Gary Wayne Fitzgerald, a senior second baseman for the Patrick Henry High School baseball team recently completed a record setting season. While fellow infielder Yates Sayers posted an amazing .515 season’s average for the Patriots, his teammate Fitzgerald attacked his job one bruise at a time, gaining his fame the hard way.
In forty-seven plate appearances this season Gary Wayne Fitzgerald was hit by a pitch an amazing fourteen times. Struck with the second pitch he saw this year in a scrimmage verses William Byrd High School, Fitzgerald managed to survive only two games this season without getting plunked, carding two multiple contusion contests during his unpleasant streak.
The modern day Major League record for H.B.P. (hit by pitch) belongs to former Red Sox outfielder Don Baylor, who was drilled thirty-five times during the 1986 season. Baylor set his mark while appearing in 154 games. Keeping that in mind, if Fitzgerald were to play 154 games (rather than the fourteen contests he hobbled through this season) he would have obliterated Baylor’s record with an agonizing 153 body indentations! Fitzgerald would more than triple the all-time record registered by Hughie Jennings of the Baltimore Orioles in 1896, and that’s back when they played the game with what amounted to a ball of yarn, an object far gentler than the hardened projectile used in today’s game.
A frequent witness to this bludgeoning, I began to ask myself, “What makes Gary such a desirable target for every pitcher in the Valley?”
Does he stand too close to home plate? Not really. Does he lean towards the ball when he swings? He does, but no more than anyone else. Was Gary the first guy out in elementary school gym class when dodge ball was contested? Unlikely, Gary sports a quick arm and the soft hands of an experienced second-sacker. Do opposing pitchers have some kind of personal vendetta against Gary? Most of them don’t even know Fitzgerald and, if they did, they would no doubt find him to be the very genial, intelligent fellow whose teammates and coaches hold in high regard. Then what is it that makes Gary’s beaten body a home for errant pitches?
To find my answer, I sought those closest to this phenomenon.
Coach Aaron Haigler cannot understand why stray pitches continue their assault on his second baseman. “It’s really crazy, chuckles Haigler “My brother-in-law, Todd Hudson, holds the career HBP at Franklin County High School with about eight or ten and that’s over four years. Gary is on a whole other level.”
Pitching Coach Ryan Loose describes Fitzgerald as “a ball magnet.” Parents of PH players slump in their folding chairs and cringe every time the ball collides with the indomitable Gary, yet the one least concerned about these frequent pulverizations is the man his teammates call “G-Dub,” Gary Wayne himself.
When asked about what kind of thoughts go through his head when a pitch is headed directly for him, Gary’s answer might shock many of us.
“I think don’t move” said Fitzgerald, “I think, get on base and help the team.”
When most people (including myself) would run, dive or close their eyes and wince, Gary makes a conscious decision as if it were a reflex. When given the choice between himself and the team, Fitzgerald chooses the team, every time.
Please understand that I am not suggesting that Little Leaguers should serve themselves up as human sacrifices for the love of the game or the benefit of their team. What Gary brings to his teammates is his own courageous sense of community, an inspiring, black and blue reminder that one selfless act breeds another and that fourteen such acts can bond a team.
Unable to participate in the district semi-final or district championship game due to another wild pitch which produced a bump on his shin the size of a canned ham, Gary remained a vital cog of the Patriots late season run, which eventually ended in a 5-1 defeat at GW-Danville.
Gary graduated a few weeks ago and the Patrick Henry coaches need not scout the Valley’s emergency rooms for a possible successor to Fitzgerald’s battered crown. Austin “Goose” Dillard, the heir apparent and future first baseman for the Patriots, brings quite an impressive resume as a pitcher’s piñata. During the improbable 2006 Roanoke City Dixie Boys All-Star team run to the state championships, Dillard was pelted by six pitches during a twelve game stretch, earning him the summer moniker “Bull’s-eye.” Impressive numbers certainly, but far from the type of consistent anguish on which
Fitzgerald hangs his crutches.
“Sure it would be cool to own a school record”, offered Dillard when asked about chasing Fitzgerald’s mark in 2010, “But I would much rather break a record that doesn’t break me first, if you know what I mean.”
Another player will man second base next year for the Patriots, but Gary Wayne Fitzgerald will not be forgotten. Each time ball meets batter at Patrick Henry’s Edwards Field and the cry of “WE’VE GOT ICE” will be heard from the home team’s bench, thoughts of G-Dub the Ball Magnet will resonate throughout the dugout, and somewhere Gary will be rubbing his shoulder and smiling.