Column: Thrown to the Wolves, Vikings come through
The date: Tuesday, April 16, 2002.
The place: St. Johns River Community College.
The event: Lake City-St. Johns River baseball.
At the turn of the century, the Lake City Community College baseball team proved to be formidable enough to be the kingpins of the Mid-Florida Conference.
The 2002 season was no different for the Timberwolves, who were leading the MFC with a 15-5 record when they traveled to Palatka to face coach Sam Rick’s Vikings, who had been scuffling for a bit of the season and carried a 9-11 conference record into the game.
“They were in the state tournament every year and I think that particular year, they were among the final two or three teams in that tournament,” said Rick, who coached the Vikings from 1994-2006. “They were very outstanding. When it came to recruiting, they could take whoever they wanted and I got the leftovers. My scholarships were books, tuition and up to $1,000 a kid, where theirs was books, tuition, room and board – and they had full room and board. They had 24 recruits compared to our 18.”
The top player the Vikings had on the roster was one that drew little interest in recruiting out of West Nassau High School in Callahan – a middle infielder named Howard Kendrick. And in the first inning, Kendrick drove the point that maybe he needed to be looked at a little better when he singled and would come around to score on a Dell Hoard single for a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first.
“Howie was outstanding,” Rick said. “I think in this game, Lake City did everything it could to keep him from beating them.”
Two innings later, the Timberwolves flexed their muscles as Harris Lee delivered a home run against Vikings starter Scott Hayman to tie it at 1-all.
But the Vikings were back on top by the fourth inning. Tommy Desaulniers reached on a fielder’s choice, got to third and then scored on a well-executed squeeze bunt by Alex Black. One inning later, Rick was back at it with more bunting with runners 90 feet from the plate. Hoard put down a squeeze bunt that got home Tony Batycki. They added another run in the fifth when Chad Williams scored off a wild pitch by Lake City starter Barry Richardson.
Seemed like the Vikings were in control as Hayman did his best to keep the Timberwolves guessing. But Lake City managed to scratch out a run in the sixth to make it 4-2. Then Lake City added two runs in the top of the eighth inning to tie it at 4-all. Hayman would give up four runs on seven hits, walking three and striking out seven on this afternoon.
Rick went to the bullpen to find the perfect foil for what Hayman was throwing at Timberwolves hitters – Andy Christman, whose look was menacing, but whose pitching was anything but, according to Rick.
“Andy Christman was very interesting. He was 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, but yet he didn’t crack an egg with his pitches,” Rick said. “Lake City could drill a fastball and Hayman was throwing his fastball and sliders, but when we got Christman in, he’d throw his off-speed stuff and keep those guys off-balance.”
It worked to perfection. Christmas retired the side in the top of the ninth to keep the game tied.
In the bottom of the ninth, Lake City reliever Jon Koch started strong by getting the first two batters. But Hoard, who got things going with the RBI single in the first, singled to left field. Desaulniers followed with another base hit, moving Hoard up to second.
And up stepped catcher Kris Judd, recruited for his handling of pitchers and his defensive work by Rick.
“He was from Jacksonville,” Rick said. “He was really an average hitter, but he was very good defensively. He was solid behind the plate.”
But even average hitters now a good pitch when they see one. And Judd found one to his liking. He sent a towering shot over the left-field fence to send his teammates into a happy frenzy as they met him at home plate to finish out the 7-4 victory.
“He threw me a hanging curveball and I just jacked it,” Judd said afterward. “I was just trying to hit a line (drive) up the middle and it ended up being a home run (to left).”
The win was one of the big highlights of what would turn out to be a 19-22 season overall in which the Vikings were 12-16 in conference, finishing sixth. That didn’t stop the Vikings from getting a huge honor when Kendrick was named the conference player of the year. Kendrick would be drafted 10th that June in the Major League Baseball amateur draft by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and by 2006, he was in the big leagues. Though oft-injured, Kendrick, an American League All-Star in 2011, has enjoyed a 14-year career in the bigs, currently playing for the Washington Nationals.
Rick said he will have a soft place in his heart for that ‘02 team.
“That was probably the closest group of kids we had,” he said. “And we had a bunch of kids that were looked over by other schools. They knew they weren’t great, but they enjoyed playing the game and playing with each other. They were just a great group of kids to be around.”
Mark Blumenthal is a writer for the Palatka Daily News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @diabolicalmarky.