Ever wonder what Major League Baseball umpires talk about in their dressing room before taking the field?
On Thursday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Rowan County’s baseball team might have been a topic of conversation.
Eighteenth-year Major League umpire Sam Holbrook enlisted an old buddy to keep him apprised of how his alma mater fared in the state baseball tournament. Though the Vikings fell to McCracken County, 2-1, in Thursday’s quarterfinals, just by getting there Rowan County advanced the farthest it had since the 1983 club that included Holbrook as a senior reached the state semifinals.
“We like to brag on our alma maters, and this will surely give me a little bit of news to talk about with the guys in the locker room,” Holbrook said by phone Tuesday afternoon, less than three hours before working third base for the Red Sox-Royals game in Kansas City. “It’s just a great story, so I’m real tickled for them.”
The 1983 Vikings might have gone deeper than the final four if not for some bad luck. Holbrook was on the mound and cruising along against Trinity, up 5-1 in the third inning, when he took a line drive just above the elbow on his pitching arm.
“It just wasn’t meant to be, I guess,” Holbrook said. “We were feeling pretty good about everything, and then that happened and I wasn’t able to go on anymore. Stuff like that happens, and you just gotta play through it. Unfortunately, we came out on the short end of the stick right there.”
Rowan County coach Larry Hardin remembers being unable to get his chosen reliever ready in time to replace Holbrook, and the Shamrocks rallied for an 8-6 victory.
Thirty-six years later, the loss doesn’t sting quite like it did that afternoon in Somerset, Hardin said.
“No, it really doesn’t,” he said. “You make some decisions, and I was always told, don’t look back, because you have to make them on the spur of the moment.”
Hardin, who still lives in Morehead, continues to follow the Vikings. He gives the late coach Keith Prater credit for building the program to the point where it was a legitimate contender for the state title to be handed out this weekend.
“You can’t describe what (Prater) did. The kids just had confidence, and he was always positive,” Hardin said, adding with a laugh, “I wasn’t like that. ... I just thought he was a miracle worker.”
Hardin also coached current Vikings skipper Scott Collins. Collins started as a freshman and teamed up with another ninth-grader, Hardin recalled, to turn a double play to preserve Rowan County’s 1-0 win over Ashland in the 1986 region tournament quarterfinal in Catlettsburg.
Holbrook lives in Florida now, when he isn’t jetting across the country arbiting games, but he knows Collins from way back and has kept an eye on his progress.
“I know Scotty’s done a great job with them,” Holbrook said. “I know how hard he works, and it’s wonderful to hear the success that they’re having, just to be able to get that far.”
As strong as that 1983 team was, the team the year before that was better, Hardin said. The ’82 Vikings fell to Greenup County in the region final, but Rowan County won it both the year before and after that.
The 2019 Vikings remind Hardin of that 1982 club, on which future Major Leaguer Joe Magrane was a senior.
“Baseball’s really funny. The best ballclub I ever hoped to have was in 1982, and won (the region) on both ends of it,” Hardin said. “I had four left-handed pitchers and two right-handers, and they were all pretty good, none of ‘em as good as Joe.”
Holbrook and Bobby Hamilton combined for a solid pitching combination in 1983. Hamilton effectively threw “just junk and a changeup” and pitched often during the postseason in order to keep Holbrook at third and fortify Rowan County’s defense, Hardin said.
Active baseball coaches nearly relentlessly preach to their players not to look beyond the next game on the schedule. Freed from those constraints by retirement, Hardin couldn’t help noticing the Vikings’ potential semifinal opponent — the same Trinity that Rowan County knocked off in the 1971 semifinals and lost to in the semis 12 years later.
“And now, if you look on down there, you’ll see Trinity again,” Hardin said Tuesday, adding with a laugh, “I look for Rowan County to face them again.”
That wasn’t meant to be, but the Vikings still advanced farther than they had since Hardin was in charge.
“It makes me feel really good,” Hardin said. “I’m really impressed with what they’ve done.”
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