Wiedmer: Mark McCarter still a master with words and stories

Wiedmer: Mark McCarter still a master with words and stories

December 10th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

In the summer of 1972, while working out prior to that night's game with the Asheville Orioles of the Southern League, third baseman Doug DeCinces heard a gunshot, then another, and another, all of them landing within six feet of him at Asheville's ball yard.

Fearing for his own life and that of the ball boy standing near him, DeCinces grabbed the young man and ran into the dugout. Turns out a kid in a nearby home had broken into his father's gun case and fired off a few shots with the old man's rifle. No one was hurt. No harm, no foul.

But 10 years later, the Orioles traded DeCinces to the California Angels to make way for that ball boy in the starting lineup. His name was Cal Ripken Jr. Maybe you've heard of him. Starting that 1982 season at third, he missed the back end of a doubleheader that year on May 29, then played in 2,632 straight games, a major league record that almost certainly never will be broken.

Yet without DeCinces sweeping him to safety that day in Asheville, who knows what might have happened to the youngster?

That's just one of the stories former Chattanooga News-Free Press sports writer and current Huntsville Times columnist Mark McCarter tells in his upcoming book detailing the first 50 years of the Southern League. In town Monday to speak to the Chattanooga Quarterback Club, he expects the still-unnamed book to hit the Internet and store shelves around mid-January. You can keep up with its release date through August Publications and www.ballparkdigest.com.

The publisher could do worse than call it "Fifty Reasons to Love the Southern League," since that's the number of individual stories McCarter chose to write to pay tribute to a league that's been at least a temporary home to such titanic talents as Miguel Cabrera, Don Mattingly, Reggie Jackson, Curt Schilling, Tom Glavine, Chipper and Andruw Jones and Rollie Fingers.

"My nom and dad used to take me to Lookouts games at Engel Stadium," said McCarter, who grew up in Brainerd. "Afterward, I'd search through the weeds for home run balls."

The News-Free Press hit a journalistic home run when they hired McCarter, then turned him loose on the Lookouts when the Oakland A's returned Class AA baseball here in 1976.

"That first couple of years I probably covered 40 of 70 road games and all the home games," he said. "I'd take a glove and cleats on the road. Sometimes I'd field ground balls or pop-ups. I was 21, basically the same age as a lot of the guys I was covering."

It's far from all he's covered, of course. McCarter was courtside when the Chattanooga Mocs won their first Southern Conference championship in basketball and their last SoCon football playoff berth in 1984. He left the old News-Free Press in 1989 to run the sports department at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. He held a couple of public relations posts after that, then went back to being an ink-stained wretch in Huntsville, where he's been the state's sportswriter of the year three times.

And his lifelong obsession with diversity of subjects has led McCarter to some colorful stories, from the World Series of Dominoes in Andalusia, Ala., to the "Buff Bowl," a flag football game staged at a nudist resort just north of Tampa the day before the 2000 Super Bowl.

"It was coed," McCarter recalled. "The Bare Buns versus the Totally Tans. There were no marching bands, but they had cheerleaders. And I got the best sports quote of all-time. One of the quarterbacks told me that they had one rule above all others: 'If you grab something and it doesn't come off in three seconds, let go.'"

He also forged this observation upon covering a Nick Saban news conference the day after returning from the 2008 Beijing Olympics: "What do China and Alabama football have in common? They're both run by 5-foot-tall dictators."

Yet for all his wizardry with words regarding all sports, he always has seemed most at home with baseball, which shows on every page of his ode to the Southern League.

"There's been one perfect game pitched in the history of the league," he said. "A guy named Chips Swanson. Never pitched in the majors. But he became a music editor. His credits include 'Cheers,' 'Frasier' and 'Wings.' I feel sorry for him. He lives in Hollywood. He just got back from a lengthy vacation in Hawaii and he says some health issues have raised his [golf] handicap to a 2. Tough life."

Then there's Denny Walling, the former major leaguer who once played for the Lookouts. Upset with his team's effort at one point during Walling's time with the Lookouts, manager Rene Lachemann attempted to shake up his club by showing them he had (Oakland owner) Charlie Finley's phone number and he'd be happy to call the owner about their play.

Walling, a hot prospect who had spent a few games the previous year in Oakland, reportedly replied: "Wow, Lach, that's not the same number he gave me."

But all that and much more is in the book, including a forward by Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, who grew up in Huntsville.

What you won't need to buy the book to appreciate is how McCarter views himself after more than 40 years in the business.

Said the author: "I've been a baseball guy forever."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.