On a warm, pleasant Saturday in April, I laughed with old friends – the Walkers and the Cruses – down the third base line at New Albany’s beautiful BNA Park. The visitors from Freed-Hardeman University already had the ballgame that was playing out in front of us well under control. The Lions had raced to an 8-0 lead by the fourth inning, and Tupelo Fire Chief Thomas Walker and I were entertaining ourselves with extreme trivia and jokes that could only have originated somewhere in Thomas’ native Tishomingo County. We were texting eclectic song suggestions to the press box to try and get them played between innings when we paused to watch again, as my oldest son Gardner, who is the athlete I always wanted to be, led off the bottom half of the inning for the Blue Mountain Toppers.
As he has done so many times over the last 20 years, he connected perfectly – on a fastball delivered by the Lions’ starting pitcher – and drove it over the left field fence, halfway between the scoreboard and the American flag. 8 to 1. Gardner trotted his 6′-3, 220 pound frame around the bases for the fourth time this season. We cheered.
Tony Cruse called out, “Way to go, G-Baby!”
“G-Baby” is what Tony and Donna Cruse call Gardner. It’s a nickname he picked up when he played for “Tornado Baseball” with their son Sam, a senior pitcher at Blue Mountain. The Tornados were as stacked a group of 11 year-olds as were ever assembled on a baseball diamond in North Mississippi. I say that not simply on the basis of parental pride but also due to the fact that their group won two – not one but two – national championships: the 11 & under USSSA World Series in Kansas City in 2002 and the 12 & under Super Series National Championship in St. Louis the following year. Gardner, G-Baby, hit his first over-the-fence home run with the Tornados at Snowden Grove Park in Southaven, a game-winner to dead center field, in the fall of the year before that first championship run. His coach Nikki White, a lanky left-handed former JUCO pitcher from Pontotoc, high-fived my little boy as he rounded third that night, and Gardner had to hop up just a little to reach the hand of his 6′-5 mentor, the man who would ultimately be responsible for much of G-Baby’s future success. The two of them slapped hands again and again as Gardner trotted past third at least fifty or sixty times over the next four years. At practice, it was Coach Nikki who ALWAYS threw BP. I can see him now, his long left arm almost reaching home plate, putting a little extra zip on one of the million pitches he threw to those boys. Ever after, Gardner has hit left-handers better than righties, thanks to Tornado batting practice. As the Freed-Hardeman starter, a left-hander, walked off the back of the mound and watched Gardner’s ball sail away into the distance, I thought of Nikki White and the Tornados.
My youngest son Maddux hustled out beyond the outfield wall to recover his brother’s home run ball as he’s done many times before. Gardner rounded third and shook the hand of BMC coach Curt Fowler. As he passed in front of us, Dana Walker leaned forward between her husband and me and yelled, “Yay, Gardner!”
Thomas Walker and I handled the radio broadcast of the 2007 Class 6A State Championship Game from Trustmark Park in Jackson, the home of the Mississippi Braves. The series between Ocean Springs and Tupelo, where Gardner had transferred as a sophomore after his grandfather was fired as head basketball coach at Baldwyn, was tied at one game each. No high school player in any classification had homered that year in the professional stadium where Mississippi’s state championships are played. That is until Gardner came up in the first inning of decisive Game 3 and blasted an Ocean Springs offering onto the grassy hill above left center, the deepest part of the park. At that moment, the #1 ranked high school team in the nation held a 1-0 lead. The Tupelo Golden Wave – that incredible year – had by far the most talented school baseball team I have ever seen. The Wave roster included two MLB draft picks and seven Division I collegiate players, not to mention a half dozen others who played beyond high school for junior college, Division 2 or NAIA programs, including the Walker’s son Channing, a Blue Mountain teammate of Gardner’s last season. Gardner hit 24 home runs in three seasons for Coach Gary Enis there in Tupelo and was a 1st team all-state selection as a senior. The homer he hit at Trustmark Park was his 10th that year, and he signed a baseball scholarship with Samford University in Birmingham. But the Golden Wave lost that game to Ocean Springs, 6-5 in extra innings, and the Walkers and Richeys and Thorntons and Matthews and Strattons are compelled to replay it throughout eternity in our minds and at gatherings of two or more of us whenever the topic of baseball arises. But what a ride we Richeys had for three seasons in Tupelo! We will always love the friends that Gardner made there … and their parents, our friends forever.
Gardner redshirted his first year at Samford and then began a second season with the Bulldogs as their starting right fielder on opening weekend. He homered that first Saturday and again on Sunday, and his grandfather who had recently suffered a stroke was there to see it. After that, it was a so-so year, and that’s being generous. For Gardner, a slump out the back end of that first season in the Southern Conference had produced a crushing amount of anxiety, the worst thing next to death in baseball, for both son and father. Nevertheless, G-Baby was assigned to the Hannibal Cavemen, a franchise in the summer collegiate wood bat Prospect League. There we thought with a fresh start and consistent playing time, he could regain the level of production he was used to … and his swagger.
