If a pitcher bends a baseball through the strike zone, the radar gun can lose some of its authority.
But still, Dobyns-Bennett ace Jeff Fleshman was doing his level best to scare up 80 mph on the gun. And as the Indians rolled into Murfreesboro for the Class AAA state tournament in late May 1992, they were decided underdogs.
Montgomery Bell Academy, joining D-B in the final four, boasted standout pitcher R.A. Dickey. Germantown carried a pair of hard-throwing shut-down starters — one hitting 90 mph from the right side (future major-league pitcher and recent New York Mets manager Mickey Callaway) and the other throwing 90 from the left side (Collins Day, who went 12-0 for Memphis University in 1994).
And Warren County? More on that bunch later.
Sure, the Indians had a potent batting order. But Fleshman’s matchup against Dickey in the opening round appeared to be a mismatch.
This was before Dickey would embed his name 109 times in the University of Tennessee baseball record book and win 120 games with six teams over a 15-year major-league career. It was before anyone knew Dickey was born without an ulnar collateral ligament, which is the primary elbow stabilizer.
Four years after the matchup against D-B, Dickey was on the verge of accepting an $810,000 signing-bonus offer from Texas. But a Rangers team doctor happened to see Dickey’s picture on the cover of Baseball America’s Olympic preview. The physician noticed Dickey’s arm was hanging at an odd angle, leading to an examination that revealed the missing UCL — a discovery that reduced Dickey’s offer to $75,000.
However, he signed for the smaller sum and eventually earned over $58 million in the big leagues.
“Of course at the time we had no idea R.A. Dickey would go on to have the success he had in the majors,” said Fleshman, who these days is 46 years old and a veteran FBI agent living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “It certainly makes the memory of that game more fun. We beat a guy who even then was a fantastic player, who went on to have an incredible career.
“Dickey was definitely a stud pitcher. We knew he was one of the better pitchers in the state. We knew we had a tall task.”
As a side note, Dickey’s wife (Anne) is the daughter of Sam and Vicki Bartholomew. Sam, now deceased, was a football standout at D-B and Vicki — a former D-B cheerleader — was the second runner-up in the 1967 Miss America pageant.
One thing working in the Indians’ favor was confidence because they defeated Knox Central in the state quarterfinals. The Bobcats boasted Todd Helton and were just two years removed from an undefeated state championship season.
Helton is still the University of Tennessee all-time leader in home runs (38) and RBIs (238), and his name appears 146 times in the Volunteers’ record book. He went on to a 17-year career with the Colorado Rockies, hitting 369 home runs. (Yes, it’s the same guy who started at quarterback ahead of Peyton Manning in the early part of the 1994 college football season.)
The Indians took Helton and the Bobcats down, a history-making win for the program.
“We were the first team from D-B to make it to the state tournament in 17 years,” Fleshman said. “To get there we had to beat Knox Central on its home field. It was Helton’s senior year, and he was one of the best players in the country. They were a real powerhouse. They were loaded.”
The turning point came quickly against MBA.
In the top of the first inning, Mark Lockhart walked and stole second. Jimmy McLain singled to put runners on the corners. Chris Bolas hit a grounder, and the Big Red’s second baseman tried to nail Lockhart at the plate. Lockhart was safe for the game’s first run, and Aaron Ferguson walked to load the bases.
J.C. Warnick was hit by a pitch to make it 2-0, and a wild pitch gave the Indians a 3-0 lead. Lane Corum’s bouncer to Dickey was booted, and D-B exited the first inning with a 4-0 lead.
One hit. Four runs.
“Without a doubt, that took a lot of pressure off,” Fleshman said.
Dickey allowed just four hits in a complete-game performance, striking out 12 batters.
“We had an outstanding hitting team,” Fleshman said. “I would put our team up against any in the state that year. Probably where we were lacking was pitching. Look at me, I was the No. 1 guy and I topped out at 80 mph.”
Dickey said recently in an email he didn’t recall much from the 1992 tournament.
“I just remember we beat ourselves in those games,” he said. “We were not playing our best baseball at that point.”
Dickey got a second chance in 1993. He earned the win in relief against Germantown in the championship game.
Fleshman was hard on the Big Red lineup. He carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning.
“I didn’t realize it,” said Fleshman. “I was so caught up in the game. I didn’t have a fastball, but I had a curveball. At least in my humble opinion, I had one of the better curveballs in the state. It was a big 12-6 break, and I lived off of it. And I had pretty good control.”
In the process of controlling the MBA lineup, Fleshman frustrated Dickey, who had collected at least one hit in all 30 of MBA’s games that season. Dickey was 0-for-3 and standing in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the seventh inning with the Indians leading 5-2 and two runners on base.
Indians head coach Mike Ritz visited the mound and decided it was better for Fleshman to face Mike Anderson than Dickey. Fleshman struck out Anderson to end the game, also bringing a halt to Dickey’s hitting streak.
Fleshman laughed when he recalled Ritz’s last-inning visit.
“He said, ‘Don’t panic. Even if this guy hits a home run, we will still be winning,’ ” said Fleshman. “Mark Lockhart looked at the two guys on base and said, ‘If this guy hits a homer we will be tied.’ We had to correct Coach Ritz, and we had a good laugh about it.”
WEARING A DIFFERENT HAT
One of the architects of D-B’s success that season was a pitching coach who would soon embark on a record-setting career in another sport at the school: Graham Clark.
“Coach Ritz was known more as a hitting coach,” said Fleshman. “Coach Clark focused on the pitching. He was very knowledgeable, even though football was his true love. He has a dry sense of humor, and it was a lot of fun working with him.”
Clark took over the football program in 1993 and is the Indians’ all-time winningest head coach.
IN THE BOOKS
It was win No. 12 for Fleshman, a single-season school record that still stands today. Jason Adams tied his mark a few years later.
“Somebody pointed it out maybe four or five years ago,” said Fleshman, who went on to graduate from UT with a degree in engineering. “I was kind of shocked it was still a record.”
The Indians lost 4-2 to Germantown in the winners bracket final.
Then they faced the “other” final four team in the losers bracket. After D-B rallied from a 6-0 deficit to tie the game, Warren County’s Trevor Wilson scored from first base on an infield error for a walk-off 7-6 win. Fleshman was pitching in relief on one day’s rest and suffered the tough loss.
Warren County beat Germantown 5-4, and then won the state title with a 4-2 decision in the if-necessary game. The Pioneers scored two runs off Callaway in the top of the eighth inning.
1957 Tribe baseball team reached the pinnacle
D-B baseball was pounding at state title door in 1975