“As to Mahopac’s scenic beauty: It lies around the lake on every side in such great wealth that one can truly sing when under its charm, ‘I care not for riches, neither silver nor gold.’” — U.G. Warren, Aug. 1, 1906
There are few places on earth that have ever been as boring as Mahopac, N.Y., in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
My hometown had a lake. A big lake. And a library. There were, oh, a half-dozen pizza joints, a hardware store called Lloyd’s Lumber, the Living Waters Christian bookshop. While we lacked any sort of movie theater, we did have a Caldor, where my brother David peddled cameras, as well as a CVS and, of course, Tom Kat Sporting Goods.
Mahopac was home to approximately 8,000 residents — and maybe 50 of those were of color. The adult inhabitants always seemed to rave about how safe the town was. Safe, however, often served as a synonym for two things: A. White as snow; B. Dull as hell. There was no town pool and no roller skating rink (both closed years earlier) in Mahopac; no trendy clothing stores or dance clubs or minor league baseball stadiums. Though New York City was but a 75-minute drive to the south, it could have been (for most Mahopacians) a trip to the outer banks of Pluto. The city was where bad things happened — rapes and muggings and crack and prostitutes and black people on every corner.
Mahopac was a cocoon. Our cocoon.
I absolutely hated it.
One can only ride his Huffy up and down Emerald Lane so many times before it grows old. One can only take the mile-long walk to Rodak’s Deli for a Coke and a wad of Bazooka bubble gum so often before the activity loses its luster. When I think back upon those years, the image that enters my head is a cloud of dust rising off of Prince Lane, the nearby road that, to this day, remains unpaved.
Truth be told, Mahopac — yawn — was no different — yawn — than any of the other nine towns — yawn — that made up Putnam County. Brewster was boring. Carmel was boring. Patterson was boring. Kent was boring. Yawn.
And yet, even the most mind-numbingly dull places in America can be struck by lightning; even towns deprived of pulses and heartbeats can be jolted awake by singularly magnificent moments that, for a frozen point in time, transform grainy black and white into hi-def color. This, at its best, is the powerful impact when hope and sports converge.
This is what happened to Mahopac, N.Y., in the summer of 1992.
The summer when David Anthony Fleming, rookie lefthander for the lowly Seattle Mariners, won 17 games.
To be clear, what took place back home was neither unique nor unprecedented. Countless small towns in America have had a Dave Fleming come along at one point or another. Before he was making Super Bowl history for the Washington Redskins, Doug Williams was playing sandlot football in Zachary, La. Before he was closing out games for the Oakland A’s, Jason Isringhausen was standing atop mounds in Brighton, Ill. Before he was scoring nearly 18,000 points in the NBA, Jerry Stackhouse was sitting in the Foster Chapel Baptist Church near Kinston, N.C., listening to his mother preach away. From Patrick Willis (Bruceton, Tenn.) and Shannon Sharpe (Glennville, Ga.) to Mike Trout (Millville, N.J.) and Sue Bird (Syosset, N.Y.), America’s professional sports leagues are eternally overflowing with men and women who, by the mere act of “making it” (a term that means myriad things to myriad people), provide energy and enthusiasm and oomph and triumph and love and joy and heart and — most important — pride to places lacking all of the above. Load up the car, take your time traveling across the country on back roads and you’re bound to spot hundreds upon hundreds of signs trumpeting HOME OF … and BIRTHPLACE OF …
When that happens … when the lightning strikes, the splendor is palpable and never-ending.
Even 21 years later.
• • •
“Dave Fleming,” says Frank Chibarro, his voice softening. A pause, then the name again. “Dave Fleming.”
The year is 2013. The month is April. Chibarro is 39 years old, a Carmel police officer with a wife and three daughters. He has not thrown a pitch that matters in more than 15 years, ever since his last game with the Adirondack Lumberjacks, a long-defunct independent league team. His thick brown hair is gone. He is bulky, whereas he used to be a string bean. Once upon a time, Chibarro was the kid with the limitless future. The cocky strut. The confident laugh. These things fade. They always fade. Such is the gravitational tug of time.
