By Mike Ashley
Radford has had better baseball teams than the 1990 squad, but I think of all the teams over the years, this is the one I am fondest of. Like so many RU baseball teams, I was their scorekeeper and publicist.
Those guys went through incredible ups and downs that define a brotherhood (or sisterhood) that sometimes only teammates can understand. The first thing to know is that the 1989 Highlander nine had posted the best record in school history, an improbable 27-19 mark, their first winning season ever, including a win over Virginia Tech in the programs’ first meeting on the diamond.
At the time, the highlanders were only five seasons removed from a disastrous4-26 inaugural campaign in 1985, a year that included some unfortunate NCAA-record breaking standards, like a 38-0 loss to Campbell. (I’m proud to report all those records have since been purged in the NCAA record book by other Division I signatories. I know. I used to check every fall when the new record book arrived from the NCAA offices.)
In 1990, just five years later, the Highs were coming off a winning season with a talented team returning virtually intact for fiery coach Scott Gines in his second year. GInes changed the trajectory of the program after some foundational reconstruction by Greig Denny the two previous seasons. Now the program seemed ready to take off with Gines and assistant Matty Sutphin.
Alas, as is often the case in the “wait until next year” world of sports, the ’90 squad never came together on the field as it seemed it would on paper.
First, No.-1 pitcher Phil Leftwich of Lynchburg, who would go on to be the first draft choice of the California Angels that summer, was slowed by a preseason knee injury. Tough-as-nails No.-2 starter Jeff Altergott from Michigan was lost for the season due to elbow surgery.
Two top-hitting outfielders didn’t make their grades and had to sit out under university guidelines, although they were eligible by NCAA standards. Lynchburg’s Travis Morgan, the catcher and a linchpin of the 1989 success on his way to certain stardom in pro baseball, never seemed to get all the way back from off-season back surgery.
Radford was 3-8 out of the gate, Leftwich dropping to 0-2 with a one-run loss the first of March. By mid-April, the team had battled to a 17-16 record before the injuries returned. Home run and RBI leader Phil Haney went down with a broken finger. Shortstop and clubhouse leader Mike Shipley was lost with an ankle injury. Nevertheless, RU was .500 after winning eight of nine games and would register victories at Virginia and then at George Mason when erstwhile utility infielder Todd “Toto” Tortorici tossed a no-hitter.
But in qualifying for their first Big South Conference Tournament in school history, Radford would unravel at the event in Conway, S.C. Leftwich did toss a four-hitter – with a slew of big league scouts watching – and the Highlanders won their first-round game 2-1 over Winthrop when .219-hitting third baseman/student trainer Dac Carbone singled in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. Because of his unique position on the team, I called Dac “Doc,” and love that he’s forever remembered for the big hit in RU’s first conference tournament win.
Two losses followed, though, eliminating RU. The team finished the season 24-27 in one of those agonizing years of “what-if.”
The symbol of that team had to be 5-foot, 8-inch, tree-stump-tough second baseman Dave Kannon out of Wise, Va., a transfer from Walters State (Tenn.) Community College. Kannon had replaced RU’s first scholarship player ever (he got $100 that first year), graduated Ricky Saunders, and hit .320 as a junior in 1989, scoring 48 runs in 44 games and earning all-conference honors.
It has been so long that I don’t remember the exact nature of Kannon’s original injury. What I do remember is that his right throwing shoulder was so damaged that Gines ordered him to stop taking infield before games midway through the season so opposing teams wouldn’t notice Kannon had to put his arm back in the socket when he made a throw.
Very few people outside of the team knew how badly his shoulder hurt and that he refused to let the coach stop penciling his name in the lineup every day. His batting average dipped to .291, but his fielding percentage was up. Kannon was seemingly everywhere, making defensive plays and tough throws for a team that wouldn’t quit.
Kannon looked like a walking bruise by the end of the season, setting a school record by getting hit by eight pitches, one of the last ones getting him in the eye and leaving him an all-star shiner.
I think he came to embody a team that had the highest of hopes but ended up facing losses much greater than baseball. A cloud just hung over those guys. Four players’ fathers passed away that year.
Altergott was one of those players. He didn’t throw a ball all season but was honored at the team’s season-ending banquet at the old Valley Pike Inn in Pulaski. I think of Altergott whenever I hear those pampered-college-athlete stories. He threw himself into baseball more than ever, maybe because of his father, but mostly because he understood and believed what “team” meant.
The scholarshipped pitcher volunteered as a manager, washing his teammates’ uniforms and practice gear every day, and putting in longer hours than anyone else. He also worked as head groundskeeper at the ballpark. He ached to help his brothers win and find a sense of normalcy among the things and people he loved.
At the banquet, when senior Todd Ford of Martinsville stepped to the lecturn to make his farewell address to his teammates and coaches, you could see that some of the emotion of that year were starting to bubble to the surface. With his Southwest Virginia drawl, Ford spoke eloquently. A strapping 6-foot, one-inch outfielder/DH, he was headed into military service after graduation.
Ford had started early in the college baseball career at Radford but was “recruited over” and relegated to the bench his last two seasons as the team improved so dramatically under Gines.
Ford never once uttered a complaint.
Now, his last thoughts among his teammates and friends were of thanking them, particularly for the opportunity to play alongside Morgan, the great fallen hero who had replaced him in the batting order, and Leftwich, who everyone in the room knew was headed to the major leagues. Morgan, if not for the back injury, certainly would have joined him.
By the time the black-and-blue Kannon, post-dinner tobacco chaw inserted in cheek, limped to the podium, a dry eye couldn’t be found in the house.
Watching all those big, strong, young, brave athletes fight so hard that night to keep their composure, and then finally giving in, letting out all that pent-up emotion, brought sports and friendship and sacrifice into sharper focus for me.
I still get a lump in my throat whenever I pass that exit in Pulaski off Interstate-81 where that restaurant used to be.
I learned that spring how truly important sports are, but only because of the people who play the games and the families and fans that support them.
And I learned that sometimes a team with a losing record can still be chock full of winners.
Mike Ashley ’83 was a national award-winning writer and columnist (‘Sidelines’) for the Radford University student newspaper The Tartan as an undergrad. Then Radford and the University just couldn’t get rid of him. He worked in sports information for the Highlanders 1983-85, and again 1987-97, after two years at Virginia Tech. He has been a freelance sportswriter in Fairfax, Va., the past 25 years, still covering Radford and the Big South, along with other less important college teams for several national publications and online services.