Dad had kept it a secret from me for over a month that his company was doing some kind of promotional work with the Tennessee Smokies and that he’d met some of the players. One of who was Sumter Henderson — their shortstop. Dad told him that his son was serious about playing ball and was like his biggest fan, and Sumter agreed to the idea of being a birthday surprise for me in 2009.
So I got to have my 17th birthday dinner sitting next to Sumter Henderson. (It was a Block tradition that the birthday kid always got to sit at the head of the table.)
He brought me a ball he’d autographed and a bat that the players Dad had met had signed, which was too awesome for words (I brought them to California with me.) But even better was getting to talk to a real pro ball player. And not just any pro ball player. If it wasn’t Cal Ripken Jr, it was pretty dang close.
It gets better because Sumter (I started out calling him Mr. Henderson that night, but I’ve been calling him by his first name for a long time) turned out to be this amazingly cool guy. He was only 5 years older than me, but, when you’re 17 and a junior in high school and the other dude is 22 and playing pro ball, he seems a lot older than you than he really is.
So he could have just been polite to me at dinner and gone home as soon as he could after I blew out the candles on the coconut cake…but he was a whole lot more than just polite. I don’t know that either of us said more than five words to anybody else all night (although Sumter did say “thank you ma’am” and “this is some of the best fried chicken I ever tasted” to Mom…so I guess that’s 14 words lol). I know I must have gushed like an idiot for a while, but we eventually managed to have a really serious conversation about baseball. Not just how to play it, but also what it’s like to make your living at it. That was a first for me. We talked until it was past midnight and Dad said I needed to get to bed. (Dad even let me get away without doing any homework that night. Biology the next day was a total disaster, but science was always a disaster with me, and that D on the pop quiz was worth it.)
When he was leaving, Sumter told me that he’d call me and maybe we could get together at one of the batting cages in Knoxville sometime.
Y’all know how it feels when a girl says she’ll call you “sometime” and you drive yourself crazy wondering whether or not she meant it? It was a hundred times worse wondering whether Sumter would call me. People say shit they don’t mean all the time. But when you’re a teenager you take everything so seriously. Mom told me not to get my hopes up, and I knew Sumter had a whole grown-up life and a live-in girlfriend…so I was working hard at not being disappointed when he didn’t call.
But, about a week later, he did call. And we did get together at the batting cage. Not like every day or anything, but we did it a few times (ok, I remember exactly: it was 3) that winter. We even stopped off at the Waffle House afterwards once.
I guess it’d be cool for me to be able to say that in those three sessions with Sumter, I turned my swing completely around and I batted .425 the next season. The truth is that I’d batted .402 my sophomore year, so my swing didn’t need to be turned around completely. Sumter didn’t try. We just took turns batting, I watched him close-up, and he made a bunch of suggestions for me to experiment with. Some didn’t turn out too good…like standing closer to the plate. Sumter was one of those batters who crowded the plate. Whenever I tried it in a game, I ended up getting hit by pitches and getting into fights with pitchers because I felt like they were doing it on purpose. So that didn’t last long.
On the other hand, Sumter suggested that I not get into too deep a crouch when batting. “You’re not that tall…you don’t need to make yourself shorter” turned out to be great advice. (I was probably 5’9” my junior year in high school. I didn’t get to my full just under six feet until I got to college.)
Sumter also told me to stop playing football. I didn’t quit mid-season my junior year, but I didn’t go back senior year, even though I had a pretty good shot at second-string quarterback. And the girls that go with that lol. He made a very good point: I could get hurt playing football and mess up my chances for baseball. Put that way, the decision was a no brainer.
One more piece of advice he gave me that I’ve followed ever since: never never even think about steroids or shit like that. He said I should trust the body that the Good Lord gave me. Believe me, we had shit like that in the locker room at school, and, when you’re 17 and you wish you were bigger and stronger, it’s real tempting when it’s offered to you. I’m not gonna say where the shit came from or who used it, but it wasn’t me. I know some guys who got away with it, but I also know some guys who got into real deep trouble as a result of messing around with performance enhancing drugs. I’m glad I had someone to make sure I didn’t become one of them.