MORRIS: Chapin’s champion

August 17, 2013 

— FOR A VETERAN MAJOR League Baseball player who recently received his walking papers from the Chicago White Sox, hardly a trace of panic could be heard on the other end of the cell phone.

Dewayne Wise has been here before. Fourteen times, to be precise. Since being granted free agency by the Toronto Blue Jays following the 2003 season, Wise has signed with, and been released by — in chronological order — the Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers, Detroit Tigers (again), Cincinnati Reds, Cincinnati Reds (again), Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays (again), Florida Marlins, Toronto Blue Jays (again), Florida Marlins (again), Toronto Blue Jays (yet again), New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox (again).

A hamstring injury will keep Wise from signing with a team for the remainder of this season. So he plans to hole up in his home south of Charlotte for the winter, nurse his injury, work out and wait for the next club to invite him to spring training in February.

He is certain the call will come because there is not a team in the major leagues who cannot use a strong-armed outfielder whose forte is running down fly balls in the power alleys. If Wise has established any other hallmark over parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues, it is a remarkable flair for the dramatic.

It seems like every time his family, friends and former coaches in Chapin see him on TV, Wise is featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter for making a disputed catch in foul territory, or joining a guy named Babe Ruth by both pitching in Yankee Stadium and hitting a home run in the historic house. Or, they might catch replays of his dramatic, eighth-inning, pinch-hit September grand slam that helped propel the White Sox to the 2008 American League Central Division title.

Then there was The Catch.

Chapin High baseball coach Scott McLeod has a laminated picture of The Catch, complete with Wise’s autograph, on his desk, not too far from the autographed copy of the Aug. 3, 2009, Sports Illustrated magazine that detailed the play that saved pitcher Mark Buehrle’s perfect game for the White Sox.

McLeod can then escort you to the Chapin High baseball field and the adjacent batting cages where a blown-up photo of The Catch is displayed on the side of the building known to all as “D-Wise’s Batting Barn.” One gets that kind of honor when he contributes $20,000 toward the building’s construction.

Wise, as anyone in Chapin’s town of 1,445 residents can tell you, was a ninth-inning defensive replacement as Buehrle stood at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field, three outs from becoming the 18th pitcher to ever retire all 27 batters in a game.

Gabe Kapler batted first for the Tampa Bay Rays and sent what appeared to be a drive over the wall in left-center field. Wise, playing center field, sprinted full speed to the wall, leaped and robbed Kapler of the home run. As if the play needed any added drama, Wise first juggled the ball before securing it in his glove as he fell to the ground.

Given the circumstances, it is considered one of the great catches in major-league history, not far behind Willie Mays’ famous over-the-shoulder grab at the Polo Grounds in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series.

Before he was released by the White Sox in early August, Wise sat in the dugout of the Charlotte Knights, where he was on a rehabilitation assignment. Of course, the subject of The Catch was broached.

“There is not a day that goes by in baseball that somebody doesn’t mention it, or that wants me to sign a ball, or they have a photo and want me to sign it and write ‘The Catch’ on it,” Wise said. “I’m still getting fan mail with that photo.

“That’s something that’s going to be around in baseball for a while. It’s something I’m proud of. I don’t think I’ll get tired of hearing it. Some people make fun and say I need to turn the page, but it doesn’t bother me. Anytime somebody wants to talk about it, I was just glad to be part of it.”

While Wise’s catch might have caused jaws to drop throughout baseball, no one who knew Wise growing up in Chapin was surprised. The Catch? Chapin coaches had seen better from Wise. The pinch-hit grand slam? Well, he did not pinch-hit in high school, but he hit titanic home runs — usually when Chapin needed them most.

Pitching a game in the big leagues? Now that was a surprise. Wise’s previous appearance on the mound came during his senior season at Chapin High. After stringing together five walks, McLeod ventured to the pitcher’s mound, took the ball from Wise and said, “Get your (bleeping) butt back to center field.”

Nonetheless, on June 29, 2012, Wise was on the receiving end of an index finger from Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi, who wanted his outfielder to head to the bullpen and warm up. New York trailed the White Sox, 14-7, at Yankee Stadium.

No catcher was available in the bullpen, so Wise threw about six pitches into a net before the phone rang. Wise was summoned to the mound, where he somehow got former teammates Paul Konerko to ground out and Rios to fly out to right field. Maybe he could do anything he put his mind to on a baseball field.

That was certainly the belief of his parents, uncles and cousins from an early age. One of Wise’s early Dixie Youth Baseball coaches put him in center field and told him to cover the outfield — foul line to foul line.

Wise learned to play the game in the field behind his parents’ home on Old Lexington Highway. His father, Larry, still supports the family as a longtime custodian at Chapin Middle School. His mother, Catha, stayed home to raise Dewayne and his older brother, Madrick.

Dewayne and Madrick never wanted for any necessities growing up, but baseballs and bats were luxuries the family could not afford. Dewayne and his cousin, Scott Williams, substituted a broomstick for a bat and bottle caps or cockleburs for baseballs. They made up games, like “strikeout” and “rolly polly,” and would play from sunup to sundown.

For a class project in the third grade, Dewayne created a Christmas tree ornament, a stick figure holding a baseball bat with the inscription: “I want to be a baseball player when I grow up.” Wise’s mother still hangs the ornament every Christmas.

Never, though, did Wise believe that a kid from a small town like Chapin could play in the major leagues. Yet, with each passing year, the legend of Dewayne Wise continued to grow in Chapin. His athletic prowess was known from “Robert the Cop,” who patrolled the streets with a limp, to McLeod, who began watching Wise play on the Crooked Creek Park recreation fields.

