Meredith Sanford: The Real Natural

In a small Mississippi town, a seventeen-year-old strikeout artist chases his dream of major-league

Baseball glove along with sport sunglasses. Circa 1984. Credit: Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty

THE TELEPHONE CALL WAS FROM A FRIEND WHO works for a National League ball club. "I've got the player you're after," he said.

I had called him weeks earlier, hoping to find a high-school senior, a pitcher, a future big-leaguer. He had produced a dozen names on the spot. "Any of those kids could make it into the major leagues," he'd said then.

That wasn't good enough, I had tried to explain. The pitcher I was after would have to be someone special. I wanted to be the first to tell the world about a legend. "What was it you called this player?" my friend was saying now.

I'd asked him to find me a natural.

The pitcher he came up with was Meredith Sanford, six-foot-five, 190-pound right-hander from Starkville, Mississippi. Of course, his statistics were phenomenal: an 11-0 record, 102 strikeouts in sixty-four innings, an earned-run average of less than one run a game. He had already accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Alabama, but a major-league club would surely be drafting him this June. If the money were good enough, he might pass up college and go pro right away.

"I'm not telling you this kid can throw a baseball through a car wash without getting it wet," my friend said. "He's still kind of raw. He's big and he throws hard and he just turned seventeen and he's going to get better and who the hell really knows? You're the one in the fairy-tale business."

At his suggestion, I made my next call to Danny Carlisle, Sanford's coach at Starkville High School. "I want to come down your way and watch Meredith Sanford pitch," I said.

"Hey, who don't?" Carlisle shot back. "Too bad you couldn't see him last night. Struck out thirteen and didn't hardly walk anybody."

"How many hits did he give up?"

"Not a one. His first no-hitter."

I ARRIVED IN STARKVILLE THE DAY BEFORE MEREDITH Sanford was to pitch against Greenville, Mississippi, with the winner going on to the state tournament. Starkville is in the north-eastern part of the state, about twenty-five miles from the Alabama line. The town's leading industry is Mississippi State University and its 11,300 students. A weathered wooden sign — MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY, A LAND-GRANT INSTITUTION — stands across the road from a low-rise where several dozen cows were grazing. Welcome usda meat-grading trainees, read the marquee at the Holiday Inn. No one will mistake this for tourist country.

"It's not like it used to be here," said Meredith's mother, Sandra Sanford. She is a handsome woman, forty-two years old, a teacher of retarded children in a Starkville junior high school. The two-bedroom home where she and her son live (she was divorced from her husband when Meredith was eighteen months old) is a ten-minute stroll from the Starkville High practice field. In the spotless front room, Meredith's picture hangs on every wall, and his trophies for basketball and baseball fill a cabinet. One picture is of a group of nine-year-old baseball players. Meredith's is the only black face in the photo — which is why Sandra Sanford didn't want him to become a pitcher.

"When I was raised here, you had to go in the back door," she said. "That's why I was always protective of Meredith. He was playing in a summer league that was mostly white. And the fathers were coaching their sons. I didn't think they'd let him play. I didn't think he'd have a chance to develop as a pitcher. So I said no. I guess I was being defensive, but it was just something I felt. But my son was always telling me, 'Oh, mamma, it's not like that now.' His feelings are different from mine. So I said okay."

"He could always throw harder than the other kids," remembered Danny Carlisle as he ran the Starkville team through their final practice. "He'd have control problems — he'd throw it over the backstop — but he could always throw hard."

Sanford was an all-star in the twelve-and-under Dixie Youth league as soon as he began pitching. Starkville went on to win the state championship in the Dizzy Dean League. In Meredith's first high-school season, he went 6-2. A year later, he was 10-2. Still, he thought his best chance was as a basketball player. And so he taped Sports Illustrated covers of Dr. J and Ralph Sampson and the North Carolina NCAA champs to the walls of his room.

"I didn't start thinking about baseball until all the write-ups started happening in the paper," said Meredith in his slow voice. "Then I got letters from different colleges. Our first game at home, the coach told me a lot of professional scouts were coming. I was excited at first."

So was the coach. "Last year, a scout from the Dodgers was sitting in our dugout," Carlisle said. Carlisle was the assistant coach then, delighted to be engaging in serious, high-level conversation. "He asked me, 'Do you have any prospects?' and I said, 'Yeah, that big kid there, Sanford, he's gonna be a prospect.' "

Carlisle became head coach this season, and the scouts were waiting for him. "They found out the season started March 1st, and they started calling. 'When is Sanford gonna pitch?' I said, 'He ain't been out of basketball but five days.' When he was ready to pitch the first time, I got another call. 'Would it be worth my while to fly a man in from Kansas City to watch Sanford pitch?' I said, 'Hey, he's gonna pitch a maximum of forty-five pitches. If you want to watch him make forty-five pitches, maybe three innings, you come right ahead.' "

The coach was standing behind the batting cage, wearing jeans, sunglasses and a T-shirt that was losing the battle to his stomach. The temperature was in the nineties, and most of his players were in shorts and bare-chested. Carlisle, who is white, seemed to have an easy relationship with his seven black players. As they finished their last practice before the big game, he called them together. "Which uniform should we wear tomorrow?" he asked.