Yet with a single mention of a long-ago hero, decades evaporate. Chibarro is again 18 and the ace of the 1992 Mahopac High School Indians. Stars fill his eyes. “All I wanted to be was Dave Fleming — the next Dave Fleming,” he says. “He was the guy we all hoped to follow. It was like this path had been paved, and we all had a chance.”
“Magical, man,” Chibarro says. “Magical …”
Until the summer of ‘92, when he emerged as the biggest surprise in Major League Baseball, Dave Fleming wasn’t magical. That’s not to say Mahopac went unmoved by his accomplishments. It’s just to say, well, we’d been down this road before. Through the years, my town had produced its fair share of athletes who performed admirably beyond high school. The most successful was probably Peggy Storrar, a field hockey star at the University of North Carolina. There was Teddy Lawrence, a catcher drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 19th round in 1985. There was Dave Toub, a UTEP offensive lineman selected in the seventh round of the 1985 draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. A handful of runners enjoyed solid Division I stints, a shortstop named Vinny DiGrandi played a year at the University of Nebraska, Larry Glover was a member of the Norfolk State basketball team for a quick spell. They all did well enough to inspire glowing profiles in the local newspaper, but, um, not quite what we all had hoped for.
That’s the thing about sports and small towns. Because there’s so little context, you always think your basketball star is destined for Duke or Syracuse; always believe your strong-armed quarterback will turn into the next Terry Bradshaw. It’s the naïveté that comes with a sheltered upbringing, coupled with the aspirations of a largely blue-collar population underwhelmed by a 9-to-5 existence of ditch digging and driveway paving and bank telling. Then, when it doesn’t pan out (and it rarely pans out), the jock is labeled a disappointment. He had so much potential. If only he didn’t party so much. What a waste …
Oddly, this is a fate Fleming — no matter how his career went — would have avoided. Always an excellent athlete, young Dave could usually be found outside his house at 71 Prince Road, shooting baskets and hurling Wiffle Balls and tossing around a weathered football with his older brother, John.
He was a kid Little League coaches wanted, yet there were few illusions of future dominance. Slightly above average in size and athleticism, Dave Fleming was an outside shooter who never once dunked, a pitcher who relied on guile rather than velocity. “Dave was good at every sport,” says Chris Keevins, a high school classmate. “Really good. But did you look at him and think, ‘One day we’ll be talking about him?’ Not really. There were probably better athletes.”
Fleming looks back fondly, acknowledging Mahopac’s limitations (“As a kid, you always find fault with where you are.”), yet warmly referring to his boyhood as “good days.” He was the third of four children. His father, Jack, worked as an accountant at Texaco. His mother, Eileen, was a stay-at-home housewife. There were different seasons for different sports, and Dave — short brown hair, shy smile, kid of few words — played them all. “What stands out — especially the way things are now, where kids are so specialized — are the amount of times we were at somebody’s house, or at the elementary school fields, and the massive amount of kids playing football, playing basketball, playing Wiffle Ball,” Fleming says. “You know what I mean? That part of my childhood. It felt like every day, I just played all day. I don’t remember ever getting tired, I don’t remember ever not wanting to. It also seemed like our recess was like an hour and a half. I remember being out there playing football forever. We used to bring metal bats and play softball. That part I remember — every day, ‘Where are we playing?’ We’d play somewhere on a low-rim basket and dunk. We’d divide up and play football. Everything, anything, all day.”
By the time he reached Mahopac High School, Fleming was a standout — but a standout with limitations. He became the best basketball player the school ever produced, and graduated with a record 1,318 points. But, at 6’3 and 170 pounds, playing primarily against other small schools with other good-but-not-great players, he would hardly be confused for a Pearl Washington or Walter Berry, two New York City products who went on to legendary Big East careers. “I knew my limitations,” he says. “I never thought for a second I was an NBA guy, or even a Division I guy.”
