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|| News Item: Posted 2003-11-03

Some Kid Named Beckett
By Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Josh Beckett in high school.
I never thought that the closest I'd ever get to a World Series would involve a bottle full of rubber cement and a cigarette lighter.

The 1999 Major League Baseball entry draft was fast-approaching, and I got a call from the photo editor of USA Today Baseball Weekly asking me if I wouldn't mind making the three-hour drive from Austin to Spring, Texas to shoot a portrait of some high-school kid I'd never heard of.

The stories about him, whoever he was, were apparently the stuff of legend. "He's had three 18-strikeout games this season," the editor told me, "and his fastball has been clocked at a hundred miles-per-hour."

I was just waiting for the rest of it. I was guessing that the kid probably stood eight feet tall, or that someone had watched him throw a breaking ball that curved around a telephone pole or something.

Or maybe that his name was Sidd Finch.

I'd been living in Texas for about four years at the time, which is long enough to know that when it comes to athletes and their accomplishments, Texans can embellish better than anyone. Besides, I'd already heard this stuff before about a couple of other Texas pitchers namely Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, and Kerry Wood.

So I was supposed to be impressed about some kid named Josh Beckett?

But apparently the kid had some major-league stuff. "Throwing fire" was a term bandied about during our pre-shoot discussions, and it was decided that it'd be a neat thing if we could have him holding a burning baseball.

Never having burned much of anything non-tobacco related before, I spent an afternoon out in the driveway with a baseball and some various flammable materials, much to the concern of my neighbors.

I tried nail polish remover (evaporates too fast, and the flame sucks), rubbing alcohol (see nail polish remover), paint thinner (too unpredictable) and finally, rubber cement. The next day, My assistant for the day, Peter Yang, and I arrived at Spring High School about four hours ahead of time.

The baseball coach, who insisted on being present at the shoot, showed us to an unused locker room, where Peter and I set up a backdrop, some lights, and a 4x5 camera. We spent three hours agonizing over Polaroids, tweaking lights, and setting baseballs on fire. And then, as any athlete who hasn't made it to the big time yet is likely to do, Josh arrived right on time.

I told him what I wanted to do. He cocked an eyebrow and looked at me like I was nuts.

"Here, watch," I told him. "It's perfectly safe."

At which point I handed the baseball to Peter, and applied a liberal glop of rubber cement to it, desperately trying to avoid touching his fingers --- easier said than done, because I think Peter was a little bit nervous about the whole thing.

I flicked the lighter and held it at full arm's length. I said a quick prayer and touched the flame to the ball. I'd heard that Assistant Flambé wasn't pretty, nor was it good for my reputation when trying to hire other assistants. And besides, I wasn't covered for Workman's Comp.

But it worked like a charm. A foot-high streak of fire leapt up from the ball, never straying from the cement-coated surface, before dying down about ten seconds later.

Beckett's eyes went wide. "Cooooool!" he said, as only an 18-year old can. "Let's do it."

After resuscitating the coach, who just about passed out at the prospect of this million-dollar arm having four fewer fingers on it, Peter and I went about our business efficiently. Josh held the ball, I applied the rubber cement, and went behind the camera.

Peter lit the ball, and quickly pulled his hand out of the frame. Twenty sheets of film later, I half-figured, half-hoped, that I'd timed one of the shots just right. We went outside, shot a few more portraits, and that was that.

A few weeks and a Baseball Weekly cover story later, that kid that I'd never heard of was taken as the second pick overall in the draft, by the Florida Marlins.

I've always liked the picture, put it in my portfolio, and all that, but I never really gave it --- or Josh Beckett ---a second thought. That is, until a balmy Sunday evening about three weeks ago, as I made the long, lonely drive home along US Highway 290 from a golf tournament in Houston.

The sun was setting, the car windows were open, and on the radio, I was listening to Josh Beckett throw a two-hitter against the Cubs in the NLCS.

Two weeks later, I watched him pitch the game of his life, and then shake hands with Bud Selig in the locker room as he received his World Series MVP trophy.

But that wasn't the only little connection, however tenuous, with the past provided by this year's World Series. You see, back in my college days, it was tough for a kid at Georgetown to try and break into the sports photography business, for several reasons: a) we didn't have a journalism program b) we sure as hell didn't have a photo program, and c) beyond basketball (and even that was arguable at the time), we didn't have many sports to speak of. So you kind of had to fend for yourself, and find events to shoot that not only were competitive, but also were receptive to the idea of letting a student, with no credentials whatsoever, in to shoot.

Enter the Prince William Cannons, of the Class-A Carolina League, and at the time, minor-league affiliate of the New York Yankees.

One of their starting pitchers was a big, sweet, oafish kid with a southern drawl (and a propensity for practical jokes) named Andy Pettite. Behind the plate and, at the time, third on the organizational catching depth-chart, was a shy, quiet converted second baseman named Jorge Posada --- except back then, everybody, from the public-address announcer to the man himself, pronounced it "George."

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Jorge Posada in action for the Prince William Cannons of the Class-A Carolina League in 1993.
But to tell you the truth, nobody really gave those guys much thought. Rather, everybody in Prince William County was looking forward to the following season. You see, there was this kid playing short-season A-Ball in Greensboro who was slated to make the move to the Cannons the next year. Some scouts said he was the best shortstop the Yankees had ever had in the farm system. His name? Derek Jeter.

I never got to see Jeter play in a Cannons uniform. For starters, the scouts were right: He skipped Prince William entirely the following season, heading straight to Double-A ball with the Albany-Colonie Yankees. And second, I moved to Austin the following year, my cool summer evenings at County Stadium replaced by sweltering Sunday afternoons at the ballpark in Arlington, shooting the Texas Rangers.

And on an May afternoon there in 1997, standing on the field as the Yankees took batting practice, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

"Hey, looks like we both made it up, huh?" came the question. The guy had a half-smile on his face, and that kind of quizzical look you get when you're not quite sure if someone remembers you. I did a double-take at first--he'd cut his hair shorter, was a little skinnier, and his uniform said "New York" across the chest instead of "Cannons."

It was "George" --- no, make that Jorge --- Posada.

So here's the moral of the story, folks: The Major Leagues aren't the only games in town. Shoot the minors. Shoot your local high school phenoms. Keep those chromes. Don't delete the digital files. And always, always, always remember the words of renowned right-handed philosopher Joaquin Andujar: "There is one word that describes baseball: "You never know."

(Austin-based freelancer and Mets fan Darren Carroll still covers the occasional baseball game. Just not as many as he'd like to.)

Related Links:
Darren Carroll's member gallery

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