Talking trash doesn’t do any good unless you can prove it.
Jake Whitesides, a Mid-Missouri Mavericks center fielder, can back it up.
The July sun is beating down on him as he takes batting practice in Rockford, Ill., when shortstop Cooper Vittitow and first baseman Bill Greenwell start giving Whitesides a hard time. He’s hitting grounders, they say. He certainly hasn’t hit one over the wall.
“I can hit one anytime I want to,” Whitesides says.
Apparently, he wants to. When he steps in for his next round, he sends the first ball soaring over the right field wall. No one says another word.
It’s the kind of swagger that’s expected from stars. Whitesides, who starred at Hickman High, is the embodiment of this stereotype. It took one game for the local media to notice him. Within two days, the Columbia Missourian was calling him a “Hometown Hero.” With the first game in Mavericks history tied at 2 in the bottom of the seventh, Kenosha Mammoths pitcher Steve Hardman walked Vittitow, loading the bases for Whitesides.
“Uh oh,” third baseman Seth Brown said. “You never load the bases for the Hometown Hero. Don’t they know who this guy is?”
Whitesides promptly ripped a two-run double to left, putting the Mavericks ahead for good.
He seemed to operate best when trying to live up to predictions.
The Mavericks were ahead 14-3 against the Gateway Grizzlies in the bottom of the fifth inning June 28 when Whitesides surveyed the night sky from the dugout. His eyes came to rest on Devine Pavilion, a training complex for the Missouri Tigers that sits beyond the right field wall. It’s 420 feet away.
“One of these days, I’m going to hit that thing,” Whitesides said. “And when I do, I’m just gonna walk down the first-base line and watch it go.”
He got his chance in the sixth. He turned on a 3-1 fastball and drove it deep to right field. Over the right fielder’s head, over the wall and onto the roof of Devine Pavilion. The towering shot went at least 450 feet.
True to his word, Whitesides walked toward first and watched the ball fly until he knew it was gone. Then he jogged home.
Pitcher Justin Stine, who got the win that night for the Mavs, was not about to let the Hometown Hero have the last laugh. As the players headed to the top step of the dugout to congratulate Whitesides on the two-run shot, Stine told them all to sit back down and keep talking. Pretend nothing happened, he said.
Whitesides stood on the top step and grinned as his teammates high-fived Vittitow, who had scored from first on the home run, but ignored him. Then someone finally blurted out, “What, isn’t that what the Hometown Hero is supposed to do?”
Even the Hometown Hero couldn’t overcome the inconsistencies that seem to plague stars in the Frontier League. After all, if they could do that every time, they wouldn’t be in this league anymore.
As July came to an end, Whitesides was struggling. In a span of four games, he dropped three fly balls in the outfield that usually would have been routine. For the first time all year, his average dropped below .300. He was even striking out with the game on the line in the ninth.
On the same afternoon he had been calling home runs in batting practice, Whitesides sat on the curb behind the team’s locker room and glanced through the stat sheet that lists the league leaders.
“Well, at least I’m still in the lead in something (triples),” he said.
Moments later, Whitesides was talking about how many college hours he would have to get to become a substitute teacher. Strange talk from a guy most people in the Frontier League thought would be picked up by an affiliate team within the first month of the season.
The confident swagger Whitesides seemed to show early in the season as he dealt with the local press also seemed to be fading. In June, he would snag a scorebook from a reporter and pencil in a home run for himself in the first inning.
Asked about his days with the Midland Redskins, an American Amateur Baseball Congress team for 16- to 18-year-olds in Ohio that won the Connie Mack World Series when Whitesides was there, he couldn’t resist putting himself among some of the team’s greatest products.
“They’ve had some great center fielders... Ken Griffey, Jr., Corey Patterson,” he said.
Then he laughed and grinned, adding one more name to the list.
“Jake Whitesides,” he said quietly, almost to himself. “Someday ... soon hopefully.”
By late July his goal seemed a lot simpler. He was just trying not to strike out.
After he injured his thigh in early August, it seemed as if Whitesides’ season might have reached its lowest point. Ironically, his injury led to his resurgence.
On the second night that Whitesides was out of the Mavericks’ lineup, the team trailed the Washington Wild Things 2-1 going into the ninth inning. After Blake Blase singled, Whitesides limped up to the plate to pinch hit for a struggling Darrell Sinclair.
After falling behind 0-2 in the count, it looked as if he might be on the verge of disappointment again. Whitesides came through with an RBI triple. Moments later, he scored the winning run when fellow Columbia native Wes Fewell hit a single to left.
For another week, Whitesides continued to be in and out of the lineup, but the rest seemed to help his psyche, too. By the end of the season, he was again leading the team in batting.
The swagger had returned.