Professional baseball seemed to be an even bigger stretch. Though Fleming made Mahopac High’s varsity as a sophomore, he blended in as a first baseman who rarely pitched. The following season wasn’t all that different — the Indians were a regional power, yet Fleming was the third pitcher on the depth chart, behind two kids (Dave Fradkin and Drew Ryan) who would go on to play collegiately. “I didn’t win an award in baseball through the end of my junior year,” he says. “Not even honorable mention anything. I was no one.”
That changed his senior season, when Fleming helped pitch the Indians to a 19-3 record and a spot in USA Today’s Top 25 national rankings. Though his fastball rarely cleared 85 miles per hour, he was a lefty with pinpoint control, a plus curveball and a willingness to pitch inside. At year’s end, the kid who nobody outside of Putnam County had likely heard of was named a high school All-American. “The thing about Dave is that he always liked challenges,” says Frank Miele, his high school coach. “He pitched so relaxed, so easy. But if anyone ever got on base, something happened. He changed his demeanor a bit. His fastball got a dash faster, his curve turned a dash sharper. He had that something about him — he never wanted to get beat.”
Initially ignored by recruiters, Fleming signed a scholarship to attend the University of Georgia — the only Division I school to offer him a full ride.
His first season at the college was an unmitigated disaster. He set team records for most runs allowed in a game (11, against Frank Thomas and Auburn) and most losses (eight). His ERA was in the mid-fives, and he missed 30 days after being hit in the head with a ball during a practice. Steve Webber, the Bulldogs coach, told Fleming he likely wouldn’t be invited back for his sophomore year, and in Mahopac, we chalked it up as another local kid who was good, but not quite good enough.
Then, something in Fleming clicked. He compiled a 12-3 record as a sophomore, was named an All-American and played on Team USA. The next year was even better — led by Fleming (12-6, 2.86 ERA), Georgia won the national title. He was on the mound for the final out of the championship game in Omaha, Neb., when he struck out Oklahoma State’s Greg Walbergh to end the drama. The ensuing scene — Fleming swarmed by teammates, lost in a pile of white, red and black uniforms — is one Mahopacians watching the game on ESPN will never forget. Neither will Fleming. “It was a dream,” he says. “An absolute dream.”
Less than a week later, still basking in the glow, the Seattle Mariners made Fleming their third-round selection in the June 1990 amateur draft. They offered a $100,000 signing bonus and a firm handshake. He didn’t have to think twice. Within three weeks, Fleming was a member of the Class A San Bernardino Spirit. “You know what’s funny?” he says. “It was a step down. I went from pitching against Frank Thomas, armed with aluminum, to pitching against a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old kids with wooden bats. I was like, ‘This is great!’”
Fleming progressed quickly. He pitched 20 games that first season, going 7-3 with a 2.60 ERA and impressing the organization enough to start 1991 at Double-A Jacksonville. In 21 games, Fleming compiled a 10-6 record, and on Aug. 6, 1991, Seattle told him to pack his glove and head to Triple-A Calgary. “I’m literally on the airplane for Canada, with my bags underneath, and the doors are closing,” he says. “A flight attendant says, ‘There’s a call for a Mr. Fleming.’ I had to get off the plane. It was Lee Pelekoudas [the Mariners’ assistant general manager]. They were calling me up to the big league, and I needed to get to Oakland ASAP.
“It was the beginning of my Major League journey …”
Around the same time Fleming got called up to the Show, I was sitting inside the Cross River, N.Y., offices of the Putnam Trader, a weekly newspaper that covered local happenings. The sports editor, a 25-year-old named Joe Lombardi, had a nose for news and an understanding of what moved papers.
From the moment Georgia won the NCAA title, he saw the value of Dave Fleming. “We obviously covered him at Mahopac, but once he started dominating in college, it was clear this was something different for our area,” says Lombardi, who now works for MSG Varsity. “This wasn’t just another local kid doing well at a local college like Iona or Pace. This was Dave Fleming owning Division I baseball.”