By the time Wise reached high school he was recognized as a three-sport standout. Eventually he would earn all-state honors as an outfielder in baseball, a point guard in basketball and a quarterback in football. He played on the varsity football and basketball teams as a sophomore and was late coming out for baseball that year. Mike Buddin was the head baseball coach then.

“I don’t think he’s ready to play varsity yet,” McLeod recalled Buddin saying.

“Mike, he just played basketball, give him a few days,” McLeod recalled saying.

“I’m going to let him stay with JVs.”

Two or three games and five or six home runs later, Wise was a varsity player.

From there, McLeod said nearly every practice and every game featured a highlight play from Wise, to the point where the unexpected became the expected. The bigger the stage, the better Wise seemed to play.

That proved true when Chapin faced Bishop England in the finale of a best-of-three series for the state championship in 1996, Wise’s junior year. The first pitch of the game buzzed under the chin of Wise, who did not bother to brush himself off as he dug in at home plate. He blasted the next pitch 450 feet for a home run to ignite a seven-run inning. Before his day was complete and Chapin had won the state title, Wise hit for the cycle and produced a spectacular catch in center.

No state championships were won by Wise on the basketball court or football field, yet he still was leaving a legacy. He was a shooter in basketball and a master of the dunk, thanks to spectacular leaping ability that is at odds with his 6-foot frame. In football, he was a two-year starter at quarterback.

During his senior season, Chapin was playing Saluda and needed to drive 70 yards to win the game with 1:15 remaining. Wise executed the two-minute drill to perfection, running for the winning touchdown on the final play of the game.

“He came off the field almost laughing, like, ‘Coach, we did that every week at practice. That was no big deal. We could do that again if we needed to,’ ” recalled Eddie Muldrow, Chapin’s coach at the time.

Following the season, Wise was an easy choice to represent South Carolina in the annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas. He was selected as a third quarterback and as a punter. When the South Carolina team suffered a spate of injuries in the defensive backfield during practice sessions, Wise was summoned to start at safety. He intercepted two passes, despite not having played defense since his sophomore season.

Brad Scott, then the coach at South Carolina, told Wise that a scholarship was waiting if baseball did not work out. A few months later, Wise was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the fifth round of the baseball draft.

Wise appointed his high school baseball coach, McLeod, as his agent.

For three nights, Wise, McLeod, Wise’s parents and a scout from the Reds sat around the Wises’ neat, all-brick, shotgun-style house and negotiated a signing bonus. Knowing Wise was not likely to attend college, the Reds attempted a low-ball offer, somewhere in the $10,000 to $15,000 range.

“He can go to Spartanburg Methodist and play for a year and get drafted again if you guys don’t want to pay him what he is worth,” McLeod recalled telling the scout.

On the third night, McLeod and Wise retreated to the front porch.

“What do you want to do?” McLeod recalled saying. “I think I’ve got you a pretty good offer.”

“Coach, I just want to play baseball,” McLeod recalled Wise saying.

“You realize, when you sign this contract, that tomorrow they’re going to put you on a plane and fly you out to Billings, Montana, where it’s cold and everybody is like me: They’re going to be wearing cowboy boots and blue jeans and listening to country music. And most of the people out there have never seen a black man in person. So, do you understand what you’re getting into?”

“I don’t care. I just want to play baseball.”

They returned to the house and Wise signed a contract for a bonus of $150,000.

During high school, Wise’s father had attempted to purchase a car for his son, who displayed little interest. Wise then waited until after his rookie-ball season in Billings to buy a Ford Explorer. He became enamored with that model when he drove his grandfather’s (Elbert) to the senior prom.

Three years later, Wise was earning the major-league minimum salary of $200,000 as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays at age 22. The Reds had not protected Wise on their roster, and Toronto selected him in the Rule 5 draft, meaning he had to remain in the major leagues the entire 2000 season or be returned to Cincinnati.

Wise admits to being unprepared for the big leagues. He should have been gaining experience in the minor leagues instead of sitting on Toronto’s bench. After managing 22 at-bats that season, he needed another season in the minors before returning to Toronto.

Over the past 11 seasons, Wise has proven to be a valuable late-inning defensive replacement and pinch-runner. He carries a respectable .264 career batting average, although his season high in at-bats is the 228 he accumulated in 2012 stints with the Yankees and White Sox.

He returns to Chapin every offseason to visit with family — his parents live in the same house, despite Wise’s attempts to purchase a new one — and occasionally takes batting practice with the Chapin High players. If McLeod mentions to Wise that the team is need of baseballs or batting gloves, boxes of supplies are soon to arrive at the school. McLeod and Muldrow swear Wise is the same easygoing, fun person as the one who left Chapin High in 1997.

“If you were picking teams in any sport, he would probably be picked, not only because of his athletic ability but also because he got along with people,” Muldrow said. “He was the kid in the huddle who wouldn’t chew people out, but he would say things that would make them play harder and make them play better.

“The kids knew he had their interests at heart, but he also wanted to win. That made him a friend to a lot of people. He didn’t think he was better than them.”

Even in the major leagues, he has developed a reputation for being a solid teammate. In July of 2012, the Yankees acquired outfielder Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners in a trade. To clear a roster spot, the Yankees released Wise.

When Suzuki arrived in the New York clubhouse, team captain Derek Jeter reframed questions from reporters who wanted to know how the Japanese hitting sensation would fit into the Yankees lineup. Jeter only wanted to talk about how the club would miss Wise as a contributor off the bench and as a teammate in the clubhouse.

For those reasons, you understand better why Wise is confident he will be wearing a big-league uniform come spring, and the entire community of Chapin will be pulling for him once again.

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