There’s a window of opportunity for kids playing baseball, so former major league player Brad Chalk can only hope players on this year’s Northwood Little League team in Williamsport, Pa., heed his advice.
Marc Young, a teammate of Chalk’s on the Northwood team and later on two state championship teams at Riverside High, said it was the best of times for a kid who just wanted to play ball before injuries and life interrupted.
“It gives me goose bumps thinking about it,” said Young, once a promising pitcher drafted by the Baltimore Orioles out of high school. “Those were the good days, and we were good.
“I’m proud of the team going to Williamsport, but I’m envious.”
Chalk spoke to the team before it began its run to the Little League World Series. Northwood’s first game is on Friday. He said the occasion was surreal, particularly when he ran into the father of former teammate Nick Mershon, whose younger brother David plays for this Northwood team.
“We were a pretty stout group,” Chalk said.
Considering the thousands who wore Northwood uniforms since the league received a charter 47 years ago, Chalk was a rarity. A career center fielder at Riverside High and Clemson, he was selected by the San Diego Padres in the second round of the 2007 draft and played professionally for five seasons. He reached Class AAA in the San Diego organization before finishing in 2011 with the Pittsburgh organization.
Chalk, Young and Alex Farotto, teammates at Northwood and later on those championship teams at Riverside, were all drafted by the pros. Several of their teammates played major college baseball or football.
“We had some truly great teams and some outstanding players,” said Pat Leach, who coached at Northwood for a number of years. “We certainly had the talent and certainly had the heart. We were blessed.”
Chalk, Young and Farotto were contemporaries at 11- and 12-years old of Kyle Enders, Brad Hocking, Chris Stone and Nick Mershon. Young won 28 games at Riverside, including his last 27. He signed with Spartanburg Methodist but injuries caught up with him. After Riverside, Farotto became a left-handed specialist in the South Carolina bullpen and in 2009 was drafted in the 34thround by the Chicago White Sox.
Enders joined Farotto and Hocking at USC where he was the Gamecocks’ catcher when they won the first national championship. Hocking, state player of the year as a junior pitcher at Riverside, was forced out of the game in college by a torn labrum from high school.
Mershon, a well regarded prospect in high school, played at Furman University and then professionally with independent league teams. And Stone eventually chose football, playing at Clemson and Furman as a walk-on.
Chalk said Hocking and Young were nasty. “I hated hitting off Marc because of his curve and Hocking had electric stuff.”
“When you look back a think about the people I met along the way and friendships I made, it’s amazing,” Chalk said.
Leach cautioned against comparing generations because the landscape was altered over the years. Travel teams, virtually nonexistent at that time, today typically skim the best talent and many kids play almost all year.
When Leach first coached at Northwood, if a kid wanted to continue playing after the season he might join an AAU or Babe Ruth team. After taking a group of Northwood players for an invitational tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y., Leach and some other fathers started one of the first fall ball programs in the Upstate. Travel teams soon followed.
“I think our guys would rather play baseball than eat,” he said. “They loved the game that much.”
Leach praised the current Northwood team and their coaches “for an outstanding job,” pointing out how their success seemed to galvanize the community and attract attention from throughout the Southeast. Several members of the Atlanta Braves sent video congratulations to the team.