Meredith Sanford considered the question. The Starkville Yellow Jackets can wear a black shirt and black pants, black and yellow, or all yellow.

Carlisle answered his own question. "Black and black," he said.

"Black?" Meredith frowned. "It's gonna be hot tomorrow. If we're wearing black...."

"Gonna be just right," Carlisle assured him. "What do you wanna wear? All yellow? Banana? I hate that banana."

THE GAME AGAINST GREENVILLE DREW THE GREATEST NUMBER of big-league scouts yet: San Diego, Los Angeles, the Cubs, the White Sox, Toronto, Texas, Cincinnati and a man from the Major League Scouting Bureau, a private service that most clubs use to cross-check their scouts' reports. They were eager to see the young, hard thrower from Starkville.

Joe Hubble, Greenville's coach, had prepared his club for Meredith Sanford's speed. "I told my kids to go up there and swing," he said. He pointed to the outfield fences. "They ain't that far away. His pitches will supply the power. But they've got to swing. He'll intimidate you with his size and his herky-jerky motion. If they're gonna strike out, okay, but I don't want any of that swing at one, look at two. They'll get their hits."

What they didn't know was that Carlisle had a different strategy for Sanford to follow. When he scouted Greenville, he saw the first four batters in the lineup collect twelve of the team's fourteen hits. "Coach said the first four couldn't hit the curve ball that well, to use my curve on them," said Sanford. "The rest we'd go with fast ball, mostly." Just as well, since Sanford didn't like the way his fast ball was rising out of the strike zone during his pregame warmup.

The crowd was close to 300, filling the stands behind the baselines. Sandra Sanford left school early to watch the first few innings. She would spend the rest of the afternoon nervously shuttling between the school and the field. She didn't want a seat. At one point, she walked right out of her shoes and left them on the grass while she paced behind the stands.

There's a one-story brick-and-stone structure behind the home-plate screen that keeps the sun off the Starkville Booster Club members and the radio broadcaster. I found a spot half-way up the stairs. Directly below me was a scout from the White Sox, his radar gun at the ready. Another scout, at the bottom of the stairs, had a more elaborate radar device strapped to his shoulder. They were both prepared to time Sanford's pitches.

The first two were curve balls, and the Greenville hitter was frozen. A fast ball struck him out.

"What'd you get?" said the scout nearest me.

"Eighty-seven," said the second scout. A good many major-league pitchers have never thrown that fast.

That dialogue would continue all game; only the miles-per-hour would change. Sanford walked the next batter on four pitches, all curve balls. The scouts hadn't come to see a seventeen-year-old throw curve balls. A curve you can teach; the fastball is what brings these scouts thousands of miles. "What the hell's he doing?" grumbled the scout.

Sanford picked the runner off first base but walked the next batter. The final out was another strikeout.

"I got him at eighty-five."

"He's throwing a lot of junk." Breaking balls.

His fast ball was still soaring out of the strike zone. He walked two and struck out two in the third inning. His teammates, meanwhile, were pounding the ball. Four home runs helped Starkville move out to a comfortable 10-0 lead after four innings.

A pair of scouts in the stands decided they had seen enough. "If we leave now, we can catch that 3:30 plane," said one.

"How many out this inning?" his companion asked.

"What the hell's the difference? You've seen all you want to see of this kid."

They left just before Sanford took the mound for the fifth inning. He was working on a no-hitter. Greenville's first hit came that inning, an infield single. He ended the inning with a strikeout.

When Sanford left the dugout for the seventh and last inning, the score was still 10-0. He had struck out seven and allowed three hits. But the worst was about to happen. A walk. An error. A single that could have been stopped in the infield. Another error. And a run.

"When they made the errors," Sanford told me later, "I lost my concentration. I got mad." A less than perfect curve ball became a grand-slam home run. Then another single, another home run. Greenville finished the inning, and the game, with seven runs.

Another playoff game was about to begin when Sandra Sanford offered her son a ride home. "I'm gonna stay for the second game, mamma," he told her. He began moving away.

"He's upset," she said. She worries about him. "The child is just seventeen. You're only a child one time. Look at him now. He can't deal with defeat. If he gets away from home, he won't have anybody.

"I know there's money out there for him. And if it's that much money, he'll have to work. All we ever hoped for was scholarship in basketball or baseball. I hadn't even thought about scouts, the pros, the money. Okay, money's good. It talks. But he's just a baby. I have to look at that, too. It scares me."

I don't think it scares Meredith Sanford. When I asked him if he was thinking about professional ball, he seemed especially excited.

"Yeah," he said quickly. "I'd like to try it. Yeah. I think I can do well against anybody. If I play against somebody taller than me, I still think I can score twenty points. I like to compete against good players. I think I'm doing something if I can strike out a new player. That would say a lot about me. That would say a lot about my ability. I'm good. I'm better than him."

He made it sound so natural.

Afterword: On June 5th, Meredith Sanford was drafted in the third round by the New York Yankees. He was the sixty-eighth player taken. At press time, he had not decided whether to sign with the Yankees or accept the scholarship at the University of Alabama.