I was an intern at the time, paid in bylines and twice-a-summer lunches at the Mt. Kisco Kosher Deli. It was a happy time for me, filled with …
“Pearl, you’re not going to believe this,” Joe said.
“Dave Fleming,” he said. “He’s been called up.”
Silence. Giddy, euphoric, amazing silence. Within an hour’s time, I called everyone I knew. Kids up the street. Kids down the street. My parents. My friends. “Guess what …”
That night, Dave Fleming arrived at the Oakland Coliseum midway through the third inning. He signed his contract in the clubhouse, slipped into uniform No. 56 and was sent to the bullpen by Jim Lefebvre, the team’s manager. He hadn’t slept in 16 hours. “They told me to get loose in the eighth inning,” he says. “Jose Canseco was up, Harold Baines was on deck. If Canseco got on, I was told I’d go in to face Baines.”
When Canseco singled to left, the bullpen phone rang. Fleming’s first two pitches were balls, prompting Pete O’Brien, the Mariner first baseman, to approach the mound and pat the rookie on the back. “Don’t worry about the runner,” he said, motioning toward Canseco. “He’s not going anywhere.” On the next pitch, Canseco took off, and catcher Dave Cochrane nailed him.
Inning over. “Man, was I relieved,” Fleming says. “Just to get it out of the way.”
He stuck with Seattle for two more weeks, returned to Calgary, and then rejoined the Mariners when the Triple-A playoffs concluded. In Mahopac, it was all greeted cautiously. Lombardi ran occasional updates, but the demotion took the bloom off the rose. Some assumed we’d heard the last of Dave Fleming as a Major Leaguer. Nice story, but over before it began.
“You hoped that wasn’t it,” says Lombardi. “But you didn’t know. Sometimes these things take time. Sometimes they just never happen.”
• • •
The article appeared in the Feb. 27, 1992 Putnam Trader. It ran in a small rectangular box on the bottom of page 17, yet was — without much debate — the most-read piece in that week’s paper:
Elsewhere in the country, news of Fleming’s promotion wasn’t really news at all. The Mariners were coming off a forgettable 83-79 season, and the status of a 22-year-old nobody rookie garnered little more than a shrug. Among Mahopacians, however …
“Huge,” says Chibarro. “Just absolutely huge.”
“I was really, really pumped,” says Mike Bellucci, Mahopac High’s third baseman during the Fleming years. “Just thrilled.”
“Amazing, amazing,” says Joe Tama, a 1990 graduate of the high school. “You always hope something like that might happen. But do you believe it? Not really.”
When Fleming called home to deliver the message, his father smiled, his mother cried, his siblings screamed with delight. As if by psychic osmosis, neighbors began calling the house. “Is it true? Is it really true?”
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” says Jack Fleming. “Dave was always a good person, a hard worker. When your son does something like that … well … it was very meaningful.”
A local kid making good hits different people in different ways. Miele, the high school coach, felt immense pride. “You’ve worked with someone, hopefully you’ve helped him a little bit,” he says. Chibarro, the aspirant, felt hopeful. “You think, ‘If he can do it, also coming from here, maybe I can too,’” he says. “Who knows?” Danielle Fleming, Dave’s younger sister, was nervous. “All I wanted was for my brother to do well,” she says. “But we had no idea how it would go.”
Dave Fleming made his first start of the 1992 season on April 9 at the dark, dank Seattle Kingdome, against a Texas team loaded with one masher after another. The middle of the Rangers’ lineup featured Rafael Palmeiro, Ruben Sierra, Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer, Brian Downing and Ivan Rodriguez, and through the series’ first three games (all losses) the Mariners had been outscored, 29-11. “Very rough,” Fleming says. “Very, very rough.”
A couple of days earlier, Fleming had called Bellucci to tell him about the scheduled start. His former teammate knew this sort of thing didn’t happen often. “A buddy and I scrambled to find a station on the East Coast showing the Rangers-Mariners game, but it was impossible to get,” Bellucci says. “Well, we somehow had these two American Express voucher tickets for a free flight, so we cashed them out, went to Newark and flew to Seattle.”
