Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Stoney" was a pitcher to follow

(from baseballsimulator.com)
    For the eight full seasons he pitched in the major leagues (1968-75), George Stone was my favorite player ... well, my favorite non-Yankee.
     The left-hander from Ruston, La. -- Ruston High School and Louisiana Tech (our first connection) --  was the first MLB player I knew personally.
     I'm writing this now because a week from Saturday, George will be inducted into the Louisiana Tech Athletic Hall of Fame. It is an honor long overdue -- to adapt a phrase the great Jerry Byrd used so memorably one day in the mid-1980s to greet an irate caller to Shreveport Journal sports ... what took them so long?
       Not only was "Stoney" one of the greats of Tech baseball, he was a two-sport star, both at Ruston and Tech, a basketball player of some note. At 6-foot-3, he wasn't big for a forward in college, but he was a smooth shooter and a tough inside presence.
       In the 1965-66 season, he led Tech in scoring -- a somewhat surprising statistic to me considering that he had to shoot when he could ... or whenever Leon Barmore, at guard, was unable to get off a shot. (Yes, that's intended for a laugh.)
        A neat part of this induction will be that George is going into the Tech Hall of Fame the same time as O.K. "Buddy" Davis, the longtime Ruston Daily Leader sports editor. They were in the same class at Ruston High ('64 graduates) and if there was a bigger George Stone fan than me in sportswriting, it was Buddy.
     After checking what the Yankees had done, and often before because those were dark years in Yankees history, the first baseball item I checked was how "Stoney" and his team -- Atlanta Braves for five years, New York Mets for three -- had fared.
      On days when I knew George was pitching, and he was a starter for much of his career, he was a top priority. I probably saw him pitch a dozen times, on trips to Houston and Atlanta, and we visited before and after games, once even in New York City in his last season ('75).
      Most of us who saw Stoney pitch and play for Ruston, the T.L. James Contractors in American Legion baseball (state finalists in '63 and '64), and then at Tech in 1965 and '66 could sense he had major-league talent. He just had that look about him.
        It was no surprise when, after his sophomore year at Tech, the Braves picked him in the fifth round of the '66 MLB Draft. (That made him the first Tech player ever drafted; the draft was begun the year before, in 1965.)
      Bearing proof of his talent, only a year later he was pitching in the majors -- a couple of appearances near the end of the '67 season. A year later, he began his eight-year stay.
      And he first made it before expansion, when MLB was still only 20 teams instead of 30 as now, so talent wasn't as diluted. It was much tougher to make it to The Show in those days.
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        He was not the dominant pitcher that a couple of other North Louisiana guys in the same era were -- James Rodney Richard (from just outside Ruston) and Vida Blue (from Mansfield) -- but Stoney had his moments.
         His 60-57 record and 3.89 earned-run average are modest numbers, but consider this: In his best two seasons, 13-10 in 1969 and 12-3 in 1973, his team won its division and played in the National League Championship Series, and in '73, he was -- by most accounts -- the Mets' best pitcher in their stretch run to a surprising NL pennant and World Series appearance.
       And in that World Series, he got a Game 2 save by pitching the 12th inning and also appeared (too late to prevent an Oakland A's victory) in Game 7.
        Here's another thing that he can say, and it's a fact: He was teammates with Hank Aaron (Braves) and Willie Mays (Mets). How cool is that?
         He was also teammates with Joe Torre, Orlando Cepeda and Tom Seaver, among other big names. But for us from North Louisiana, his most notable teammates were his cousin and fellow pitcher, Cecil Upshaw (from Spearsville, Bossier City and Centenary College), and outfielder Ralph Garr, the so-fast "Roadrunner" also from Ruston and then Grambling College at the same time George was at Tech.
        The Upshaw-Stone connection made for a lot of good stories, in Shreveport and Ruston, and in Atlanta and other stops. Looking for background material to provide Teddy Allen at Tech for a Hall of Fame story on Stoney -- and Teddy doesn't need much help to produce a wonderful story -- I dug out my folders of clippings on those guys and it reminded me that a half dozen of those stories were written by a certain young sportswriter and baseball fan for The Shreveport Times. Ah, good times.
        Also, Stoney first was Garr's teammate with the 1968 Shreveport Braves, Atlanta's Double-A farm team. It was the year pro baseball returned to Shreveport after a six-year absence, and that was neat in itself.
        George had pitched in Double-A (Austin) for most of the '67 season and the Braves were going to assign him to Triple-A (Richmond, Va.) in '68. But because he was still going to Tech for the spring semester, he began the season with Shreveport. Garr was a starting outfielder and began his major-league career (although only briefly) late that season.
          Stoney only joined the team for home games at SPAR Stadium, driving over from Ruston every day when the Braves were in town and taking his turn in the starting rotation. Once school ended, he went on to Richmond ... and was in the big leagues by July.
           Several times some of us also at Tech came over to Shreveport with him in April and early May. On one of those trips, we first stopped by the Van Thyn home in South Broadmoor for a pregame meal. My parents were pretty fond of Stoney, too.
           Because in addition to being a helluva athlete, George was a soft-spoken, polite young man (yes, just like me). A few years later when he was in the big leagues and my Dad and I would visit with him at the team hotel in Houston, Stoney never let Dad pick up the check. I think Dad liked that.
          And we always enjoyed visiting with his parents -- his dad, a big man, was a Ruston police officer; his mother, now 88, is still traveling and helping attend to great-grandkids (George and Dianna have five grandchildren). There was also look-alike younger brother Mike, later a Ruston High and Legion ball catcher.
          Whatever happened to Mike? He's been the sheriff of Lincoln Parish for a decade and in the sheriff's department for three decades. ("Now everyone knows Mike," says George. "I'm just his older brother.")
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       For most of his career, Stoney was a starting pitcher, a reliable and consistent one, with a reputation as "sneaky fast," maybe a low 90s fastball thrower whose easy motion and good breaking stuff -- curve, changeup, slider -- kept hitters off-balance. He wasn't a strikeout pitcher, per se, but he had fine control and didn't often get in trouble because of walks.
         He was also "sneaky fast" as a competitor. Nice guy, no doubt, but if you pushed him, he would push back. At Tech, in the 1965-66 basketball season, he tangled with a much bigger inside player from McNeese State, Ed Green (from Holden, La.) ... and got booted from the game. In baseball, he got into it on a much bigger stage.
          On June 28, 1969 -- Shreveport-Bossier Night at the Astrodome, incidentally -- Stoney was matched up on the mound with the Astros' Don Wilson, a hard-throwing right-hander from Monroe. In the second inning, George put down a sacrifice bunt. When he felt Wilson tagged him a little too enthusiastically, George came up swinging. The Associated Press photos, copies of which I saved all these years, show that -- maybe -- Wilson got the best of the ensuing wrestling match.
          "Yeah, he won the battle," George said, laughing when I reminded him last week, "but I won the war." He pitched well and got the win in a 5-1 Braves' victory.
           That October, he started Game 4 in the NLCS against Cincinnati (no decision).
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Mets' fantasy camp
 photo, 2007
            I first saw Stoney play in 1964, his senior year at Ruston High when we (Woodlawn) played home-and-home games with his team. He didn't pitch either game, as I recall, but he played first base and impressed me as a hitter and helped Ruston win both games.
           And he was a good hitter -- for a major-league pitcher. He had 72 hits in the big leagues (about nine per season), had one home run (was it lucky, George?) and four doubles, and drove in 39 runs. He was far from an automatic out.
           It was indicative of the talent he had. But his biggest talent was that smooth left-handed pitching style and his competitiveness.   
           His career got cut short by a partial rotator cuff tear suffered midway in the '74 season. He missed much of a full season, but with diligence, made it back to the Mets in the '75 season to a gutsy June 13 victory in San Diego that left him in tears afterward after the long battle back.
             We saw him at Shea Stadium in August during a personal two-week baseball tour. Happened to see Dianna just before gametime outside the front gate and she invited John W. Marshall III and I to sit with her behind home plate. After the game, Stoney gave us a ride back to our hotel nearby.
              That was his last season in the majors. His arm was worn out -- maybe with today's medical advancements he might've managed a few more seasons -- and after a trade to the Texas Rangers in the spring of '76, he just couldn't go on.
               Having earned his degree at Tech, he went into coaching and teaching in the Ruston area for a couple of decades. He and Dianna, married for 42 years, now live on a few acres just outside Ruston -- his mother lives in town -- and they raised two daughters. Now they are "Pop" and "Mimi" and there are four grandsons. Batting practice awaits; they'll be facing a smooth left-hander.
                And they'll be facing someone who is -- at long last -- a Louisiana Tech Athletic Hall of Famer. Where have the years gone?                  
              
