Dewannis Makes the Majors
My career as a minor league baseball
coach began and ended in the small town of Tullahoma, Tennessee, where
baseball was about the most exciting thing happening. It helped that the
town had been blessed with four factories that made baseballs, bats,
gloves, and shoes. Aluminum bats for the National Little league were
actually invented, developed, and first manufactured in Tullahoma at the
Worth factory, and the factories contributed heavily to construct first
rate ball parks on four edges of town (actually all within walking
distance of each other).
So many kids were into baseball that we not only had a Little League, Babe Ruth League, and State League, we had a minor league for the kids who were not quite ready for the Little League, and eventually a league even before that one. Minor league began with seven year olds, a year before they were old enough for Little League, and they could stay with us until they were twelve or else good enough to make Little League. Little league coaches could draft minor league kids at any time, one of the most serious perils for the minor league coach.
Minor leagues had our own rules to accommodate the special situation. Every child on the team must play at least one inning; The game must end in two hours or five innings whichever came first; whoever was winning at the bottom of the last inning won the game at the two hour mark; pitchers could not pitch more than five straight innings, no stealing bases, and so on, rules that attempted to make games tractable with baseball players at a somewhat challenged level. Some of the games never got past two innings. Scores sometimes ran as high as fifty to nothing. Kids cried, parents threatened coaches, and almost no one seemed to know all of the rules and restrictions.
All of this led to a different win strategy for coaches. One of my primary tasks at the beginning of the season was to find anyone who could repeatedly get the ball over the plate...at any speed. A team with such a pitcher was a winning team on most nights. I was lucky the first year. God had sent me a pitcher with a real arm. His name was Lexi Fletcher. I knew we wouldn't keep him long before he was drafted so I searched for others who had some potential. Just as I was ending the search, settling for a few kids who at least could hit the backstop with the ball, I noticed a tiny little black kid standing sheepishly, but determined in line. He could not have been more that three feet tall, and I had mistaken him as a little brother of one of the players. As I started to end off the practice he ask me if he could try out as pitcher. His name was Dewannis but he preferred to be called Butch. Actually, he looked more like a Dewannis.
Dewannis had the most beautiful Afro I had ever seen; it was twice as big as his head. It was not one of those specially styled Afros; it was 100% genuine, there because it was the least expensive option for his parents. I doubted that such a small kid would be able to get the ball from the mound to the plate, let alone hit the back stop, but I wanted them all to feel like stars, so I put him on the mound, almost dreading in advance having to turn him down. It was true; he could hardly get the ball to me from the mound. Nevertheless, I could not miss the fact that when Dewannis threw the ball it went to the same place every single time, just barely reaching the plate, but always down the middle.
Another problem was that he couldn't catch the ball when I pitched it back to him. After a few such misses I noticed the leather rag he was attempting to use as a glove. Loaning him a decent glove (which I later gave him) not only helped him catch, but also made him about the happiest kid I had ever seen. Every day at practice we paired him off and let him pitch and catch for essentially the entire two hours. By the time the season started he could throw nine out of ten strikes and even catch the return ball if it was thrown to him. Now I have to qualify these strikes. One of Dewannis' strikes would hit the ground before the catcher could catch it, simply because it was traveling at a snails velocity in the last part of an arc.
The kids who could hit loved Dewannis as a pitcher because they knew exactly where to swing and because it was always a slow ball. That was not too serious a problem for me because most of the kids in this league either struck out or walked. Dewannis rarely walked anybody. They either knocked the jacket off the ball or struck out. He won more games than he lost. Dewannis and Lexi took us to a season championship in my first year as head coach.
At the end of the season I took Dewannis aside and spoke with him man to man. I encouraged him to throw something every single day for as long as he could. I advised him to throw rocks, balls, bottles anything he could get his hands on at any target he could find. I told him he could be a champion if he could get some more muscle in that arm.
When the next season rolled around and my search for pitchers began, I immediately discovered that there was no Dewannis on the field. Lexi had moved on to Little League as I had expected and the rest of the pickings were pretty slim. Realizing the seriousness of the matter I drove to the neighborhood where Dewannis lived to see if was still in town. To my surprise I found him in his front yard throwing rocks at a tin can. He explained to me that his mother could not afford to buy him shoes and the shoes he was wearing were so full of holes he was too ashamed to come to the practice with them.
At this point I asked him if he had been throwing like I had advised. "Oh, Yassuh," was his enthusiastic response, "every single day, just like you said." Reaching into the back seat of my Volkswagen I retrieved a hand full of baseballs and ask him to throw me a few. Since he was throwing rocks when I arrived his arm was already warmed up. I kneeled and held up the mitt as a target. He took his windup just like a pro, releasing a ball that whizzed into the mitt with a pop, without any movement needed on my part. Again and again the ball popped into the mitt splitting the make shift plate I had placed on the ground. I had just discovered a gold mine for a minor league coach. The price of a league championship had just become a new pair of shoes and approaching his mom for permission.
I explained to his mom how much we needed him and asked her permission to buy him some shoes. Without hesitation she accepted my offer. Ordinarily a major league coach would have drafted Dewannis immediately, but two things lay on my side. First he was so small, no one would take a second look at him, and second, he and his mother wanted him on my team.
With Dewannis' help, we won the league championship for the second year. I could see his improvement from one game to the next. By the end of the season, his reputation was developing and I knew that would be the last time I would see him in the minor leagues. After that season traveling and work schedule forced me to give up coaching and I lost touch with baseball.
One evening about five years later a friend who had helped me coach phoned and suggested I go to a Babe Ruth League game that night because some of our former players would be playing. He wouldn't tell me which ones, but he was sure I would remember them, so I agreed to meet up with him. As I walked into the park my heart leaped when who was standing on the mound but Dewannis. In those five years Dewannis must have grown at least three feet. He was one of the tallest, most muscular kids on the field. He unleashed a fastball that damn near knocked the catcher over, sending a loud pop echoing into the stands, and I almost exploded with pride. Before the night was over I discovered that in the time I had left Tullahoma, Dewannis had become a star and one of the most dreaded pitchers in the league. College baseball scouts were there to check him out.
I never saw him again after that night. Maybe he went on to the majors, maybe not. Someday I hope to find out just how far Dewannis got with his baseball. Regardless, he would always be a star in my book.