I faced him only once, when I was 12. He was only 11. He struck me out. He struck us all out. He was a man among boys, and his name was uttered in the dugout with awe and fear.
When he was drafted out of high school I remembered that at-bat, how quickly it was over and how glad I was for it to be over, the terror his fastball inspired, though it only ever went straight and down the middle. Still, I didn’t dare swing.
I next saw him in a big league uniform, and it was then that I started to boast of my brief encounter with him, our shared home town and little league progeny. When he became an All Star, when he pitched a perfect game, when he threw a no-hitter in a playoff game–“I knew that guy.” It wasn’t entirely true, of course. I didn’t know him, and were I to show up at some out of town stadium to meet him he surely wouldn’t know me.
Still, it’s the kind of marginal association you share with friends and co-workers because you hope that it imparts to you some significance, some importance. Proximity to greatness only means that you happened to be someplace, not that you did anything worth remembering. But some days that feels like a lot.
I saw him again yesterday, this time in the report of his death, at 40. His two-seater airplane crashed in Tampa Bay.
Last night I watched his career highlight videos for what felt like a long time. I re-read the feature Tom Verducci wrote for Sports Illustrated about him in 2010, about how he almost failed, almost quit, but then worked his way back. The news networks reporting his accident showed images from his Twitter page, and I felt some irrational guilt for not following it.
And now, today, I find myself saying it again: “I knew that guy.”