Before I start this week’s column, I want to give a big thanks to all the folks who made Tuesday’s Best of Preps sports banquet such a great event.
I spent five years covering sports, and I sure miss being at games and getting to know all the players. The ones who were just freshmen when I left sports are now about to graduate.
And a special thanks to Kelly Holder, the recently retired head football coach for the Mount Airy Granite Bears. He stepped in as our keynote speaker and did a fine job.
Kelly spoke of being invested in whatever we set our minds to do.
When I was a kid, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When someone would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would reply, “Six-foot-four.” I wasn’t sure what I’d do, but I was sure that being big and strong would be a part of it.
I only missed it by half a foot.
Why 6-foot-4? Well, that’s how tall Steve Carlton was, and he was one of my favorite baseball pitchers. If I were 6-foot-4, I could play in the MLB. It’s just that simple, right?
When I turned nine I was old enough to start Little League baseball. I was younger than most of my classmates, so they already had a year of experience with the White Plains Braves.
I registered to play and was told I’d been assigned to the White Plains Pirates.
The Pirates? That’s not the team my buddies were on! Heck, on the first day of practice I saw three girls there, and every boy knew that girls had cooties. Truthfully, I had no idea what cooties were, but I didn’t want to try my luck being around girls.
That first season I was just awful. On a team of beginners who were all fairly bad, I was so awful that I didn’t start. I came in halfway through the games as a mercy substitution because my coach was a good guy.
When I came back for my second season, I was much improved. I could actually catch a ball if it were thrown to me or hit up into the air. Grounders were still impossible, though.
Next thing I knew, the coach had me on the mound pitching. I was tiny and slow and pretty useless in the field, anyway, so why not put me at a spot where you aren’t really expected to make a difference fielding?
My catcher kept telling me to throw the harder, and I’d insist that was as hard as it got — even though I was perfectly aware that the pitch looked like a Frisbee floating up to home plate.
Doug started jokingly referring to me as “Fastball” Linville.
Making matters worse, midway through the season, I was moved up from the lowly B team to the A team.
I was like batting practice to these guys. A fellow could get whiplash spinning his head around to watch some mammoth shot fly out of the infield and past the outfielders.
One Saturday afternoon at Beulah I started off an inning great. I struck out the first batter. Obviously, he must have been as inept with a bat as I was.
Then I lost control. I walked a batter. Then another. Then a third batter to load the bases.
What was going on? Why couldn’t I get a pitch to go straight? Would I just keep walking batters for the rest of my life?
Luckily, my veteran shortshop could see I was upset. I say veteran — the kid was in his fourth year of Little League, kind of like a senior — but still only 12 years old.
I don’t remember the exact words anymore, but this very tall, lanky kid told me to calm down. I was just flustered, he said. Don’t worry about being perfect, just throw strikes. Don’t worry about the hitter. There’s one out already. Throw a strike, and he’ll hit a ground ball. We’ll turn a double play and be out of the inning.
That tall, lanky kid was Kelly Holder. And in that moment he showed the kind of understanding and communication that would one day serve him well as a head coach.
He seemed so confident. If he said it, then it must have been so, I figured. I was just a kid barely up from B team. If he said it, I’d do it.
So, I went back to the pitcher’s rubber, took a short stride and fired a ball right down the middle. That’s right, I grooved one in the perfect location; the kind of pitch that you hear sluggers chuckling about when describing their 500-foot home runs. It was a belt-high fastball — or with my speed, a belt-high change-up.
It didn’t matter. Kelly had predicted the future.
The kid swung and made solid contact. But, the ball was bouncing toward short.
It was true! Kelly did predict the future. It was a perfect double-play ball. Kelly would catch it, fire the ball to second, and the second baseman would relay the ball to first to get us out of the inning without a single run scored.
How could he know?
I watched Kelly shift his feet to get in front of the ball, bend at the waist and drop his glove to make the catch.
But either because of a bad bounce or bad timing, the glove didn’t make it all the way down to the ball. That bouncer went right through Kelly’s legs and into left-center, allowing two runs to score.
So, okay, great future coach. Not much of a soothsayer.
As for myself, I would realize that old truth: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach — or write articles about the ones who can.
Enjoy retirement, my old friend.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.