Jim Ashwell, class of 1947, is welcomed by current Herndon players, as members… (Richard A. Lipski/for The…)
Bill Butler’s father built a regulation pitching mound for him at their Herndon home, complete with a plywood backstop and a home plate. But when the future major leaguer wanted to play baseball solitaire, he would climb the fence that separated his house from Herndon High (now Herndon Middle) on Locust Street and fire balls for hours off the side of the brick school, fielding the grounders and catching the flys.
So you might say that Butler’s Herndon High baseball roots run deep, and Friday night they sunk in even deeper for the 1965 graduate and for dozens of other former Hornets. The school, open since 1911, honored its all-century baseball team with an on-field salute for standouts who graduated as far back as the 1940s.
The school also retired Butler’s jersey in recognition of his major league career, which stretched from 1969 to 1977 with Kansas City, Cleveland and Minnesota. Until 2004 grad Brandon Guyer got called up to the Tampa Bay Rays last week, the 6-foot-2 left-hander was the school’s only big leaguer.
Butler arrived at the game Friday about an hour early and explored the school’s baseball complex for the first time. With wife Pat, he stayed through a misty night of baseball, an 8-7 win for the Hornets over Chantilly.
The Berkeley Springs, W.Va., resident seemed as pleased as could be to be remembered. Maybe even as pleased as Aug. 9, 1969, when he threw a one-hitter against Cleveland his rookie year with the Royals.
“To be recognized by your high school team is special,” said Butler, wearing an all-century team cap that each honoree received. “I lived here for 18 years. This is where my parents lived. This will always be home to me.”
Not many public schools in the Washington area have been open for 100 years, and even fewer schools could pull off selecting an all-century team. The fact that Herndon was able to speaks to the continuity in the program.
Current Hornets Coach Greg Miller, a 1997 graduate of the school, played for and assisted Al McCullock, who was head coach for 17 years. McCullock assisted Butch Lee, a 1962 grad and head baseball coach for 19 years. Lee played football at Herndon for Jim Ashwell, a 1947 grad and all-century baseball team member. Assistant athletic director Jonathan Frohm (class of ’89), another honoree and Herndon historian, knows his way around a stack of yearbooks. That’s lineage most schools don’t have.
“You can’t just [pick a team like] that at a normal place,” said 2006 graduate Daniel Lombardozzi, the youngest all-century player and the first introduced Friday night.
“To be honest, I never realized how cool it would be until all those guys were here,” said Miller, an all-century shortstop who did online research to track down some team members. “It shows you how much this place means to a lot of people that so many came from out of town to be a part of it.”
Current Herndon players formed two lines for the honorees — 21 of 38 were in attendance, with some traveling from as far as Colorado and Florida for the occasion — to walk between them as their names were announced. Consider the pressure on the youngest Hornets: The team’s schedule poster this season was a photo collage of the former greats, and here they were in the flesh, wishing them luck before the game. They had lost four of their previous five. It was senior night. And a former big-leaguer, Butler, was throwing out the first pitch.
“If we were to lose, I think I would have let [the all-century players] down the most rather than the seniors,” said senior second baseman Dylan Garten, who already is wondering who might be on the century-and-a-half team.
“We took it as inspirational, motivation,” said junior catcher Matt Smith, who hit a two-run triple in the first inning. “When they were announcing everyone’s names, all these guys [were] coming out with probably as much fire as when they came out there to play. ”
Butler cranked up his left arm in the Herndon dugout in preparation for throwing out the first pitch, loosening the same limb that enabled him to hurl four shutouts and that one-hitter his rookie year with the Royals, when he went 9-10 with 156 strikeouts and 91 walks and a 3.90 ERA. He sustained elbow problems that season and never fully recovered, finishing his career in 1977 with a 23-35 overall record.
“I think they made it bigger and heavier,” Butler said with a laugh as he cradled the ball moments before his honorary toss. “I’m 64 years old. I don’t have anything left.”
Butler one-hopped his pitch. In the old days, it would have bounced back to him.
Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams at email@example.com.