Thursday, August 24, 2006

Honoring Lloyd McClendon

On Friday, Little League will induct Lloyd McClendon into the Hall of Excellence at its museum. The organization has chosen wisely.

Before the 2005, the greatest Little League World Series took place in 1971. That's when McClendon, a strapping kid from Gary, Indiana, took on the the perrennial powerhouse team from Taiwan in the championship game.

The Gary all-stars were the only black team to advance to the championship game in Little League history. And they faced as tough a team as anyone ever has. Asian teams so dominated the LLWS that foreign teams were actally banned from the tournamenbt one year. Taiwan and Japan won eleven titles over a fifteen-year period from 1967 to 1981.

Gary and Taiwan fought to a draw for eight innings, two past regulation.

McClendon was 12 when he took the mound to face Taiwan on August 28, 1971. A pitcher/catcher for the Anderson Little League all-stars, McClendon stood 5-11 and dominated the tournament like no player before or since—until the last inning of the final game.

McClendon hit two home runs in Gary’s first two games. After that, the opposing pitcher walked him intentionally. Taiwan’s pitcher, Hsu Chin-Mu pitched to McClendon in the first inning, and McClendon hit a three-run home run. After that, Taiwan refused to let him hit. By the end of the series, McClendon had five homers in five at-bats and five intentional walks.

McClendon also pitched for Gary. At the end of the regulation six innings, Gary and Taiwan’s Chiaya Little League were tied, 3-3. McClendon stayed in the game and held Tawan’s scoreless for two more innings.

McClendon’s pitching form was almost perfect. He kicked his leg high, contained his body’s energy on his strong left leg, reared back and whipped the ball forward. Landing on the mound, he looked like the dominant pitchers of the day, Bob Gibson or Steve Carlton.

But in the top of the ninth inning, everything went wrong for McClendon and his Gary teammates. Taiwan scored nine runs to take a 12-3 lead. McClendon gave up seven of those runs before he asked to be removed.

Overall, fourteen Taiwan batters came to the plate in the inning and got six hits and four walks. But four fielding miscues and nine passed balls produced a merry-go-round that brought most of the baserunners home.

As the runs poured across the plate, McClendon stood on the mound in tears.

I called McClendon last summer when I was doing research for Little League, Big Dreams. At the time, McClendon was the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“That was a very profound thing,” he told me. “I felt so bad about what happened. But it was an important moment for me. It was important to understand that you’re just a boy and there’s only so much you can do. There were so many people there who thought I could do anything, that I was somehow a god. But I wasn’t.

“I was a kid, and crying was how I expressed my feelings. Losing the game like that was a defining moment for me. I was very blessed to have a great coach and my father on the sidelines. They told me they were proud of me and I had done the best I could and that was all that mattered. They told me to hold my head high, there was nothing to be ashamed of. I was very disappointed to see things fall apart. It was the first time I ever failed at baseball.

“It was the defining moment in my life at that point. I see so many parents put undue pressure on their kids to win at all costs these days. I find it shameful. That moment is something I could never forget. When I talk to young people at clinics, I make a point to tell them about the time I lost that game. I especially want the parents to hear it.”

Despite the breakdown on the mound, scouts and family members thought McClendon’s best skill in baseball was pitching. But he thought otherwise.

“I had a passion for playing every day so I wanted to be a position player, I wanted to bat,” he says. “It was always a much-debated topic in my family whether I should be a pitcher, but I never wanted to. My decision was absolutely clear and final. I have never regretted it over the years. I wanted to be an everyday ballplayer.”

When McClendon grew up, he played nine seasons in the major leagues with the Giants, Cubs, and Pirates. He also managed the Pirates for five years. Years later, McClendon remembers being devastated by the loss but retains a kaleidoscope of positive memories of the experience.

McClendon remember most the words on Mickey Mantle, ABC’s color commentator for the game.

“Today, I saw a young man become a boy again,” Mantle said.

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