NATE GRAMES-EDWARDS gets his MWV jersey signed by Jeff Locke on Sunday morning after the two played catch. Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)
December 19, 2011CONWAY — With winter seemingly just getting under way, spring seems like a distant destination, a place just out of reach for the next few months.
For Jeff Locke, however, spring begins as soon as the new year rolls around.
Locke, who made his Major League debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates in September, will be heading south just after the first of the year to get ready for Spring Training and the possibility of earning a spot on the Pittsburgh roster to open the season.
However, before he did that, the Kennett graduate took some time on Sunday to do a question and answer session with fans both young and old and signed autographs as part of a fundraiser for the Friends of Conway Rec. Inc. The money raised goes to help offset the cost of the recreation department's summer program for kids who may not be able to afford it.
Locke said that he'd be heading back to Florida after Jan. 1, with the idea of getting acclimated to the weather before the Feb. 15 reporting date for pitchers and catchers. He noted that a lot of his teammates would be there and they'd get the chance to work together prior to Spring Training.
Conway Recreation Director John Eastman introduced Locke to the crowd and asked him to tell "the story from Arizona."
Locke remembered back to his second Major League trip, as he was warming up in the outfield, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle yelled out to him. The lefty thought he was in a bit of trouble.
"He said, 'there's some very nice people from New Hampshire and I really wish you'd go over there and make them happy,'" Locke recalls.
The people from New Hampshire were the Leavitt family, owners of a bakery in Conway and Hurdle gave Locke the rest of the warm-up off so he could talk to the fans.
"It goes to show you what kind of following I've been able to get with the support of everyone in this town," Locke told the crowd.
Featuring long hair sticking out from under his hat, Locke looked a bit different than he did in his high school days, but he admitted afterward that the hair was all part of a bet.
"Andrew McCutcheon (the Pirates' All-Star centerfielder) said he'd pay me if I came back with long hair," Locke joked. McCutcheon is also known for having long hair. "It's all part of a bet.
Locke answered a wide variety of questions from kids and adults alike, including one native of Pittsburgh who had driven up a day earlier and was a huge Pirates fan.
One of the inevitable questions Locke gets since he's from New Hampshire, is how long it will be before he's playing for the Red Sox. While he said it would be a dream, it would also be very difficult.
"I'd have a real hard time going to the Red Sox right now," he said. "Those teams, the Yankees and the Red Sox are different. Going to Fenway Park and playing is different than going to Pittsburgh and playing.
"The fans are the same, but the media is so much different," he continued. He noted that Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter, also a New Hampshire native, gets asked that question all the time as well.
He admitted that nerves were certainly an issue in that first Major League start, which came against Florida. With 45,000 people in the stands, it was bound to be a night he'd remember forever.
"It was everything I ever could have dreamed of," he said. "It doesn't do it justice to talk about it."
He went on to describe the day he got the call to the Majors, noting it was the final game of the AAA season and he didn't exactly pitch well.
Four guys were called into the manager's office after the game and told they were going to Pittsburgh.
"I can't explain it, it's a different feeling," he said. "It's your kid dream come true."
But Locke noted that as things went along through September, he became a bit more acclimated to the Major Leagues.
"It's everything that walking on to the Kennett High School field is, but a little more," he said.
Locke discussed his younger days, playing baseball at Hussey Field and the John Fuller School and said though he loved to hit as a kid, he always wanted to be a pitcher.
Locke also noted he didn't play any other sports on an organized level when he got to high school, but remembers late longtime Kennett football coach Gary Millen always trying to get him to come out for the football team.
"I remember I kicked like a 50-yard field goal right in front of him," Locke laughed.
Locke also harkened back to his younger days when asked about catchers, as he was always partial to his Kennett teammate, Robbie Knox.
"He caught me when I was a kid," Locke said. "He's a lot braver than I'll ever be. I think I've broken his thumb seven or eight times."
He noted that without Knox's willingness to work with him he never would've gotten to the place he is now.
Locke admits that living in northern New Hampshire doesn't exactly put one on the radar of Major League teams, but his hard-throwing ways he felt were certainly a help in getting him noticed, and eventually drafted by the Atlanta Braves.
"I was throwing harder at a young age than most of my peers," Locke said. "That draws attention."
The Braves were the first team to see Locke throw, so it was fitting that they were the team that drafted him, but he saw interest from across the league.
"Twenty-eight of 30 Major League teams came and had dinner at my house when I was a senior," he said.
Even his minor league teammates found it hard to believe he was discovered in the remote area that is New Hampshire's White Mountains.
"I brought a teammate back here once and he asked me, 'how the heck did they find you up here,'" Locke said. "It goes to show you that if you have the talent, they'll find you."
Locke admitted that the trade from Atlanta to Pittsburgh was a great chance for him to start over and offered him a great shot to make the Major Leagues.
"Pittsburgh is a beautiful city, it's rich with sports tradition," Locke said. "It's got to be the best place I've ever been and to be able to call that home is great."
Locke said he believes Hurdle is the right man in the job for Pittsburgh and sees good things ahead for the team, which had a stellar start to last season but tailed off in the later portion of the schedule.
"He's one of those guys when he speaks, you listen," Locke said of Hurdle. "You don't want to be caught off guard. He's been able to bring a presence to Pittsburgh that we haven't had in a while.
"It's shaping up really good," he continued, speaking of the new season. "We went out and got some good guys. They've invested a lot of time and money in the young guys, so there's a lot of good talent coming up."
Locke made sure to tell the ballplayers in the audience that anything can happen if they work at it.
"I came from this area, it is possible to do it," he said. "All you guys can do the same thing I'm doing, it just takes a lot of time and hard work."
After speaking, Locke signed autographs and then played catch with fourth grader Nathan Grames-Edwards, who's name was picked from all the youngsters who had tickets.
The youngster impressed Locke with his knuckleball, his velocity and his good mechanics, mainly catching the ball with two hands.
Joshua Spaulding can be reached at email@example.com or 569-3126