Staring at greatness with no clue

— I was telling Daily Sun Publisher Roger Harnack that I was trying to catch up to Russell Baze because of this weekend’s Central Washington Sports Hall of Fame induction.

“You mean that jockey from Granger?” he asked. Well, yes, that jockey from Granger.

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Ted Escobar

But Russell Avery Baze went on to be a jockey from out of this world. On Saturday, he’ll be inducted among an impressive list of national and world-class athletes.

The list includes Olympic skier Phil Mahre, the late Jim Pomeroy of motocross fame, New York Yankee pitching ace Mel Stottlemeyre of Mabton, Olympic heptathlete Kelly Blair LaBounty of Prosser, MLB and NBA player (at the same time) Gene Conley of Richland, famed Central Washington University basketball coach Dean Nicholson, Yakima Valley College and Washington State University baseball coach Chuck “Bobo” Brayton, and Olympic heavyweight boxing champion Pete Rademacher of Grandview.

Sports fan or not, if you didn’t know these neighbors or of them, read about them. You’ll learn that greatness can occur anywhere, including your back yard.

I may just have to go to this induction.

If things go well, there could be some good ol’ times on which to catch up. I knew or interviewed some of these athletes, or both.

Mahre and his Olympic skiing brother, Steve, played in a golf tournament I organized at SunTides in the 1980s. They were a more than friendly pair.

They split up and played with two different foursomes, and I eventually ran into them on the course. When I complimented Phil and Steve on their accomplishments, they said they wished they could play golf as well as the worst player in the tournament.

Stottlemyre has been identified as being from Yakima for years. But he was the pride of the Mabton High School Vikings. Most kids who played baseball in this valley in the late 1950s knew Mel or of Mel. Many had played against him.

Just before the 1964 World Series, Mel emerged as the pitching ace of the Yankees. The valley baseball world was abuzz. Young men in White Swan, Granger and Zillah played against him regularly over four years.

He was good, but no one suspected major league good.

Those players were shocked and proud as they started to realize they’d played against the New York Yankee pitching ace. Just about every TV in the valley tuned in to that series. Unfortunately, St. Louis had Hall of Fame pitcher Bullet Bob Gibson, and the Cardinals won, 4 games to 3.

Mel won the first meeting with Gibson, 8-3, in Game 2 to tie the series at 1-1. In Game 5, Gibson won, 5-2, against the late Pete Mikkelson, who lived his retirement in Prosser. In game 7, it was Mel vs. Gibson again. Gibson won, 7-5.

I ran into Mel a few times after that. I believe once was for an interview. The other times we just talked baseball.

On TV, he was a giant. Standing next to me, he was an incredibly humble human being. I think of him every time I watch Mel Jr. walk to the Mariners mound.

Pete Rademacher was another shock to Yakima Valley sports fans. The kid from Grandview, whom very few knew, surprised valley boxing fans by sweeping to the Olympic heavyweight title in 1956, four years before Muhammed Ali won the same title.

We’ll never know what kind of pro career Rademacher could have had because of one of the biggest mistakes in sports history. The match-makers lined Pete up with then World Champion Floyd Patterson for his first pro go. He got in one good punch in the second round to knock Patterson down, but in the next four rounds, he went down seven times and was knocked out in the sixth.

Years later, when I interviewed Pete and his father at their home high above Sunnyside about mission work they were doing in Mexico, he said that first pro match had been a mistake. His pro career was pretty much that fight.

The first time I was aware of Russell Avery Baze was in 1973-74, when he wrestled at the lightest weight on the same Granger High wrestling team with my brother David, who was the heavyweight.

They graduated together in 1976.

“I think he wrestled two years,” David said. “When he realized he could make money riding, he stopped wrestling.”

And, oh, how he could ride. He was 16 years gold when he won his first race at Yakima Meadows. He was 57 years old when he rode his last race at Golden Gate Fields in San Mateo, Calif.

That was 12,844 wins after he started. Wins, not rides.

That was the world record at that time. It was broken by Jorge Ricardo of Brazil this year, and they are the only two riders to accomplish more than 10,000 victories. Those victories and all other race winnings for Baze totaled about $200 million.

Upon his retirement in 2016, Las Vegas Journal-Review writer Richard Eng said: “Baze, 57, epitomized a lunchpail rider, and I say that with utmost respect. You don’t win 12,844 career races by being a night owl. He put his nose to the grindstone every day, ready to give his best.”

On Dec. 1, 2006, Baze passed Laffit Pincay Jr., who had retired with 9,530 wins for the all-time winningest jockey.”

I’m sure David will agree we never recognized the greatness were looking at when we talked to that little 100-pound kid. And he was from little old Granger and the Lower Yakima Valley.

— Ted Escobar is the managing editor of The Daily Sun. Email him at tescobar@dailysunnews.com.



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