Reunion reignites a baseball brotherhood

Roy Hobbs Baseball

Enka High 1970 State Champs Photo Courtesy of JD Hinson 1970 Asheville Enka AAA Champions: Front Row – JD Hinson, holding coach’s son (3rd from left), Benny Miller (6th from left); Second Row – Dick Fusco (far right); Back Row – Larry McCall (7th from left).

Roy Hobbs Baseball

High school championships and the baseball bonds formed long ago may dim a bit over half a century.

The athletes gain weight and hair turns grey or disappears. The newspaper clippings chronicling the achievements yellow and the pages may turn brittle, somewhat likes the bones of the men who once flew around base paths or galloped after fly balls in the outfield.

But some things remain priceless. That’s the camaraderie and friendships and insoluble bonds forged on ballfields and dugouts and bus rides while still teenagers.

That’s why Roy Hobbs Hall of Famer (2016) J. D. Hinson and three teammates from the 1970 Asheville Enka (N. C.) state AAA championship baseball team re-united in April. Hinson and Dick Fusco played for the Carolina Rockies at an event in their state called the Spring Dinger. Larry McCall and Benny Miller were spectators.

As Hinson said, “It was a time to ‘shake hands, hug, catch-up.’”

It was also a time to savor memories and friendships.

“The reunion was great,” Hinson said. “Just the guys finding out I was playing and come to see us play. We talked about the old times in working to win a state championship and what we did to develop our skills to get the best each one of us has.”

Yes, and to reminisce about a special time.

“It was the joy of accomplishing a dream we had at the beginning of the year,” Hinson said.

They all carved separate paths. McCall was the ace of the pitching staff, a fire balling right-handed pitcher talented enough to reach the majors a few years later and pitch for the New York Yankees.

Hinson, a speedy centerfielder in 1970, became such a well-rounded educator in North Carolina that he coached football, basketball, volleyball, girls’ and boys’ basketball, as well as baseball.

Before becoming a mentor to teens, he was one himself, a very swift one.

“J.D. could go get it in centerfield,” McCall said.

Fusco is a successful businessman in the Asheville area. Miller, who worked at the Union Pacific Railroad for 40 years, has been battling Parkinson’s disease in recent years.

In the spring, they re-connected. It was the first time in many years Fusco sat down and chatted with McCall.

“Larry’s just an old country boy,” Fusco said with fondness.

They all share 1970 and Enka High and that state championship.

“It’s such a long time ago,” McCall said.

Indeed. Wood bats were used at the time. Schools were still segregated in the South.

Far away from Enka High School, the big leagues had begun divisional play only one year earlier.

The designated hitter did not start in the American League until 1973 when a young New York Yankees slugger named Ron Blomberg became the first DH. Blomberg is now 73.

The Braves were new to the South in 1970. They moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966.

Chick Gandil and Ray Schalk of 1919 Black Sox infamy died in 1970 and future Hall of Famer Jim Thome was born. Also born that year was a future big-league pitcher named Pat Mahomes, whose son Patrick is now the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs and one of the best players in the NFL.

Yes, a long time ago.

Although Hinson and Fusco still play as their 70th birthdays beckon just over the horizon, McCall did not participate in the Spring Dinger. He has been invited to play in the Roy Hobbs World Series but has declined that as well.

“My body just says no,” McCall said.

Decades of throwing batting practice in pro ball have taken their toll.

“I threw batting practice every day,” McCall said.

McCall, now 69, was a key to the title, doing something modern rules likely prevent high school pitchers doing in 2021. McCall pitched the state semi-final game on a Friday night and returned Saturday morning to start and dominate in the state title game.

McCall said he was often called “String Bean” back then. But he could bring it.

Fusco recalls “how dominant we were and how dominant Larry was.” He said McCall’s ERA that season was under 1.00.

No pitch counts in 1970 for McCall.

“That’s for sure,” McCall said.

Now, more than a half century after that magical season, some of the details may be fuzzy but the dominance of their ace remains vivid in the memory of teammates.

It started with the semi-final on Friday night.

“I think he had a 1-hitter,” Hinson said.

Then came the next day and a 10 a.m. title game. Hinson recalls his friend pitched a 3-hitter.

He later went on to a long career as pitching coach in professional baseball. His long pro journey began when the Baltimore Orioles signed him as un-drafted free agent in 1971 for $500 and a suit.

All these years later, after a lifetime in pro baseball, McCall still recalls the 1970 Enka High team.

He rattled off the names and positions of players such as third baseman Gary Tweed.

“He could pick it,” McCall said.

Shortstop Jeff Connors was also quarterback of the football team.

Second baseman Mike Morgan went on to a career in country music.

He mentioned names on the 1970 roster as if it were weeks ago and not five decades.

The Enka High baseball coach then was named Jerry Robinson. What he taught his players focused on more than squeeze bunts and hitting the cut-off man and not making the third out at third base.

Hinson later went on and won 13 conference championships as a coach at Owen High School. Coach Robinson set an example.

“He was subtle in his actions,” Hinson said. “Don’t mistake my soft voice for a weakness.”

The 1970 Enka High state champs were not weak. The champions are already looking forward to the 2022 Spring Dinger.

“To catch back up on the past year,” Hinson said. “We have all gone our separate ways in life but have great memories of being on one the best teams in the country. Priceless.”