Connecting dots to induction for baseball greats
Feb 5, 2012 at 10:34 AM
Future Science Hill Hall of Famer Daniel Norris heads to Florida to begin preparation for spring training today.
The Toronto Blue Jays bonus baby’s name came up several times this week while researching former Science Hill baseball players Nick Crowe and Ivan “Jerry” Dempsey, who will be inducted in the Science Hill Athletics Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Dempsey, a catcher, was drafted in the 10th round by the Oakland A’s in 1969. That was the highest a Hilltopper had been drafted out of high school until Norris went in the second round last June.
Another Hilltopper Hall of Famer, Jeff Forney, was drafted 19th overall by Cincinnati in the old June secondary phase in 1985, but that was after his junior year at Florida Atlantic University.
Norris, Dempsey and Crowe have connectable dots. Like Norris, Dempsey had an offer to play at Clemson.
Crowe started as a freshman for Science Hill in the 1998 state tournament, when Bernie Young’s ’Toppers won the title. Norris started as a freshman in the 2008 state tournament.
Freshmen state tournament starters are rare. Science Hill Hall of Famer Ernie “Ferrell” Bowman, who played for the San Francisco Giants against the New York Yankees in the 1962 World Series, started as a freshman in the state tournament in 1951.
Crowe and Norris also were starting defensive backs in football, and probably would’ve started at quarterback if they hadn’t given up the sport. And they are both fond of Science Hill assistant football coach Benny Tolley, who quickly recalls hard hits each delivered on the gridiron.
One Tolley remembers involving Crowe came in preseason camp before his sophomore season. It was in a tackling drill, and teammate Matt Kirkland provided as much force as Crowe in the collision.
“Here they were, best friends paired up against each other — Crowe and Kirkland,” Tolley said. “And by golly, they were coming down through there and whack — they light each other up. Kirkland was more of linebacker/strong safety type, but Crowe did everything that I’d coached him to do.
“I told coach (Scott) McClanahan, ‘You can call off the dogs, the hunt’s over.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘I found me a corner, Nick Crowe.’”
Crowe made 85 tackles from his cornerback position and was All-Big East Conference as a sophomore.
“Nick didn’t shy away,” Tolley said. “It’s tough, and takes a special kid to play with that kind of mentality as a corner. And he was a great cover guy. Nick Crowe was so fun to coach. He was a Norris type.”
Actually, Crowe says, a hard hit he absorbed while running the option as a quarterback in a scrimmage against Greeneville before his junior season stopped his football career on a dime.
“My helmet flew off, my ear pads flew off,” said Crowe, who was also a productive running back as a sophomore. “They didn’t test me for it at the time, because that was pre-concussion era and all that, but I was 100 percent sure I had a concussion. I walked into practice the next day and I sat down and told Matt Kirkland, who also played baseball, ‘You know what? I don’t want to do this.’ After I made that decision, I played baseball 12 months a year.”
He epitomized a ballplayer. At Tennessee, Crowe stole home. He scored from second base after the throw to first on an infield chopper.
He homered off future minor-leaguer Boodle Clark after getting knocked down with one high and tight one evening at Tennessee High. He squeezed runners home and picked runners off first.
Hard work bought a college education and a lot of adventures. Crowe played in Cuba twice and spent a summer in Alaska.
Although he started at shortstop as a 14-year-old freshman en route to a state title, he said the following season was even more fun. Crowe was a sophomore and his brother, Brandon, was a senior in 1999.
Brandon, who played at Tennessee with Nick, was the state tournament MVP in 1998 thanks to two victories on the mound, including a complete-game victory against Germantown in the championship. Nick had a two-run single in the first inning of that one.
But Nick will tell you the following year’s team was more talented and deeper, and it was ranked No. 10 in USA Today. Science Hill went 28-2 thanks to a bitter end. Sullivan South and Scott Wade, who went on to a productive career at Kentucky, beat the Hilltoppers, 3-2, to eliminate them in a district game.
“Brandon was the No. 1 pitcher and I was the No. 2 pitcher,” Nick said. “At one time, I think I was 10-0 and he was probably around 13-0 before we ended up getting beat. So some of my best memories are from my sophomore year, just because we were so good that year. That was probably a better team all around.”
Nick said the state championship was too sudden to appreciate as it unfolded, but he quickly assessed the impact of the moment while on the bottom of a dogpile on which Brian Miller and Mike Rader jumped.
“Brian Miller was like 6-6 and you could see him leaping in the air,” Nick said. “I was a 14-year-old freshman and probably about 5-7 and 150 pounds soaking wet. … Brian Miller and Mike Rader — they both could dunk a basketball, obviously — and I remember the two of them just jumping and landing on me. I played shortstop and ended up on the bottom of the pile.”
Nick’s three-year career at Tennessee landed him on an all-decade team. He started at second base as a freshman at UT and was tied for second in runs. He led the Vols with a .327 average his sophomore season, despite a position change (starting 32 games at first base and 17 at third).
He made the move to catcher as a junior, and still hit .301 while starting 46 games. He transferred to ETSU for his senior season, and a bad hamstring didn’t keep him from batting a team-high .389 for a Bucs squad that included Caleb Moore and former Science Hill teammate Shane Byrne.
