Former Rookie of Year true Downeast treasure
I had the good fortune a number of years ago to spend a day with the likeable Carlton Willey, the major league baseball pitcher from Cherryfield, who died recently.
Back in the day, old friends Jim DiFrederico and Gary Brewster, two other athletes of renown from Stearns High School of Millinocket fame, and I ran baseball card shows.
On this particular Saturday, our featured guest was Carlton Willey. What a treat it was for the three bosses of the show and many others to be around such a man.
We all spent the day at the Bangor Civic Center, and Mr. Willey was our guest autograph signer.
You may have attended one of those shows yourself.
Fans and autograph hounds lined up for a couple of two-hour signing periods with Carlton Willey, serving as a patient, signing star.
Perhaps if you tossed in the word “humble,” then you’re getting closer to defining the former Major League star’s total makeup.
In a nutshell, this guy could pitch a baseball, and, unless you asked him, he wouldn’t say a word about what he had once done in the Bigs.
Ask him about it all, and he’d rub his chin, look at the floor, smile a little bit, then aw-shucks his way through his tale of his days in Milwaukee and New York as a National League pitcher.
What a jump it was from Cherryfield to the big leagues.
Here’s the thing that is the most impressive about this guy. Willey brought the talent and the class back to Cherryfield, and he never brought any of the glitter as he strode along his Downeast corridors.
This solid guy and I hit it off from the day we met until the time he drove himself back to his old haunts.
I also had the good fortune to wind up my own career as a coach, traveling the same highways as Willey traveled, when I coached boys basketball at Narraguagus High School in nearby Harrington.
There, you will find a baseball field, named in Carlton’s honor. Admittedly, not all the young men who play on that field really know what an honor it was to step on turf that is named for a true local legend.
But if they inquired about the name of their home field to guys such as former baseball coach John Sawyer — he currently serves the high school as its principal — they would find out quickly exactly what the field is all about.
Sawyer, no stranger to success in hardball himself, is the quintessential Downeast storyteller and he could lapse into a story or three about Carlton Willey.
When my coaching career began, I spent a weekend in Harrington, winning a state church league basketball crown, and I’ll always remember the beautiful gym and how loud it sounded when a crowd showed up for a game.
If you’re not familiar with that region, there exists a passion for local sports that, perhaps, doesn’t exist in other parts of the state.
When the day was winding down at the Civic Center in Bangor, I watched as adults and kids hung around Mr. Willey. Humility personified, he shook all of our hands, then made his way to the parking lot, got in his everyday car, and headed back home.
Oh, that such former stars could all be that gracious.
30-Second Time Out
As I wrap up a lengthy hospital stay, former Schenck High School of East Millinocket hoopster, Eddie Dempsey, deserves mention today.
As a proud member of the Wolverines, young Eddie never stepped on the Bangor Auditorium floor as an actual player in a game.
Oddly, Eddie did finally achieve recognition on the floor when he received his registered nursing degree from Eastern Maine Community College in 2006.
Once again, sports and hoops seem to find their way into my life, long after I’ve retired from the coaching game.