Reich won respect, hearts on field, in life

Soldier: Steve Reich, "a classy guy and a heck of a pitcher," died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.

July 02, 2005|By Mike Klingaman and Childs Walker | Mike Klingaman and Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Six innings, 11 runs, 14 hits and not a single strikeout. That was Steve Reich's pitching line in 1996 for an Orioles farm team in the only two starts of what was a trying career by standard baseball measurement.

But Reich's life - which ended earlier this week when his Army helicopter crashed in Afghanistan - defied any such summation. He was, according to former teammates and others who knew him, a gifted, courageous, honorable and highly motivated credit to his family, town and country.

"He was the most impressive young man I have ever dealt with," said Earl Winn, the Orioles scout who, in 1995, signed the then-25-year-old Reich. "He was a marginal prospect, but a well-grounded one with great work habits, desire and strength of character."

Those attributes earned Reich a pro contract, Winn said.

Reich's baseball career was brief - a one-month stint in Single-A ball - before he was recalled by the Army to complete a four-year military hitch.

He never again left the service.

A pilot, Reich was killed when his Chinook was shot down Tuesday in eastern Afghanistan, killing all 16 soldiers on board. Reich, 34, was a major serving his fourth tour of duty.

"It's a tragedy to lose someone like that," said Joe Ferguson, who managed Reich on the High Desert (Calif.) Mavericks in 1996. Despite getting shelled in his two starts, both losses, the hard-working left-hander was making progress in the swirling, windswept climes, Ferguson said.

"Forty-mile-an-hour gusts are not conducive to great earned-run averages," the manager said. "Steve was starting to relax a bit. He had a little sinker and a breaking ball, but you knew that his mental makeup was going to make the difference.

"He just never got enough time to show what he could do."

Before he returned to the military, Reich called the Orioles and made them an offer.

"I'd like to return my [$3,000] bonus," he said.

Imagine that, Winn said.

"It didn't surprise me, based on his integrity."

In Reich's hometown of Washington, Conn., residents prepared for the annual July 4 fireworks gala, which will be held in memory of their fallen son.

"This incident has struck to the heart of our little community," said Dick Sears, first selectman of Washington (pop. 3,500).

A 1993 graduate of West Point, Reich starred on the diamond, winning 19 of 29 decisions at Army and giving archrival Navy fits. He was 4-0 with a 0.96 ERA against the Mids.

"Steve was a classy guy and a heck of a pitcher who could have played for any Division I power," said Bob MacDonald, then Navy's assistant coach.

Reich still holds Army records for career shutouts, innings pitched and strikeouts. He holds the single-game record for strikeouts (17), which he set in games against Air Force in 1992 and New York Tech (his final career start) in 1993.

"He was somebody that everybody looked up to," said Peter Quimby, an Army teammate. "Every time he took the ball and stepped on the mound, he was a warrior."

Quimby, a pitcher, said Reich dazzled opponents with an upper-80s fastball; a split-finger fastball and pinpoint control.

After graduation, Reich made the USA Baseball national team and carried the flag at opening ceremonies of the World University Games. He pitched in 17 games that summer, going 2-1 with a 2.48 ERA while playing beside such rising stars as Todd Helton (Colorado Rockies) and Mark Bellhorn (Boston Red Sox).

That would be the last organized ball Reich would play until his brief stint in the Orioles' system.

Reich was the last senior from the 1993 Army baseball team still in active service, said Lance Boyce, a four-year teammate at West Point.

"He had such a sense of worth, and he was always successful at everything he wanted to do," Boyce said.

For Winn, the Baltimore scout who signed him a decade ago, Reich's death hit home.

"I didn't know him long and I didn't know him well, but he made a great impression on me," he said.

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