By Cam Huffman
Seth McClung has pitched in front of thousands of fans under the bright lights of some of Major League Baseball’s biggest stadiums. He’s gone head-to-head with Randy Johnson — and won — and he’s even experienced the thrill of signing his name to a contract worth more than a million dollars.
But on Wednesday, the 33-year-old former big leaguer, who went 26-34 with a 5.46 ERA and six saves in 177 games over six years, was sitting on a bucket in the middle of the baseball diamond at the Alderson town park, tossing batting practice to a group of young baseball hopefuls as the scorching June heat baked the infield dirt.
The funny thing is, there’s no place the Greenbrier East High School graduate would have rather been.
“I wanted to give back,” said McClung, who held the camp free of charge. “This is the best way we could give back to the community and teach these kids.”
McClung was in his home state in a new role this week, as the head coach of the baseball team at Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg, Fla. He ended a 16-year professional career in March when he retired after being released by the Pirates, and soon after began a new chapter as a high school baseball coach.
McClung’s homecoming this week served multiple purposes.
First, he thought it would be a great experience for his players, who came with him to help assist as at the camp, as well as playing some baseball against summer league teams in the area.
“This area is just so different than what they’re used to,” he explained. “I just wanted to bring them here and give them a taste of what the people are like in the Greenbrier Valley and in West Virginia.
“They’ve loved it. I think the bugs are eating them alive. But they love the mountains.”
“It’s been great,” added Keswick freshman Tony Simpson. “We’ve been playing a lot of baseball and getting to know our teammates. We’ve played some good high school teams.”
The trip also gave McClung a chance to return to his roots.
“I like coming home,” he said. “It’s really special. I haven’t been home in the summertime in a long time. West Virginia in the summer is just beautiful. There’s nothing like it, and it’s so good to come home and feel it again.”
Seeing so many familiar faces and places has brought back memory after memory for the powerful 6-foot-6 flamethrower.
Perhaps surprisingly, McClung said returning to the field at Greenbrier East, where his team faced off against a team full of Spartans, wasn’t the most emotional moment. The memories really flooded back when he stood on the mound at Woodrow Wilson High School.
“That was the last place I played a high school game,” he said. “It was like all the moments of playing Elkins and the conversations I had with Pat Parker, Derek Gwynn and everybody all came back to me. I felt like I was in the green and gold again, and the emotions going through me were crazy. I’m so far removed from it, but yet it’s such a big part of my life. It never really goes away.”
The visit, McClung hopes, will also be an example to the high school players his team plays against and the kids that came to the camp for a few pointers that their dreams — now matter how large — are possible.
“First and foremost, God’s got to bless you with some ability,” he said of the path to the big leagues. “After that, it’s the work you put in. Sure, it’s right place at the right time sometimes, and there’s a lot of sacrifices to be made. But I would just suggest have fun with it and play as much as you can.
“It’s possible. I did it. I’m a kid from Ronceverte. It wasn’t like I came from downtown Atlanta. If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
McClung’s Keswick team went 4-0 Monday and Tuesday against summer league teams from Greenbrier East and Woodrow Wilson and will travel to Elkins to participate in the Hillbilly Hardball Classic this weekend. His players have caught the attention of the coaching staff at the University of Charleston, who offered scholarships to three of his players already and are showing interest in two others.
“They’re good players, but they’re getting overlooked,” he said. “In Florida, everybody’s looking for the top, top talent. Here in West Virginia, there are still good programs, but they’re looking for talent. I was able to help five guys get to their dream, and that is very rewarding.”
McClung has high hopes for his team, and he’s quickly earned the respect of players hoping to one day stand where he’s stood.
“The baseball guys understand it a lot,” said McClung. “I’m not saying I’m the big thing in Tampa, but I’m a big enough name that most of their parents know who I am. The second I took the job, phone calls started coming from kids who wanted to transfer.
“In basketball, the girls had no clue. I was just the fat basketball coach to them. The boys get it a little bit, and I think it really helps, because they get where I’m coming from. I enjoy sharing the stories with them, because it’s exactly their dream. I hope I can help them achieve that.”
“I never saw him pitch, but I know he was a well-respected baseball player,” added Keswick freshman Christian Horner. “It means a lot that he would give his time to help turn a program around. He knows his stuff, and the fact that he was a pro reinforces that.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH