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Grady Little still has a lotta love for baseball

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/06/21/04/QUMNZ.Em.138.jpeg|250
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Hickory Grove Christian coach Grady Little hits pop-ups and grounders to his players during a recent practice. Little played at Garinger during the 1960s.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/06/21/04/1qBYib.Em.138.jpeg|212
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Grady Little goes over the layout of the Hickory Grove Christian baseball field before a recent game. Little’s long career includes managing the Red Sox and Dodgers.

During the 2000s, Grady Little managed two of the most well-known baseball teams in the world for two years apiece – the Boston Red Sox and the L.A. Dodgers.

So what is he doing on a small baseball diamond in Charlotte, cutting the grass and directing the high school baseball team at Hickory Grove Christian?

“I think it’s just part of doing God’s work,” Little said in his deep country drawl. “I’ve been to the highest level doing what I was doing. I just wanted to see if I could help one kid a year here.”

In 2003, while managing the Red Sox in the playoffs against the New York Yankees, Little made a controversial decision. It backfired. The reverberations rumbled on a national scale. Now, if Little makes a decision on the field that doesn’t work out, he might hear from a disgruntled parent or two. That’s about it.

Sports Illustrated recently said Little might be “the most overqualified varsity coach in America,” and it’s hard to argue with that. You don’t often see former NFL head coaches deciding to become the head coach of a local high school or a movie actor making it big and then coming back to work at the local community theater.

Little has done something similar. He has returned to the roots of the game he loves, overseeing all of the baseball teams at Hickory Grove Christian – where all three of his grandsons go to school. He particularly loves to drag the infield and mow the grass, and he occasionally works on the girls’ softball field, too.

He brings his own homemade fudge and cookies to the school secretaries. The past two seasons he also has coached Hickory Grove’s varsity squad, although he might give up those day-to-day duties next season and stick with overseeing all three of the school’s baseball squads and maintaining the field.

“It’s still just a game,” Little said. “Before, the thrill for me was in winning. Now the thrill is in helping a kid – not only in his baseball life but maybe in the way he carries himself off the field, too.”

Jacob Carte, a senior center fielder, is one of those kids Little has helped. He plans to go to West Point and play baseball for Army in college. Like many of the other kids on the team, he calls Little by his first name.

“Grady is very calm,” Carte said. “He knows so much about baseball, but he doesn’t push it on you. He doesn’t call you out in front of a bunch of people when you do something wrong. He just quietly helps you fix it. Everybody loves Grady. He’s a special guy. And it doesn’t hurt that the other day he bought 25 apple pies at McDonald’s and had them waiting for us before practice.”

‘Six kids, Mom, Dad and a cat’

Little, 64, is a fine storyteller with deep Charlotte roots. His family moved to Charlotte from Texas before his sophomore year in high school.

Little’s father, who played minor-league baseball, drove a truck for Ryder and got transferred during the 1960s. He hauled his whole family to Charlotte.

“He bought a house off Central Avenue – a three-bedroom house for six kids, Mom, Dad and a cat,” Little said. “You do the math. I still drive by that house sometimes today and it seems so small. How’d we ever all grow up in there?”

Little ended up becoming an all-state baseball player for Garinger High, where he graduated in 1968 and got a $12,000 signing bonus to go pro. From there he went everywhere – first kicking around for six years as a catcher who never got above Class AA ball.

“I could catch and throw and handle pitchers,” Little said, “but I couldn’t hit. I fooled them for about six years – it took them that long to find out what I knew right when I started. I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of a boat. When they told me one spring they didn’t have a place for me to play anymore, I asked them, ‘What took you so long?’ 

By then, Little had a wife, Debi. He met her in Charlotte.

“I was home for the winter and around the house,” Little said, “and my father said you ought to go over and check out this blonde at this drugstore off Independence Boulevard. Debi was living here, going to dental hygiene school and living with an aunt.

“I went to check her out. We had a date or two. And then they’re having a cookout at my dad’s house and I brought her to that. It was the first time my dad had seen us together. He pulls me to the side and says: ‘That’s not the girl I saw.’ 

It turned out to be the right one, though. The two have been married for 43 years.

Costner, Sarandon and ‘Bull Durham’

Little didn’t turn immediately to managing. He first tried his luck farming cotton in Texas for four years, with Debi and their young son Eric in tow. But his love of baseball didn’t go away, and he took an offer to manage a rookie-league team in 1980. From there Little gradually worked himself up the minor-league ladder for 16 years.

“That’s a lot of bus rides,” he said. “And a lot of sacrifices for our whole family. My son played high school baseball at Independence and then college baseball at UNC Charlotte. I saw him play two games during that whole period. I don’t want to miss my grandkids’ games, too, which is why we live so close to my son’s family now.”

Little made another stop in Charlotte in 1983 and ’84, managing the Charlotte O’s. Catcher John Stefero – who eventually would make it into the majors for several years – played for Little here, and also in Hagerstown, Md., during 1981.

“Grady was the best manager I ever had,” Stefero said, “and I played under a lot of managers, including Earl Weaver. Grady knew how to manage both the game and the players. He called everybody ‘son.’ He knew how to get the best from you at all times, and he did it without ever yelling or screaming.”

One of Little’s best minor-league experiences came while he managed the Durham Bulls during the late 1980s. While there, he got to work on the legendary baseball film “Bull Durham” as what the closing credits labeled a “baseball trainer.” Little basically was paid to teach the actors how to look more like they could play baseball.

Kevin Costner? No problem.

“Costner was athletic,” Little said. “He could play baseball, golf, whatever. No problem. But Tim Robbins? He was supposed to be this hard-throwing pitcher, and we had a time with him, trying to get it to look like his delivery would get the ball there hard.”