           
  

11 comments:

  1. From Sandra Newman Dyson: Another great read. Love your writing and especially writing about one of the good guys in Ruston.

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  2. From Patrick Booras: Teammates with Hank Aaron (Atlanta Braves) and Willie Mays (NY Mets) .... as good as it gets.

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  3. From Maxie Hays: Loved that post, Nico. George and I worked together at Cedar Creek School in Ruston. I was the track coach and George coached the baseball team. Nicest guy I know. Wonderful person. ... Again, an awesome story.

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  4. From Bud Dean: Great personal perspective on a really good guy.

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  5. From Taylor Moore: George is really a great guy. I got to know him pretty well when he did color for us (along with Dave Nitz) for a couple of years when we were doing television for the Captains. Very knowledgeable, very humble, a real asset for us.

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  6. From Ike Futch: Great article, Nico. Congratulations to George for making the Louisiana Tech Athletic Hall of Fame.

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  7. From Dave Moormann: Loved the blog. Was living in St. Petersburg, Fla., when Stoney pitched for the Mets. Used to watch him in spring training and in practice before the start of the Grapefruit League season. My dad taught me to drive in streets around the Mets' practice facility.

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  8. From Jim Pruett: Wonderful! Stoney was and is a fine, fine guy. Now, how he led Tech basketball in scoring that year, not even I -- who saw all the games -- can tell you. Like in baseball, he was "sneaky" good.

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  9. From Jon McKinnie: I remember trying to hit against George and his cousin, Cecil Upshaw. They gave me an excuse when they both made it to the majors.

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  10. From Ike Futch: I can relate to that. Cecil and George had close ties with Spearsville. Cecil was born and went to school there through 3rd grade. His dad would bring him to our house and we played together a lot. He beat us (Spearsville High) in the Dubach tournament in 1959 for our only loss on the way to our state championship. I faced him in 1965 when he was in the Braves organization. George also had close connections with Spearsville. His uncle, Melvin Stone, lived there and was one of our biggest supporters. He and his wife Ann had all three of us for dinner (that was supper back then) when we were playing pro ball at the same time. Played against George in 1967.

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