Fleming left his friends two tickets to a game attended by a mere 12,436 fans. Bellucci watched glumly as the lefty lasted only six innings, surrendering nine hits and eight earned runs in an ugly 9-1 loss. “Win or lose, I was proud,” says Bellucci. “That was our guy out there.”
On the day after the game, Plummer called Fleming into his office to tell him he seemed to be overwhelmed and scared. The rookie was shocked. “Texas was a bunch of brutes, and they beat me up,” he says. “But they beat all of us up. I wasn’t scared. Not at all.”
Back in Mahopac, word of Fleming’s pummeling was not received well. Danielle, a high school junior, still recalls the snide comments from classmates when her brother failed to perform. One boy, in particular, seemed to take particular delight in noting his struggles. “This guy had an older brother who worked at a deli,” Danielle says. “He said to me, ‘Boy, your brother was horrible last night, walking those five guys.’ So I said to him, ‘What did your brother do last night — make five ham sandwiches?’
“It was strange,” she says. “Everyone wanted him to do well. He was Mahopac. But, at the same time, high school kids are mean, and some liked telling me he sucked.”
That ended quickly. Fleming’s next start was a beauty — 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball against the White Sox for his first victory of the season. A no-decision followed, then — wonderment. Dave Fleming won his next start. And his next start. And his next start. And his next start. Before long, he had strung together nine victories without a loss, prompting The New York Times to run the memorable headline, WHO IS DAVE FLEMING? WHEN WILL HE LOSE?
The jerk sitting behind Danielle had nothing to say. During the TV broadcast of her brother’s May 5 win over the Yankees in Seattle, Danielle squealed audibly as Dewayne Staats, New York’s play-by-play announcer, noted “Dave Fleming … out of Mahopac High School.“
“She got a big kick out of that,” Jack Fleming said at the time. “The other kids at school were excited, too. A few of them asked Danielle for her autograph.”
Lombardi began running a weekly FOLLOWING FLEMING segment in the Putnam Trader, just to keep readers abreast of the latest triumph. A restaurant named Lombardi’s, located on Route 6 a stone’s throw from downtown, regularly plastered Fleming’s latest line on the marquee near the road. To the dismay of a growing number of townsfolk, the Mariners were televised in New York only when they faced the Yankees, and the team was too awful to appear on the Saturday afternoon national “Game of the Week,” then on CBS (the Mariners were 10-11 at the end of April, 21-28 a month later). “I became like a mental patient, calling Sports Phone every 15 minutes on the nights he pitched,” says Keevins, Fleming’s high school teammate, recalling the once popular 50-cent update service. “It was 9-7-6-1-3-1-3, then ‘The Mariners lead whoever 1-0 in the third.’ A few minutes later, I’d call again, then again. Before the Internet and cable packages, it was the only way to find out. Probably half the town did it.”
“On the mornings after he pitched I’d be watching SportsCenter religiously,” says Chris Ryan, a 1990 Mahopac High graduate. “All I wanted to hear — just once — was the ESPN guy mention Mahopac. Just once, and I was thrilled.”
Mahopac was home to a small number of bars, but only one that religiously offered sports telecasts — the Front Row Sports Pub on Route 6. John Rooney, the owner, was a die-hard baseball fan who began noticing the town’s Fleming infatuation. He had recently spent $3,000 on a satellite dish — technology then too pricey for most families to afford — to pick up all sorts of games. Soccer. Football. Hockey. Baseball. “I looked up the number of Dave’s parents in the phone book,” Rooney says. “I said to his dad, ‘You don’t know me from Adam, but did you know your son’s game is on satellite right now?”
Jack Fleming was stunned.
