During the next few months, I will be a doing series of columns with the help of some former athletes from Columbia County.
The idea came from businessman Tommy Norris, the owner of Strategic Financial Management in Martinez. Because Tommy had the idea, I felt it was only fitting to make him the subject of my first installment.
In 1982 Norris was a senior at Harlem and a member of the Harlem varsity baseball team. The Bulldogs were the defending state champs and were going for a repeat.
That year the region playoff format was altered a bit. Rather than the top two teams in the region playing a best-of-three series for the region title, the coaches voted to make it more difficult for the top team (in this case, Harlem). The format would force the region's No. 1 seed to face the No. 4 seed and the No. 2 seed would square off with the No. 3 seed. With this new format, one bad game and your season was over.
For the Harlem squad it appeared that the bad day would take place against the region's No. 4 seed, Hancock County. The Bulldogs were down 8-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning. That meant the Bulldogs needed five runs just to force extra innings. If they could not produce the runs, their season would be over and the defense of their state title would be gone as well.
To make matters worse, Harlem had the bottom of the order coming to the plate to start the inning. However, the Bulldogs were not quite ready to call it a season.
After the first two batters reached base, the No. 9 hitter (Norris) stepped to the plate. He promptly drew a walk to load the bases. Lewis sent in speedy sophomore Matthew Orr to run for Norris as the team's leadoff man, Kevin Greene, came up to the plate. Greene drove in a run with a base hit to pull Harlem to within two runs. That brought Daryl James, Barry Luke, Mike Austin and Steve Crutchfield, the high school equivalent of "murderer's row," to the plate. However, after the team's top hitter (Austin) struck out, Harlem's chances looked bleak.
Crutchfield was next up, and the bases were still loaded. That is when something happened that will likely never happen again at a Columbia County sporting event.
Fans heard a loud noise in the sky and looked up to see the Goodyear blimp.
That's right; the Goodyear blimp was flying over the field. The umpire stopped the game as the fans looked to the sky in amazement.
"We took that as a sign from above that this game was ours," Norris said.
When the game resumed, Harlem went to work. Crutchfield delivered a run-scoring single. Then third baseman Tom Tanksley drove in a run to tie the game at 8-8. That brought team captain Tim Beard up to the plate.
With the season hanging in the balance, Beard hit a bouncer that just got past the glove of Hancock County's shortstop, and the winning run raced across the plate to keep Harlem's hopes of a repeat alive.
Harlem then cruised through the playoffs with a 6-0 record, sweeping Cedar Grove in the finals for a second straight season to claim the state title.
"Harlem baseball is a close-knit fraternity," Norris said. "I grew up playing in the Columbia County Recreation Department with most these guys winning our first state championship as 11- and 12-year olds.
"So finishing up with a championship was sweet. This was the game I'll never forget."
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.