Right out of the box, however, it still just didn’t click. It was hit or miss over the first couple weeks in Missouri, and there was quite a bit more “miss” than “hit.” Gardner was batting only about .250 with no home runs and was mired in an 0-for-9 streak ten games in. Essentially, my little boy was alone, 800 miles from home, coming off a crappy college season, and things still weren’t going well.
I was driving home to Baldwyn through Union County one Saturday night in mid-June, and I knew at that very moment Gardner was in action at Samuel Clemens Field, where the Cavemen averaged 1,200 in attendance. Driving along alone, I began a negotiation. I made a deal with God, somewhere out there between Ellistown and Bethany. I WOULD be a better person, I promised, if when I got home and looked at my computer screen, Gardner could just have TWO hits in this ball game – any hit, infield, blooper, didn’t matter – but two of them. Baseball parents can be really crazy people when their kids are slumping. However, in this particular instance, getting God involved turned out NOT to be as crazy as one might initially think. In a long dark bottom, a couple miles east of Camp Creek Church, I heard the voice of God say to me “I’m going to show you something, Clark Richey!” It was very clear, and I’m not making it up. Minutes later, I scrambled into the house and logged on to the website that tracked the Cavemen games, but strangely the page would not come up. I clicked and re-clicked for 2 or 3 minutes. My deal with the Almighty was that “when I looked at the site” Gardner had to have two hits. Now with the hourglass icon spinning continuously on my screen, my cell phone started ringing. I was NOT going to talk to anyone before I saw what Gardner had done in his game against Quincy! But with the stupid thing rattling on the table beside my computer, I couldn’t help but glance at it. It was a call from Gardner’s host parents in Missouri. Of course, I had to answer.
“You told me to call you if anything great happened … ”
As soon as I heard the voice of the kind lady with whom Gardner was spending his Missouri summer, my screen instantly refreshed, and I saw it – Gardner Richey, 2 for 2 – a single in the first and a home run in the 4th, his first with the Cavemen. I would be a better person.
The reserved housewife of fifty that I had just met the week before was now screaming into the phone, “He hit it!”
The Cavemen front office had a “bullseye” sign there at Clemens Field, about 3-foot square, right beside the club house in left. The sign was part of a typical summer league/minor league gimmick, this one sponsored by McDonald’s. Should the sign ever be hit by a Caveman home run in game action, EVERY person in the stadium – 1,200 ticket holders – would receive a free Big Mac.
“He hit the Big Mac sign! No one has EVER hit the Big Mac sign! It just kept going and going and then curved and hit it right in the center!” she said.
“And that’s how I roll,” God said.
I haven’t asked God for anything baseball related for any of my children since that day. Obviously, He IS in complete control, a fact settled eternally in my mind by a blessed homer, hit number 2 in a game one night in the city Mark Twain called home. Cavemen fans didn’t call Gardner “G-Baby;” they called him “Big Mac.” And he was 1st team All-Prospect League with 9 round-trippers before the summer was out.
Though Gardner started 33 games for Samford as a sophomore and homered four times in a Bulldog uniform that year, he came to a decision that he would be happier somewhere else for his final two seasons in college. He transferred closer to home, to Blue Mountain. Last year at BMC, he hit 12 home runs for their 2nd-year NAIA ball club, and that number was the most in 2012 by any collegiate baseball player in Mississippi – at any level. His 12th homer came in the TranSouth Conference Championship Game where the Toppers lost 2-1 to Union University, the end of a magical, unexpected late season run. This year he has four dingers with seven games left to play. He’s not getting a lot of balls to drive this go-round as the Toppers have struggled offensively overall and Gardner has been hit by pitch or walked in close to 20% of his at-bats. Still he’s managed a .412 batting average, and he does have the other games remaining. We shall see.
Maddux finally returned to our seats with Gardner’s home run ball, and when Saturday’s game was done, we chatted with the big brother he idolizes for a few minutes before driving home and placing G-Baby’s latest souvenir gift to us with a dozen significant others that rest on a shelf in my office.
In two weeks, barring some last-minute call from a professional baseball organization, my little boy, who was the KING of T-ball at Baldwyn’s Latimer Park 18 years ago, who has homered off eight different pitchers drafted by Major League Baseball, will have played his last game. His dad is very sad. I have enjoyed watching him play ball more than he will ever know.
I placed the home run baseball from the Freed-Hardeman game beside one that says “Happy Father’s Day 2003,” marked in “Tornado green.” The next ball to the right isn’t a home run ball. It’s a ball that Gardner wrote a message on for his mother and me when he graduated from Tupelo. It says, “Thank you for putting up with me for 17 years. You have given me so much more than I deserve. Thanks for everything! I love you.” No, G-Baby, thank you. The pleasure has been ours.