Crowe was still hampered by the hamstring when he needed to audition via major-league tryouts. His bat speed, which former Chicago Cubs manager Jim Lefebvre clocked in excess of 100 mph, would’ve surely landed him a multi-year look with some organization. But playing so many positions and playing so hard wore down his body, including Tommy John Surgery while at Tennessee.
“I went to a tryout and I couldn’t run,” Crowe said. “I just got it in my mind that I’d seen so many people go to the minors for three or four years, and have to go back to college and finish, and I had just a semester left to finish my accounting degree.”
So now Crowe, who made the SEC All-Academic team all three years at UT, is a CPA with Blackburn, Childers and Steagall.
Dempsey could’ve gone to Clemson to play for Bill Wilhelm in the fall of 1969. Wilhelm’s successor, Jack Leggett offered Norris a scholarship in the fall of 2010.
Dempsey played for Joe Shipley at ETSU instead.
“My cousin, Steve Fair, who went to UH — he pitched four years out there (at ETSU) and then played in the Braves organization for two or three years,” Dempsey said. “That was one of the big reasons I went to ETSU. I’d played a lot of summer ball with him.”
Dempsey, a 6-foot, 185-pounder, didn’t need long to remind Clemson what it missed.
“My first game in college we played at Clemson,” Dempsey said. “They threw one of their better pitchers against us and we beat them 1-0. I hit a triple in the first inning and knocked in the only run of the game and I think I threw out maybe three people trying to steal second.”
ETSU pitcher Jerry Weston painted a masterpiece, too.
“Jerry is a coach over at Sullivan South who was a really good defensive back on ETSU’s Grantland Rice Bowl team,” Dempsey said. “He was a sneaky-fast right-hander with a smooth motion. He had the best control of any pitcher I ever caught in my life. He threw two pitches the entire game that didn’t hit my mitt.
“He couldn’t throw a curveball if he had to, but he had pinpoint control and could move it around and set hitters up.”
After receiving Weston’s gem, throwing out would-be base stealers and his RBI, Dempsey was reminded he could’ve been wearing orange.
“Wilhelm was really a nice guy,” Dempsey said. “He come up and told coach Shipley after the game, ‘You stole this was from me. He needed to come down here and play with me.’”
Dempsey could’ve also signed with Charlie Finley’s Oakland Athletics. He said Allen Rhea, who’d pitched for the Johnson City Yankees in 1965-66 and finished his career for New York in Kinston, N.C., in 1968, was his summer league coach/advisor.
“One of the things he advised me to get was for them to pay for my college,” Dempsey said. “And the scout told me he’d give me the money I asked for, but Charlie Finley wouldn’t let them sign anybody to the college scholarship plan any more. But when the scout called me back in September he said, ‘I’ve talked Charlie into paying your way to college.’ I think the money was $20,000, which in 1969 was a lot of money.”
But playing with Fair, home cooking and getting an education weighed in ETSU’s favor. So did Dempsey’s precarious draft status for Vietnam.
It’s a wonder Dempsey could see that far ahead. He discovered he was nearsighted when he went to get his learner’s permit when he was 15, but didn’t wear glasses playing baseball until he was a junior at ETSU.
“I didn’t know a curveball had a dot in it until I was a 21-year-old junior in college,” Dempsey said. “Nobody ever told me that a curveball had a dot in it. Being a catcher, I knew that’s what the pitcher was gonna throw. But when I batted, every pitch I saw was as slick as a baby’s butt. I swung at a lot of balls in the dirt. I was a guess hitter.”
Dempsey, who said he batted over .300 all three seasons at Science Hill and topped out at about .375 his senior season (wooden-bat era), guessed right on a first-pitch curveball in the district championship at Cardinal Park his senior year.
“They actually walked the guy in front of me to load the bases,” Dempsey said. “I think maybe they had an idea I couldn’t hit a curveball and, of course, that’s what I went up there looking for. He hung one, and I hit a grand slam home run over the Marlboro Man in left-center field to lead a come-from-behind win over Sulphur Springs.”
Dempsey reels off teammates like Tony Street, Charlie Bailey, Jerry Jenkins, Mike Hyder, Larry and Ken Sherwood, Darrell Cole and Tommy Cox, and coaches such as John Broyles, Dennis Greenwell and Duard Aldridge while relishing his days at Science Hill.
“Dennis Greenwell was the head coach my junior and senior years,” Dempsey said. “John Broyles was the coach my first year. He was a great guy. We had camaraderie. We played as a team. …
“And the student body as a whole was always very supportive. There was a tremendous amount of pride in being a Hilltopper.”
And everyone seems to agree that, regardless of how high or fast Norris climbs the ladder, he’s certain to continue making Hilltoppers proud.
Charlie Hoarse: Science Hill Hall of Famer Sidney Smallwood wants to congratulate Happy Valley basketball coach Charlie Bayless, who announced this week he’s concluding his 60-year career at season’s end.
Smallwood, who was Science Hill’s athletic director for decades and is best known for bringing Steve Spurrier’s family to Johnson City when Spurrier was 12, was also a good basketball coach who matched wits with Bayless and led Science Hill to two state tournaments in the 1950s.
“I saw where my old friend Charlie Bayless has given up the reins out at Happy Valley,” Smallwood said. “Charlie used to call me on my birthdays. He tried to sing, but you couldn’t call it singing. It sounded like a hoarse parrot.”
Bayless might be warming up his pipes. Smallwood’s 96th birthday is March 11.