Four years ago, Richard Johnson made the trip with the Arundel Starsto the National Amateur Baseball Federation World Series, but this morning he is with the team in spirit as they travel to Louisville, Ky.
Johnson, a former standout athlete at Severna Park High and Western Maryland College, died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm last March at age 28. The guys who play for the Arundel Stars never will forget him and wear his initials on one uniform sleeve and his No. 25 on the other.
This past weekend, the Stars (45-15) won the NABF Southeast Regional in five straight games in Cocoa, Fla., to qualify for the World Series in Louisville.
"We hang Richard's No. 25 jersey up in our dugout every game we play," said Stars skipper Dan Fielder.
Fielder was a very close friend of Johnson and was crushed by his sudden death.
Johnson was living and working in Baltimore with his wife, Stacy, expecting their first child when tragedy struck. Johnson was on a skiing trip to Seven-Springs, Pa., when he collapsed and died of the undetected aneurysm.
"There must have been 2,000 people at his funeral. It was unbelievable," said Fielder. "It was really tough for all of us because he was such a great guy from a very close family. Rich really had his life together, college grad, good job, great family and wife and his first baby on the way.
"We decided to dedicate this season to him, and it's great that we have advanced to the World Series for him. I just hope we can win it for him, and somewhere I'm sure he knows we will give it everything we have to do it."
In Cocoa, the Stars reeled off five consecutive wins, including a 15-2 rout of Long Island, N.Y., in the finale and a hard-earned 9-8 win in 14 innings over the host and favorite, Cocoa.
"Game three was the big one, the game that gave us the momentum to win it, because Cocoa was an arrogant team that thought they were going to walk away with the regional," said Fielder.
Instead of Cocoa, the Stars walked away with the World Series bid, literally. Squeezing the strike zone to "about the size of a postage stamp," Fielder said, the umpires made things tough for the pitchers.
Fielder's hurlers adjusted to the minuscule strike zone, but opposing chuckers did not. The Stars benefited from more than 60 free passes to their hitters in the five games whiletheir own pitchers walked only nine guys in the entire tournament.
"We have a lot of control pitchers on our staff, and they learnedearly that the umpires weren't going to call any strikes at the lettersand kept the ball down," said Fielder.
The Stars opened with a 13-2 rout of St. Petersburg, Fla., as winning pitcher Chris Garber, from Madison University but a Riviera Beach resident, did not walk a batter. Former county high school stars Earl Williams (Andover) and Jim McNally (Old Mill, Anne Arundel Community College) had three hits each along with Eastern Shore native Scott Milligan.
Rick Stang (Northeast, AACC) had two hits and two RBI in the opener.
Suffolk, N.Y., was the Stars' second victim by 11-3 as the winners took advantage of 18 walks to just two by their own hurler, Eddie Luers (AACC). Infielder Bob Lilliock (Glen Burnie, AACC) drew three of the walks and tallied three times, while Milligan and Jay Schline (Chesapeake, AACC) had two hits each.
The big game against the Cocoa Expos was playedin 100-degree heat and saw the Stars overcome a 7-4 deficit in the bottom of the ninth and a one-run deficit in the 12th before winning in the 14th frame.
Williams, an ex-Baltimore Orioles' farmhand, doubled in two in the ninth to make it 7-6, and Lilliock's suicide squeeze bunt with one out tied it at seven.
Mike Shockley worked the first nine innings for the Stars in that one and walked six before giving way to Todd Marshall, who went the rest of the way. Cocoa touched Marshall for a run in the top of the 12th, but two of a total 11 walks by its pitchers would cost it.
After Cocoa went ahead, 8-7, McNally drew a base on balls. With one out, Stang hit a high hopper to third that was misplayed by the third baseman who threw the ball down the right-field line. McNally scored all the way from first to tie it up.
The Stars could not wrap it up until the 14th, when McNally walked again, this time with one out. Milligan's perfect hit-and-run single to right sent McNally to third. An attempted pickoff throw by the Cocoa catcher to first was in the dirt, and by the time it was retrieved, McNally had slid home with the winning run.
"That brought us back to life," said Fielder. "We just didn't quit against a really good team, and it carried over into the final two games."
The Stars then hammered Jacksonville, Fla., 9-0, and then Long Island in the championship game. Chris Kojack (UMBC) twirled a three-hitter with six strikeouts and no walks to stop Jacksonville, while his mates took advantage of nine walks and timely hitting.
Williams and Lilliock had two hits each, and Chuck Reid (Glen Burnie, AACC) knocked in three runs.