“By a half-hour, 60 people packed the place,” Rooney says. “All there for Dave Fleming.” With that, the Front Row emerged as one of Mahopac’s most popular destinations, as well as the only pub within, oh, 2,890 miles where regulars openly rooted for the dreadful Mariners. That, in a sense, was perhaps the most striking result of Fleming’s rise: Mahopacians were suddenly passionate fans of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Jay Buhner and Henry Cotto and Harold Reynolds and a team that, come season’s end, would lose 98 games and finish 32 games behind Oakland in the American League West. The Yankees were still Mahopac’s favorite ballclub. But Seattle — God-awful Seattle — made a strong push. “If Dave was on the team,” says Vanessa Taback, a Mahopac High student at the time, “I was cheering for them.”
• • •
Although it remains a relatively obscure place to live, Mahopac has enjoyed its small share of moments.
Dating back to the American Revolution, for example, Mahopac — centrally located between troop encampments — was deemed an important stopping point for troops, as well as a key center for grinding and storing grain.
On July 4, 1871, the first train ran from New York City to Mahopac, and a great celebration ensued. In 1900, New York State determined that Mahopac’s downtown buildings were located too close to a stream that fed a reservoir, and needed to be burned down and rebuilt (a great celebration did not ensue).
Before he was “The Fonz” on Happy Days, a young Henry Winkler spent summers at his family’s country home in Mahopac. Actor Jay Acovone was born in Mahopac, and the novelist Richard Yates did some of his best work while living in a house by the lake.
It ain’t Gettysburg, but Mahopac does OK.
That said, in the modern history of the town, nothing compares to the landmark afternoon of July 10, 1992, when David Anthony Fleming returned home to pitch at Yankee Stadium.
At the time, Fleming was 10-3, with a 3.27 ERA. Although he was the American League’s first 10-game winner and a man on the early short list for Cy Young Award consideration, Twins manager Tom Kelly failed to select him for the A.L. All-Star team. “I had pitched a 1-0 shutout against Minnesota — Greg Briley hit a leadoff home run,” Fleming said a few years later. “But afterward, I heard that Kelly had said he wasn’t that impressed.”
The sting from not being picked, however, was soothed by what, two decades later, Fleming still speaks of with wide-eyed wonder. On paper, his first-ever start at Yankee Stadium wasn’t such a big deal. Neither the Yankees (42-42 at the time) nor Mariners were particularly good teams, what with New York’s lineup surrounding Don Mattingly with the immortal likes of Andy Stankiewicz and Pat Kelly. For Mahopac, however, the Friday afternoon matchup was Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanza rolled into one.
“That was an enormous day for me,” says Fleming, who left 40 tickets for family members and friends. “I remember walking out to the bullpen before the game, and people were screaming, cheering. There were banners hanging up about me and Mahopac. It was probably the first time I really saw what my success that season meant to the town.”
Somewhere between 800 and 1,000 Mahopacians made the trip to Yankee Stadium that day, many traveling en masse on chartered buses. Fleming’s parents and siblings distributed blue-and-yellow Mariners T-shirts as if they were party favors. No less than 10 Mahopac-related banners dangled from the stands. One of Fleming’s boyhood friends, Scott Hummel, approached a beer vendor during the third inning.
“I’ll take some beers,” Hummel said.
“How many?” the vendor replied.
“How many you got?” Hummel said.
“Twenty four,” said the vendor.
“OK,” said Hummel. “All 24.”
The shocked (and elated) vendor passed the cups to Hummel, who handed them, one by one, to the gaggle of Mahopacians sitting nearby.
Taback recalls showing up for the game, along with a dozen friends, sans tickets or much money. They wound up in the bleachers, surrounded by the craziest of Yankee die-hards. “We’re screaming for Dave, screaming for Seattle,” she says. “Well, we were not at all prepared for what the Bronx would give to us. People came over and poured beers on our head, people threatened us. We were ultimately escorted out of the stadium. I don’t even remember — did he do very well?”
Indeed. To the delight of his town, Fleming allowed but two runs over eight innings, picking up his 11th victory with a 5-2 triumph. “Plummer took me out after I allowed a blooper (to Roberto Kelly) to start the ninth, and I received this loud ovation,” Fleming says. “When I got to the bench someone said, ‘Holy shit, is the whole town of Mahopac here?’
