John Grisham was a 19-year-old want-to-be college baseball player. Boo Ferriss, the former Red Sox great, was the coach at Delta State.
Grisham tried out for Ferriss’ cracker-jack team in 1974, found out he couldn’t hit a curve – or several other pitches – and was cut by Ferriss. “Stick to the books,” Ferriss told Grisham, meaning textbooks.
Grisham eventually stuck to the books all right. He’s sold more than a hundred million of his novels. And he and Ferriss have stayed in touch for these past 34 years.
Here Monday night, they were reunited when Grisham came to Delta State to help Ferriss raise money for Delta State athletics, baseball in particular. The event drew more than 500 patrons and raised more than $100,000, a testament to the popularity of both the author and the coach. (You should know that Grisham volunteered his time and efforts as a tribute to the man who ended his baseball career.)
Grisham brought the house down when he told of his most embarrassing moment as a prospective Delta State player. We’ll get to that shortly. Ferriss evoked similar laughter when he wistfully talked about what might have been had he not cut Grisham 34 years ago.
“The big mistake John made was not telling me he was going to be famous. … I’ve thought a lot of times, oh, if I hadn’t cut John, what great things we could have done for Delta State baseball,” Ferriss said, smiling. “Maybe a dome for the field. Maybe even a retractable roof. … “
Monday night’s proceeds won’t buy a rectractable roof for Ferriss Field but will provide a lot of bats and balls and perhaps a new outfield fence and drainage system.
“This is just huge for Delta State,” said athletic director Jeremy McClain. “We would normally strive for a year to raise $100,000 of private money. To do it in one night, well, I can’t tell you how much it means to us.”
Keep in mind the total operating budget for Delta State athletics is approximately $3 million annually, as compared to $33 million at Ole Miss and $28 million at Mississippi State. So, one hundred grand is a huge chunk. And Delta State can make $100,000 go a long, long way. The DSU football team is a Division II national powerhouse; the women’s basketball team is undefeated and ranked No. 1 nationally; and the baseball team averages about 50 victories a season.
Grisham’s passion for baseball is well-documented. And, as he said Monday, he prefers “the purity” of college baseball to the major leagues. College baseball players still run out all their ground balls and pop-ups because they still play for the love of the game.
Grisham, too, played for the love of the game. The problem with baseball is that sometimes baseball doesn’t love you back.
One such time was when Grisham went to bat against Stewart Cliburn, the Delta State great who went on to pitch in the major leagues. Monday night’s crowd howled as Grisham recounted the story of how Cliburn struck him out.
At one point, Grisham said, “(Cliburn) wound himself up, kicked high and unloaded a 90 mph fastball. The target was my helmet. For one terrifying split second I was frozen, then I managed to lurch back and spin around, and as the ball sailed just under my peach-fuzzed chin I could actually feel the heat and the wind.”
“I could have been killed.”
“I picked up my bat, found my helmet, dusted myself off, and in doing all this managed to mumble and snarl as if I just might charge the mound. In situations like this, tough guys usually take a step or two toward the pitcher and say something dramatic. I wanted to take a step or two toward the dugout and check my pants.”
Cliburn struck him out.
A kindly cut
The next day, Boo cut him, ever so kindly.
Grisham recalled the conversation:
Boo: “John, you had trouble with that curveball yesterday.”
John: “Yes sir, I thought it was going to hit me.”
“That’s why they throw them like that.”
“I guess so.”
“And you had trouble with the fastballs last week.”
“Yes sir. They’re awfully fast.”
“Well, if you can’t hit a fastball and you can’t hit a curve, what can you hit?”
“A change-up, if I know it’s coming.”
“I see. Look, I was once a pitcher, and pitchers can be cruel when they spot weaknesses.”
“I’ve never liked pitchers.”
“Well, they show up at every game.”
“I despise them.”
“Your grades are not too impressive.”
“Yes sir, I’m sort of drifting right now.”
“I suggest you forget about baseball and hit the books.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Good luck to you.”
“Thanks, Coach, for the chance.”
Thirty-four years later, Grisham paid him back.
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