As for Susan Sarandon, Little didn’t have much to do with her on the movie set – “although I did get my picture made with her,” he chortled. But he does offer this tidbit. The grass at the Durham ballpark was mostly brown, because much of the filming was done during the winter. It was painted green for the movie, in part because the movie people thought Sarandon’s red hair would look better contrasted with that color.

The Martinez decision

Little managed more than 3,000 professional games, using an intuitive style he molded to each team’s personality.

“My style was changed every year, and sometimes every week, depending on the talent we had on the field,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy who tells you, ‘There’s only one way to do something.’ 

It mostly worked. During Little’s final 12 seasons as a professional manager – eight in the minors, four in the majors – he had 12 winning seasons. Hickory Grove has had winning seasons both years he has coached there, too.

In the majors, what Little might be most remembered for is what happened in his last game managing Boston, in 2003. The Red Sox had won four win-or-you’re-outplayoff games that season and worked their way into a Game 7 on the road against the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.

Little had the man he calls the “best pitcher I ever managed” – Pedro Martinez – on the mound. Martinez had been the staff ace all season, going 14-4 and leading the AL in ERA. But like all pitchers, he became more vulnerable as games progressed – usually after throwing about 100 pitches.

Going into the bottom of the eighth inning, Boston led 5-2. Martinez had thrown exactly 100 pitches through seven innings.

Little sent him back out on the mound to try and protect the lead. Martinez wanted to keep pitching. And Little let him, even as Martinez gave up a succession of hits. Martinez ended up allowing three runs to tie the score at 5 before Little took him out. The game went into extra innings. The Yankees won.

Red Sox fans were apoplectic. One of the most well-known – Bill Simmons of ESPN.com – wrote: “I can’t say this strongly enough: I will spend the rest of my life wondering why Grady let Pedro wilt to death in the eighth inning.”

The Red Sox would win the World Series the very next year with most of the same players Little had managed and helped recruit to the team. But he wasn’t there to celebrate – he had been fired shortly after the Game 7 loss in 2003.

Red Sox fans had been in search of a scapegoat, and many cheered when that happened. Wrote Peter Gammons of ESPN at the time: “This is pure, unadulterated hatred for a wonderfully decent man.”

Said Tony Cloninger, a former major league pitcher who was a bullpen coach for Little in 2002 and ’03 with the Red Sox and now lives in Denver, N.C.: “The way I look at it, Grady is falsely accused with losing that ball game. He had the best pitcher in baseball pitching one of his best games, and he chose to stick with him. If he takes him out there and someone else blows the game, then he’s blamed for that, too.”

Said Little: “That decision is part of my legacy, and part of what I’ll leave behind when I leave this earth. But I know in my heart that I made around a million decisions that year to get us to that point. And then in the last game, I made a decision and the results were bad. I couldn’t undo it.”

As for Boston fans who still insist on trying to define his 40 years in baseball by that one moment, Little drawled: “After spending several years up there in that part of the country, I think I’ve got it figured out. When you are from that part of the country, your summers are so short, and your winters are so long. Just imagine being cooped up like that. You get cabin fever. And then when the weather gets nice, you’re always in a traffic jam. That will make you pessimistic.”

Little would get one more chance at the majors, directing the Dodgers in 2006 and ’07. By the end of that second season, he had had enough.

“A five-game winning streak and a five-game losing streak started to feel the same way,” Little said. “I wasn’t really wanting to go to the ballpark anymore.”

He and the Dodgers made a mutual decision to part ways, and Little came back home to North Carolina. He and Debi had made their offseason home in Pinehurst for more than a decade, near her family. With their only child, Eric, in Charlotte, they were making the trip to the Queen City several times a week for various events. They decided to move back for good and bought a house in south Charlotte, just 5 miles from their son.

‘Are you sure you want to do that?’

After a couple of years, Little started to miss baseball. He had grown up in the game and has two brothers still involved in it (one is an advance scout for the Chicago White Sox; the other is a well-known baseball agent). With all three of his grandkids at Hickory Grove – the oldest is 14 and on the junior varsity – he made it known in the spring of 2012 that he would like to help with the program.

“And when coach Little said that,” said Grant Coffey, Hickory Grove’s associate athletics director, “I thought he just meant he kind of wanted to hang out a little. Just help some.

“But he said he wanted to be the head coach and oversee all the teams. I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do that? You’re going to deal with a lot of parents upset their kid is batting seventh instead of fourth.’ And he said he was used to answering those sorts of questions anyway, but usually from the media.”

So Little started riding to practice on the candy-apple red motorcycle he loves, having cookouts at his house and working on the field.

“Initially, it was the ‘Wow’ factor of where he’s been and what he’s done,” Coffey said. “Once you get to know him, you’re more wowed by how passionate he still is about the baseball and the kids.”

And nevermind that major league history. Like every youth coach, Little has gotten the occasional complaint from parents about playing time.

“At the professional level, you don’t have near the involvement of parents who are sometimes real susceptible to over-evaluating talent,” Little said with a smile. “I’ve been evaluating players for 40 years, for my livelihood. All of a sudden, I’m here at this level and some people think I don’t know anything about evaluation.”

Little’s name still surfaces occasionally as a possible replacement when major league teams fire their managers, but he doesn’t think he will ever again manage at that level. He said he enjoys being able to go on Lake Norman for the Fourth of July or to host a Memorial Day barbecue – things that never happened during a baseball season that routinely stretched from February to October.

And then there are the kids at Hickory Grove, keeping him young. The team’s last game of the season will be Thursday at Charlotte Country Day.

“You can tell Grady just enjoys this,” Carte, the Hickory Grove center fielder, said. “He’s a huge storyteller – he gives us two or three of them a day – and he tells them in a way so they teach you something. I think he just wants to stay in baseball. And it seems to me that he really likes to help people.”

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