Monday, August 2, 2010

Just living the dream

At age 22, Jeff Locke is 1-0 with a 1.96 ERA in four starts with the Altoona Curve, the double-A affiliate of Major League Baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates. He's got 22 strikeouts and has allowed just four walks in 23 innings pitched. He's a professional baseball player, and he's on the rise. He's even got his own signed baseball cards.

But that's August 2010. I met Jeff in January 1997.

I plopped down between him and Brant Sanborn and took my seat at one of those old brown desks with the metal cubby underneath. I had just moved to New Hampshire from Michigan and was jumping into Mrs. Garland's third-grade class halfway through the year. I left many friends behind at Tonda Elementary in Canton, and I was nervous about my first day at John Fuller.

But at that beat-up desk in the back of the room, Jeff and Brant became my first friends.

I remember little of the rest of that third-grade year, but memories of Jeff pop up all over from the rest of elementary school. And many of them are tied to baseball.

He was the star pitcher on the Royals in little league. I remember one game where our North Conway Rotary team played against him, and on the bench we were cheering and slappin' fives when someone foul tipped one of his pitches. I remember when he hit 60-plus on the radar gun the summer after fourth grade. I'd never seen anything move that fast.

And he wasn't just the best pitcher anywhere, he was the best batter too. When he came over to my house for home-run derby contests in the driveway, he had his own imaginary fence to clear. It was twice as far back as mine, and he still whooped my ass by double digits.

I was too young to understand the drive and the passion for the game he loved. I felt the same passion, but it was spread out. I loved hockey most, but I also loved golf and football and tennis and basketball and baseball. I loved everything in competition.

And I was always good at sports, some days even great. I had a rocket slapshot by my high school years. I could always make incredible trick shots in basketball or connect on a hot serve for an ace down the T in tennis. I can still play golf well and I like to toss the pigskin with my friends. I was never the kid picked last. I've always been a natural athlete, but I never had the patience to hone my raw talent.

Not like Jeff did.

Jeff played baseball. He didn't play anything else. He could throw a football further than anyone in my grade, but he never tried out for quarterback. He could sink foul shot after foul shot, but he never joined the basketball team. He had the same raw talent and athletic ability I did, the same as so many of my friends. But he had discipline. He'd play a pickup game of anything, but in competition, it was all baseball.

He worked at it. He threw hundreds of pitches on hot summer days. He baked in the sun and stayed on the mound until it fell dark. He would even pitch frozen cow pies and snowballs whenever I visited his house in the winter. I remember because one of them hit me square in the nuts. You'd remember something like that too if you caught a Locke fastball to the groin.

Jeff lived and loved baseball. He fought for his right to play the game after high school while so many of us were busy dreaming about it on the couch at home.

And that's why he made it. All the hours of practice, all the time spent on that mound. That's the effort it takes to be a professional athlete. My parents told me that, too. They didn't shove it down my throat, but I remember my dad telling me to spend more hours at the driving range in high school to get better, and I refused. I didn't want to practice. It wasn't as much fun as playing the course and hoping to get better, seeing sparks of brilliance and assuming they'd soon become the norm. But it takes buckets of balls and swing after swing to make the PGA Tour. And if you don't put in the time, if you don't put in the effort, you won't make it. It's that simple.

I don't write this to bemoan my failures as an athlete, or to whine about my efforts to make a career writing about sports ever since playing them for a living has become a virtual impossibility. No, I write because I'm proud to call him my friend.

And not because he's on his way to millions. Not because I could claim to know a pro athlete. I'm proud because I know he's earned it every step of the way. I'm proud because after he was drafted in 2006 and received an eye-popping $675,000 signing bonus, he bought his Mom a new refrigerator. I'm proud because I know all of this couldn't happen to a nicer kid.

I remember back in sixth grade, the two of us would joke that when Jeff made it to the majors, I'd be his agent. I had the math background and the sports passion, and he had the dream. It didn't work out that way, but I like to think someday I'll walk down from the press box, head into the locker room, pull out my tape recorder, and see the same smiling kid meet the press after a perfect game. I already know exactly what I'd say.

"Hey Jeff. How's it feel to be livin' the dream?"

(Jeff showed me this song in middle school. Still one of my favorites to this day. Weird video though.)


Anonymous said...

Cam, this is one smokin' good piece of writing! Dad

Penny Kittle said...

Wow... love it. Every line. I hope you'll send it to Lloyd Jones at the Sun, because he would LOVE reading this.

Did you send it to Jeff to?

Love ya, Cam...

Cam said...

Thanks! Jeff responded via Twitter and said he and his family enjoyed it very much.

Tom said...

Cam - good stuff. Love reading your work.