Middletown - Somewhere in Georgia, Paul Menhart sat with his ailing mother Saturday afternoon, always mindful of his cell phone's whereabouts. His lifelong friend Bernie Nasser, many miles way at Palmer Field, kept the updates coming. And finally, it was Nasser, retired Fitch High School teacher, who made his way to the jubilant dugout at game's end to deliver the message:
"Hey guys!" Nasser said. "Menhart says congrats!"
And a roar ensued from the brand new Class L state champs, nearly as clamorous as what the Fitch fans mustered minutes earlier, when Al Jordan Johnson's tumbling catch put the exclamation point on state high school baseball championship No. 4 at Fitch High.
Nobody knew two months ago, during some nothing Tuesday morning during school vacation, that Menhart's speech to the Falcons would be so profound. So useful. So practical. So memorable. Or how the words would run like a current all the way to Saturday. But the words of Menhart, an all-timer in Fitch lore and legend and former major leaguer, resonated all the way to Palmer Field during another banner day in program history.
Menhart is the pitching coach for the Harrisburg Senators, the Double-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. Nasser thought it might be a fun idea for Menhart to impart a ballplayer's wisdom to the Falcons of 2012. And so on a sunny April morning, Paul Menhart addressed the kids who wore his old uniform.
"Well, we won 15 in a row after that," said Shawn Nadeau, Saturday's winning pitcher. "It must have done something for us."
Menhart's greatest hits that day included several pieces of insight, complete with an R-rated delivery. He told the pitchers to pitch "to the hollow of the knee," which is just below it. Why? Menhart: "Nobody's ever given up a 500-foot ground ball."
Then after a primer on the necessity of pitching inside, he told pitchers that not everyone is blessed to throw 100 miles per hour. Pitch to contact. Let them hit it.
"As I was about to release the ball," Menhart told them, "my thought was 'hit this!'" Menhart said. "I bet a lot of you guys release the ball and think, '(bleep) you!'"
Giggles all around.
It was Menhart's way of saying guys who can't throw hard enough often think they can, instead of understanding who they are. They try to throw the ball by hitters when they can't. And they get hit.
Fast forward to Saturday.
Jordan Johnson, also a pitcher: "During tough games, we always came back to pitch inside. We weren't afraid. And we went to the hollow of the knees. We all remember that."
Catcher Zach Wolfgang: "One at-bat in this game stood out in my mind. The (New Canaan) kid (Willie Burger) who hit the two-run double in the first inning ? the next time Shawn faced him, he busted him inside with three fastballs. It was that same mentality."
Nadeau: "I've been pitching to both sides of the plate all year. I know Jon (Mewha) has. I know Al (Jordan Johnson) has. Before that, we might have been a little timid. The whole 'hit this' thing really works."
A few simple words. And they connected different eras of state championship teams. Nasser might have no idea that his idea to bring Menhart home helped bring another championship home. Turns out that Menhart's blue-collar speech fit a blue-collar team perfectly.
"Paul's an old school kind of guy. He's not that old either," Fitch coach Marc Peluso said. "He's a baseball naturalist. It fit the gritty guys we have. He talked about how his state championship at Fitch came without the most talent in the world, but because they all came together. What do you know? Here were are in 2012 as state champs."
What do you know, indeed. All the way from "hit this" and "hollow of the knee" came a moment in front of the Fitch dugout Saturday when Peluso got distracted just long enough to get the water bucket bath. The Fitch family rejoiced. So did a guy in Georgia who got to be proud of his old school all over again.
"Honestly," Wolfgang said, "it's too unreal right now. It hasn't really hit me yet that we're state champs. When it hits me later, I'll probably freak out."
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.