Leader Blues

Saturday, October 31, 2009

SPORTS >> Diamond State produces gems

Leader sports editor

With pinpoint control and a couple flips of his gloved right hand, Benton’s Cliff Lee called first dibs on the World Series spotlight Wednesday night.

Lee, the lefty getting the Game 1 start for the Philadelphia Phillies, silenced the New York Yankees with 10 strikeouts, no walks and two catches heavy on style points but far apart on the degree-of-difficulty scale.

He was as indifferent as a French waiter when he nonchalantly caught Johnny Damon’s sixth-inning pop-up, and he was so cat-quick with his behind-the-back snare of Robinson Cano’s eighth-inning come-backer that Lee could only shrug at his own bad self.

“I don’t get nervous,” the low-key Lee told a nationwide audience after his 6-1 victory.

Obviously. Lee already has the 2008 Cy Young award in his pocket and is 3-0 in the 2009 postseason while striking another blow for Arkansas baseball supremacy.

Yes I said Arkansas BASEBALL supremacy. Quit sniggering into your plastic Hog hat.

Look no further than the Game 2 winner, Yankees starter A.J. Burnett, of North Little Rock via Central Arkansas Christian High School, which I’m sure is where Burnett developed his interest in tattoos and piercings.

There was a possibility Lee could have faced Burnett in Game 1, had the ALCS played out differently. As it is, the fact two front-line starters from the Natural State are competing in the same Series is something to celebrate.

If you know there is more to Arkansas baseball than the “Diamond Hogs” in Fayetteville then you know this state has its share of World Series heroes and baseball heroes in general.

But this seems like a good time to do the list, so with apologies to those left off because of space, here goes.

Brooks Robinson. He honed his game with the American Legion Doughboys at Little Rock’s Lamar Porter Field before he went on to become the “vacuum cleaner,” at third base in a Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Orioles.

Robinson’s daring and flawless fielding led to 22 Gold Gloves and earned him MVP honors in the 1970 World Series. Sparky Anderson once said, “He can throw his glove out there and it will start 10 double plays by itself.”

Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean. He was born in Lucas and will be remembered as much for his Ozarks-flavored charm as the 150-83 record and 3.02 ERA he posted with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs from 1930-1941 and in one 1947 comeback game.

“It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up,” Dean said. Though injuries shortened his career, he backed it up enough to reach the Hall of Fame and pitch in two World Series before going on to an equally colorful broadcasting career.

George Kell. The Swifton native and 10-time all-star batted .306 from 1943-1957. His best years were with the Detroit Tigers and Kell, who kept an auto dealership and home in nearby Newport until his death in March, earned Hall of Fame induction on a veteran’s committee vote in 1983.

Bill Dickey. His railroad-employee father moved the family to Arkansas from Louisiana early in Bill’s life and Dickey went on to play for the Little Rock Travelers before breaking in with the Yankees, where he spent all of his Hall of Fame career from 1928-1946.

Dickey was an 11-time all-star with a .255 World Series batting average. If there is a blot on his career it might be that he managed the 1947 Travelers to a record 103 losses. But the Travelers certainly forgave Dickey; their North Little Rock home Dickey-Stephens Park is partially named for Dickey and his brother George.

Lou Brock. Born in El Dorado, Brock played in three World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals during his 18-year, Hall of Fame career. Brock was a six-time all-star and was the one-time stolen base king with 938, plus a career .293 batting average.

Brock is known for being part of one of the worst trades in baseball history. After three-plus seasons the Chicago Cubs shipped the future superstar to the St. Louis Cardinals for Lou Broglio and Bobby Shantz, making the deal a steal in more ways than one.

Erwin Charles “Preacher” Roe. The Preacher, who got his nickname from his family and not because he went to Harding College in Searcy, was born in Ash Flat. Roe was 127-84 with a 3.43 ERA and spent his best days with the Brooklyn Dodgers, from 1948-54, making him one of the original “Boys of Summer.”

Our honorable mentions include Pine Bluff’s Torii Hunter, whose Los Angeles Angels just missed the World Series this year.

Hunter is as an electrifying outfielder who once ran through a minor league fence and who robbed Barry Bonds of a home run in the 2002 All-Star Game.

Hunter is a likable straight shooter who appears to play with joy. Someone please get this guy into a World Series soon.

And let’s give it up for Kevin McReynolds, the former Sylvan Hills Bear and former Razorback who played in a World Series with the 1984 San Diego Padres and batted .265 in 12 seasons. If you want an autograph, you probably can find McReynolds in a duck blind not far from here.

Did I call Arkansas the Natural State earlier? For the above reasons, maybe we can go back to calling it the Diamond State.