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Anderson on the Web: Journeyman pitcher made lasting impression on budding journalist

Friday, March 28, 2003

The Pirates making the playoffs in the early '90s didn't do it. The opening of lovely PNC Park didn't do it.

It was this spring that sparked my memory and prompted me to revisit a certain summer day from my childhood in a way I hadn't before.

Maybe the renewed optimism surrounding the Pirates was responsible. Maybe it was the return of pleasant weather after a long, harsh winter.

Whatever the reason, I recently thought back to an afternoon when I was 11 or 12 and got to hang out with a major-league baseball player.

This was in St. Louis, where I grew up and became a staunch Cardinals baseball fan. I was good friends with a girl whose family had moved up from Texas. Her parents and my parents also became friends.

One day just before Montreal came to town, my friend told me her family was going to spend an afternoon with an Expos pitcher named Ernie McAnally, some sort of family friend who also was from Texas -- Pittsburg, Texas, as it turned out.

I was thrilled for them and maybe a little envious. Then they called and asked if I would like to join them. It was no secret what a baseball fan I was.

In my friend's back yard. McAnally, who was between starts, showed us his different grips - cross-seam fastball, sinker and slider -- and we all tossed a ball around some. We had lunch and drove him back to the team's downtown hotel so he could go to Busch Stadium with his teammates for the game that night.

Maybe it was the budding sports journalist in me, but I'm pretty sure I pelted the poor guy with questions. I remember asking about going away for spring training, about traveling, about pitching, about some of his teammates, about the Cardinals, about who knows what else.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn't polite to hog the conversation and milk him for information, but the opportunity was too great.

I've thought about that day from time to time, but this week I finally looked up McAnally's record. And him.

He's back in Texas, a banker in Mt. Pleasant and a deeply religious man. I called him and it was like old times - me asking questions, him answering them thoughtfully.

He vaguely recalls that afternoon in St. Louis. Did he remember the red-headed kid who tagged along and wouldn't shut up with the questions?

"I don't remember who all was there," McAnally said, "but I don't remember you being a pest."

Whew. That's a relief.

McAnally only played four years - actually four years and 12 days, qualifying him for a pension - and had a 30-49 overall record with six shutouts and a 4.03 ERA. A rotator cuff injury cut short his career. It's something that probably could be repaired today.

He counts among his highlights beating Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, 4-3, near the end of Gibson's career with the Cardinals and early on in McAnally's career. "I have a scorecard off the wall from that game," he said.

There also was the game in Cincinnati where a relentless fan sitting just feet from where he warmed up gave him an earful. "It happened to be one of the better games in my career," McAnally said, recalling it as a complete-game, 2-1 win.

I count among his career highlights that series the Expos played in St. Louis. McAnally not only spent an afternoon with us, but he also left us tickets for later in the series when he was starting. I was a regular at Busch Stadium, but I'd never sat in seats provided by a player before.

It wasn't his best outing, a no-decision I think. I'm sure I kept the scorecard for a long time.

One thing I still have somewhere is a post card from McAnally. I wrote him to say I was glad to meet him and to thank him for his time and, of course, to slip in a few more questions. He wrote me back on a black-and-white Expos post card.

I didn't bother him again until this week, but I'm not the only one who remembers him.

"As long ago as I played and as little as I accomplished, I still get fan mail," he said. "The supply of those post cards hasn't run out yet."

You get the impression McAnally was one of the nice guys. When he played, he had a fan club, three strong. "Some of my peers were kind of amused," he said.

He still meets with young players occasionally to talk about pitching and Jesus. Just last week he gave a lesson on grip and finger pressure.

He calls himself a "semi sports fan." For a while he worked trade shows for a horse equipment manufacturer and traveled to some of college football's hotbeds, including State College sometimes on football weekends. He would drive by and gawk at Beaver Stadium or those at Tennessee, Clemson, Auburn, Georgia.

As for baseball, McAnally is strongly pro-player in labor issues, but overall he doesn't follow the sport all that closely. To him, there are a lot more important things going on in the world.

Of course, that depends on a person's outlook on the world. To a young baseball nut, something as simple as meeting a major-leaguer can be awfully important.

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