“It sure felt like it.”
• • •
In a sense, the remainder of the season was anti-climatic. For the Mariners. For Dave Fleming. For Mahopac.
Though he continued to pitch effectively, there was no escaping the pure awfulness of the American’ League’s worst team. Fleming went 6-7 the rest of the way, concluding with a 17-11 record and 3.39 ERA. He received no votes in Cy Young Award balloting, and placed a distant third behind Milwaukee’s Pat Listach in the Rookie of the Year race. His final start of the season — a masterful complete-game shutout of the White Sox in Seattle — helped keep the Mariners from hitting the dreadful 100-loss mark. “That was the most pressure I pitched under, while the Brewers were a contender,” he says. “So I can understand Listach getting the vote. He played in big games.”
When the year ended, Fleming packed up his belongings, moved out of his rented apartment and returned to Mahopac, and his old room at 71 Prince Road. The appearance requests came in fast and furious, and he turned most of them down. “I just wasn’t comfortable yet in that role,” he says. “It wasn’t who I was, speaking before large groups, being a famous guy. I wasn’t famous. I was just me. Looking back, I probably should have handled it better. People were excited. I should have appreciated that more.”
He did, however, agree to one gig. A new sports memorabilia shop, Talkin’ Sports, had opened in Mahopac, and the owner asked if Fleming would mind sitting at a table and signing some cards.
“Sure,” he said. “I guess so.”
The next morning, upon arriving, he was greeted by a line winding out the front door and down the street. “That’s not how I saw myself,” he says. “Not at all.”
As he speaks, Dave Fleming sits in a Starbucks near his home in Southbury, Conn. The years have passed, the memories have gone a tad fuzzy. He is now 43, with a wife and two daughters. The baby face is gone, and a dark goatee has moved in. He teaches fifth grade at a nearby elementary school, and gives occasional pitching lessons at the All-Star Batting Range. Just as his rapid rise is uncommon, his equally rapid fall is one we’ve heard 1,000 times — arm trouble, hitters catching up to him, years bouncing around from one spring training camp to another, and even a few depressing spells in independent leagues. Though he won 12 games for Seattle in 1993, it was his last productive experience as a big leaguer. Fleming finally knew he was done as a ballplayer in the summer of 1997, when he was pitching (badly) for the independent Waterbury Spirit. During a game in Atlantic City, Fleming was scuffling along, pawing the mound with his cleat, when he heard the centerfielder scream, “Just throw the ball!”
“I looked out there and thought to myself, ‘Holy shit — this is what it’s come to,’” he says. “I got taken out that inning, and when I entered the dugout I looked at Wayne Krenchicki (the manager) and said, ‘I’m done. I have to do something different.’ He was surprised, but I think he also understood.”
Sixteen years have passed. Fleming’s father now lives in Florida; his mother died of cancer two years ago. The house on 71 Prince Road was sold, painted, changed. There is no longer a basketball hoop in the driveway; no longer heated Whiffle Ball games in the backyard.
On the rare occasions when he returns to his roots, Dave Fleming likes to drive through the old neighborhood, just to take a look around, and — perhaps — recapture a morsel of the magic of youth.
Small towns are riveting, in that they change without really changing at all. Students and teachers have come and gone in Mahopac. Stores have closed, stores have opened. Where once there was an abandoned building, there’s a coffee shop. Where once there was a parking lot, there’s a Japanese steak house. The decades pass, the thinking evolves, the hopes and aspirations take different forms.
Inside Mahopac High School, David Anthony Fleming is no longer a familiar name. A replica of his basketball jersey hangs from the gymnasium wall, and perhaps every so often a student stops to take notice, and wonders who he is, and what he meant, a long-ago hero now faded like the print on newspapers that once carried his box scores.
Somehow, though, certain things refuse to vanish altogether.
Somehow, the summer of Dave Fleming remains.
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of five books, three of which are New York Times best-sellers. He blogs regularly at www.jeffpearlman.com and can be followed on Twitter at @jeffpearlman.