On July 2 I picked up the Cincinnati Reds telecast in the top of the seventh inning and saw Reds’ pitcher Homer Bailey was concocting another masterful performance. As I rode out each call by Thom Brennaman, it made me think back to my senior year at Marion Pleasant High School when I too, tossed a no-no.
In fact, every no-hitter that I have seen since I threw that one over twenty years ago does that to me. I think partly it is that I feel a little bit like we are in our own fraternity. No, I’m not placing myself with Major Leaguers, but being a part of a small group of the population who knows what it feels like to actually throw a no-hitter.
Many have said that “luck occurs when preparation and opportunity meet.” Many have also said that luck comes with the territory of success. Of course, skill must be involved, and also coincidence and fate may play a factor as well. Regardless, everything was working in order on that May 18.
It was a blustery, windy, overcast day. I had days when I really felt good warming up and that my fastball was really popping. This was not one of those days. It was one of the few times, however, in my high school career that I could throw some semblance of a curveball.
You see, although I had been a pitcher all of my life, I went through phases where I could not master a good curveball. Oddly enough, a pitch that takes even more practice to master, the forkball, was my off-speed pitch for my high school career. I was a very unpolished late-bloomer, who luckily with a lot of hard work improved immensely and followed my dreams of playing Division I at Wright State. My control was not pinpoint in high school and I threw a lot of unnecessary pitches because I walked a lot of batters. This coming from a guy who walked a grand total of twenty batters in his entire college career. Again, a true late-bloomer.
In fact, I had thrown 137 pitches in six innings in a road loss the previous Friday, then came back on on only two days rest on Monday and threw 133 more in a complete game victory. This game, on Thursday, and only three days of rest, was no exception with the high pitch volume.
We were two games out of first place in the conference and were playing the league leaders and our biggest rivals, the River Valley Vikings. We had defeated them 9-8 in a home victory a couple of weeks earlier. In that game, I pitched the complete game and gave up all eight runs, including three runs in the top of the first inning.
The Vikings were a team built around speed, leading the area, conference and possibly the state with well over 200 stolen bases on the season. They may have actually had over 300. They were also leading the conference in runs scored and batting average with a whopping .375. In that era, that was incredible. To put into perspective, we only had four players on our team that hit above their entire team average.
Laying some more ground work for you, we had a first year starting catcher, senior Chris Rudy, who ran like a jack-rabbit and was the school’s best soccer player. But a true catcher he was not. He had been an outfielder his whole career, but wasn’t the best at always catching flyballs or having much of an arm. To keep his speed in the batting line-up, our coaches, head coach Mike Ward and assistant coach Jason Hix, worked hard to convert Chris into a receiver. Incidentally, Chris had not thrown out a single base-stealer all season from behind the plate. We also had our starting right fielder suspended for this one game, so we had a back-up, but capable replacement in there.
With all of these factors, it is safe to say that a no-hitter was nowhere on anybody’s radar that day. I came very close in an earlier season contest against a very young and over-matched Milford Center Fairbanks team when we won 22-0 in five innings. Of the fifteen outs that I had to record for that shortened-game victory, I struck out 12 of them, threw one out on a bunt attempt and after giving up a lone single in the bottom of the forth inning, proceeded to pick that runner off of first base. The only other batter to not strike out was a line drive out to center field. It would have been a perfect game if not for that one hit. I had made 14 of the 15 outs. But, this game against River Valley was nowhere near that kind of atmosphere.
In this one, I got through the first four innings, and that was when the no-hitter actually crossed my mind. It also helped the awareness when my best friend on the team, senior second baseman Bill Wilcox, who would later stand up with me at my wedding, broke the cardinal rule of no-hitters.
He sat down next to me and said, “You have a no-hitter going don’t you?”. I replied, “You are not supposed to mention that to the pitcher, that’s supposed to jinx it.” He said he didn’t believe in that.
Our excitement level was already through the roof at that time because in the previous inning, with me on first base, Bill broke open our 2-0 lead with a grand slam home run to right field, sending me jumping up and down while circling the bases. That was truly the happiest moment of the game for me. Until then, the game was in doubt and I was not thinking of no-hitters, or even shut outs, but was just thinking that we needed to score more runs.
For the game, I walked six and struck out eight batters. The way I see it, any one of those walks could have been the hit to break it up. They only had a runner reach second base three times, and nobody made it to third. With me being a lefty, and possessing a good pick-off move, it was difficult to steal bases on me sometimes.
There were some close moments and some luck involved leading up to the seventh inning. Bill charged in and snagged a sawed-off line drive at his shoe tops that had floated out of my reach for an out. Our shortstop, Dan Easley, the only junior on the field for us, made another outstanding play. I even stabbed a couple of hard “come- backers” that could have easily made it through for a hit. River Valley’s head coach, Bill Barr, even instructed his players to step out of the batter’s box and take their time in order to try to take me out of my rhythm.
But the two biggest defensive plays of the game, was by our rookie catcher. One of their base-runners tried to steal second base in one of the middle innings of the game and wouldn’t you know it, our catcher threw him out. That was the first attempted stolen base that Chris had been successful with all season. But, his best play was on a high pop-up that started easily in foul territory along the third base side, but with the strong wind, it blew back into fair territory. With me standing there waiting to call him off, our catcher had to dive for it at this point. It would have been a base hit if he misses it. Remember, he had not always been the best at catching fly balls with an outfielder’s glove. There was added difficulty trying to snag it with a catcher’s mitt. Fortunately, he held onto it. I think divine intervention may have had something to do with that one. I believe someone was keeping an eye on that one for me.
My defense and I finished them out and sealed the deal for the no-hitter, then the team proceeded to swarm me at the pitcher’s mound. After shaking hands, I was able to break free and standing by our dugout was my dad, Charley, and we embraced for a tear-jerking hug. It was a great gift to both of us, since my mother, Alda Joy, had passed away the previous year to breast cancer. My father has since past on but that is one of the many fond memories I have of him.
So, every time I see a no-hitter thrown, I like to watch the reaction of the players, especially the pitcher and catcher, and I know what it feels like to be there. It kind of makes you feel like you want to shout the immortal words of Jack Dawson in the movie Titanic, “I’m king of the world.” Because for that moment, you believe you are.