,000, standing the entire half-inning and reaching a crescendo when Poland pitcher Dan Klase walked the first two.
Left hander Matt Baker replaced Klase and Cody Border and Zach Larkin singled for a run. Then Ross Mulcare laid down a suicide squeeze bunt to tie the game, 3-3, and by now the Badinaires behind the dugout were dancing in the aisles. Mitch Raley doubled to the left field wall for two more runs and a 5-3 Badin lead and the rally caps had done their work.
Badin, though, wasn’t done. No. 9 hitter Garrett Hogan executives a perfect hit-and-run between first and second, a play botched more often than not by the pros. Badin used that seven-run inning to score an 8-3 victory and they left the field feeling as if they’d beaten the 1998 New York Yankees.
And for those who despite challenge/replay/review in the majors, there was a play at second base on which a Badin runner was called out. Coach Brion Treadway pled his case to the umpires and without the aid of 14 strategically placed cameras the umpires, on their own, reversed the call.
One thing I cannot abide is the ear-hurting ping of baseball meeting aluminum. There is nothing like the thunk of wood against baseball, although the loud ‘pow-wing’ of aluminum on baseball demands you’re attention if you happen to be looking away.
On the other hand, there is one tradition that major leaguers should adopt. After every game in this tournament, the two teams meet in the middle of the infield for handshakes and “nice game” and “good luck.” I the majors the winning team shakes hands with teammates, note the opposition, and the losers mope their way to the clubhouse.
Grass roots baseball? It many ways it beats that stuff they play professionally and sometimes on artificial turf. There is a lot that’s artificial about the play-for-pay game.