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Chuck Landon: History of baseball shows in Portsmouth

Jan. 19, 2013 @ 12:20 AM

PORTSMOUTH, Ohio -- It was the perfect interlude.

Scheduled like an oasis betwixt news of Marshall's ever-changing football coaching staff and the struggles of the Thundering Herd's inconsistent basketball team, there came this wonderfully refreshing night of baseball.

Yes, baseball.

It was the ninth annual Portsmouth Murals baseball banquet Wednesday here in the Friends Community Center.

And, oh, what a memorable evening it was.

It began with a prayer by former Pittsburgh Pirates star Al Oliver, a native of Portsmouth who is a deacon at Beulah Baptist Church. After his eloquent invocation, emcee Bill Warnock commented, "It's worth the price of admission just to hear Al pray."

Indeed.

The banquet also offered the opportunity to renew acquaintances with old friends such as Winfield native Jimmy Lett and Hall of Fame sportswriter Hal McCoy.

How many people realized Lett is the Washington Nationals' bullpen coach?

"I've been doing that for three years," said Lett, who still resides in Winfield during the off-season. "We're pretty good."

Then, there were the speakers.

Al Oliver -- "My father (Al Oliver Sr.) died the day I was called up to the big leagues," he said, referring to Sept. 14, 1968. "It was really hard. But after a while, Roberto Clemente came up to me in the clubhouse.

"He told me that I had a lot of self-confidence and that I worked hard. He told me to just keep doing what I was doing. He told me I was going to be OK.

"Roberto Clemente was like a second father to me. I got 2,743 hits in my Major League career. I don't know how many I would have had if it weren't for Roberto Clemente."

Greg Gibson -- "Usually when you are inducted into something it means you have retired," said the 44-year-old Major League Baseball umpire, an Ironton native and Ashland resident, who has been added to the floodwall murals here. "I'm not ready to go yet."

Don Gullett -- "They told me to talk about some of my best memories in baseball," said the former Cincinnati Reds' star pitcher, a native of Lynn, Ky. "But after hearing Al Oliver talk about Roberto Clemente, I'm not going to do that.

"The last base hit of Roberto Clemente's life came off me. I'll tell you something else. The first home run I gave up in Major League Baseball was to Willie Mays. And the last home run Willie Mays hit in his career -- he was with the New York Mets then -- was off me.

"That might sound odd coming from a pitcher, but. ..."

Gullett was in tears as he left the podium.

Randy Marsh -- "It was always good to umpire behind Pat Borders because he stayed so low," said the director of umpiring for Major League Baseball, referring to the former Blue Jays' star catcher whose mural was added to the floodwall. "He handled rookie pitchers well. And he handled veteran pitchers well. That's why he stayed in the big leagues so long."

The only person missing from the festivities was the driving force behind the annual banquet, Gene Bennett. The retired Reds' scout was at the bedside of his wife, Loretta, who is gravely ill.

But Bennett wasn't forgotten.

"When Gene called and asked me to speak," said Marsh, "it was like the Pope calling."

Yes, indeed, it was a night to remember.

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at 304-526-2827 or clandon@herald-dispatch.com.

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