Class of 1986
By Webster Stevens
Special to the Cooperstown Gazette
Sometimes the best stories get overlooked by the mainstream media.
Lost amidst the drama that was the Al Davis / Lane Kiffin saga and the conviction of O.J. Simpson this week was a story that makes us remember why we fell in love with sports in the first place.
No gorilla marketing strategies. No sensationalism. Just baseball. Pure. On a field of dreams.
Such were the conditions when Michael Scharff, a former Las Lomas High School and Diablo Valley College baseball star who saw his career cut short by injury, squared off in the batters box against Nolan Ryan (yes, that Nolan Ryan), in a rain soaked diamond just down the way from Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Scharff had entered a Southwest Airlines contest earlier in the year, and his story detailing his favorite baseball superstition (involving a potato… long story) won the contest. The payoff – an all expense paid trip to baseball's most hallowed ground – and a chance to square off against arguably the greatest pitcher the game has ever seen.
And though the game was meant to be lighthearted, the atmosphere quickly changed to one of respectful competitiveness when Scharff began the game by letting Nolan's first three pitches go by.
Scharff, who became a local legend in Northern California with his pitching arm and bat as part of the Bay Area National Champion Base Ruth league team in the mid-80's, seemed to almost taunt Ryan into throwing a pitch in the strike zone.
And as Robin Ventura can attest, you don't want to push Mr. Ryan too far.
Ryan's eyes steadied… calmly, but with a singular purpose to strike out the kid from the East Bay. It was pure sandlot in a West Texas oil field. Stickball in the Bronx. It was baseball. And for a moment, it was as if Ryan was back in Alvin, Texas as a 12-year old playing in the shadow of the refineries, and as if Scharff was back in Walnut Creek, Calif., a stolen Hank Aaron card in his hip pocket for good luck.
The next pitch came. And during the flight of the ball one could almost feel that something magical was about to happen. That that magic was perhaps Black Magic will be for other generations to decide.
For what happened next is something that will live in lore.
Scharff cracked a shot that made Robert Redford's hit in "The Natural" look like a soft pop up to left.
Some said it traveled more than 800 ft. Others will say that is an exaggeration, but not by much.
And as Scharff hobbled the bases on an injured right ankle (an old football injury that had forced him to relinquish his high school starting quarterback position), one couldn't help but think that somehow Babe Ruth and Kirk Gibson had been fused together in some sort of pact with the devil.
But Scharff is no devil. He brought a childhood friend just back from a stint with the Marines in Iraq along with him. He coaches his daughters' sports teams back home. In the spirit of Paul Newman, Scharff's "Dusty Grape" vineyard produces wine of the same name that he donates exclusively to charity. And though he lives on the border of gang infested Concord, he is a pillar of the tiny Pleasant Hill community that he now calls home.
In that moment in Cooperstown, Scharff did what thousands of major league batters could not. He rocked Nolan Ryan.
The remainder of the game after Scharff's Mexican standoff with Ryan is a blur. There were other hits. (Scharff would later hit a line drive single as hard as any man has before or since, a shot that would probably rate its own story were it not for his legendary earlier homerun.) There were also errors. Allegations of Red Bull usage. Even controversy as to the final score.
But as the players left the field and began boarding a bus for the ride back to their respective hotels, one could make out the figures of the two warriors – Scharff and Ryan – off on their own.
Ryan, in his private car, had pulled over and Scharff was leaning in the car window. It was a moment of respect. A moment between a mongoose and a cobra. A pitcher and a hitter. And it may have been fleeting, but it was real.
As Scharff boarded the bus, one could see the homerun ball planted firmly in his hand. What was obscured was the signature of the man who had thrown the pitch. Nolan Ryan had placed his mark on the ball.
Michael Scharff had placed his soul on it.
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