Anne Arundel County baseball was front and center Friday night at the 38th annual Tops in Sports Banquet at the Towson Center, Towson State University. Arundel High School grad Denny Neagle, a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins farm system, and his former high school coach, Bernie Walter, were honored at what is arguably the biggest and most prestigious baseball banquet in the nation.
Neagle became the fifth Anne Arundel product to receive the Maryland Star of the Future Award since the honor commenced in 1961, and Walter was cited along with his national champion Mayo Post No. 226 American Legion team. The two were part of a dais that included 1990 major league home run champion Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tigers; Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, the former Pittsburgh Pirates great; Oakland A's ace right-hander Dave Stewart; Baltimore Orioles Dave Johnson, Cal and Billy Ripken and many more.
Despite the cast of luminaries, Neagle and Walter took a back seat to no one in terms of baseball achievements this past season. Neagle, a 6-foot-4 stylish left-hander who was the Anne Arundel County Sun Baseball Player of the Year in 1986, shared Maryland Star of the Future honors with Orioles' lefty Mike Linskey, a Loyola High grad.
Linskey is on the Orioles' 40-man roster this spring after going 14-10overall with an ERA of 2.88 at the AA and AAA levels in the Birds' system. With the recent trade of two pitchers, Pete Harnisch and Curt Shilling, in the Glenn Davis deal, Linskey's chances of making the big club this season were enhanced.
It was the third time that the sponsoring organization, the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association, has honored double winners.
After a brilliant three-year career at the University of Minnesota, Neagle signed in 1989 for a hefty bonus with the Twins and has had a meteoric rise in the American League West Division organization. In only his second year of professional baseball, Neagle became one of just two minor league pitchersto win 20 games last summer.
Neagle was 8-0 at the Class A level before being promoted to AA Orlando, Fla., in the Southern League and going 12-3 with a 2.45 ERA. As a result of his spectacular overall 20-3 season, Neagle has been invited to the Twins' major league spring training camp.
It is not unrealistic to think that Neagle could make the jump to the big show this spring or before the season is over. Twins' officials are very high on the southpaw, and even several ofthe big league players have been impressed with what little they have seen of him.
In fact, star third baseman Gary Gaetti complained last summer when the Twins started bringing up reinforcements from the bushes that they didn't call up Neagle. When guys like that speak up for you, you know you have arrived.
Friday night, Neagle thanked some of his former coaches,including Walter and his coach in his 15-to-16-years-old sandlot league days, the legendary Sterling "Sheriff" Fowble. Neagle played the summer of his junior year with Fowble's Highland Federal team.
There is no question, though, that it was Walter who provided Neagle with the necessary education to become a professional baseball player. Walter gave Neagle the foundation, confidence and know-how to make it in the game, and the 22-year old lefty is grateful.
Neagle is just one of scores of players who have profited from the expert tutelage of Walter, who is considered by many to be the best high school baseball coach in the East.
"It was about time that we honor Bernie for all he has done for baseball and for his dedication to the game and its kids," Tops in Sports Chairman Frank Sliwika said.
This past summer was a banner year for the man who has won four state high school championships, as Walter's Mayo Legion team won the National Legion championship and his USA Junior National 18-and-under team finished third in the World Tournament in Havana. Walter coached the USA team to the world title in 1987.
Walter will be honored later this month in New Orleans at the Coaches' Convention with the Easton Sports Master Coach of the Year Award. Believe me, there is no more deserving recipient than Walter.
By the way, if you are wondering who the other Anne Arundel countians are who have won the Maryland Star of the Future Award, let me tell you.
Chesapeake High grad Steve Monson, who is a pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers chain, won it in 1989.
George Kazmarek, a local State Farm agent who resides in Linthicum and attended Mount St. Joseph High while growing up in Brooklyn Park, won the award in 1973. Arguably the greatest amateur hitter to ever play in this area, Kaz signed out of the University of Maryland with the New York Mets and despite impressive slugging stats never made it to the big leagues.
Had the DH been in vogue back when Kaz played, surely some American League club would have gobbled him up.