Having had jobs as a radio announcer, a sportswriter for a newspaper, a teller at a bank and a clerk at a drug store in my hometown of Fayetteville, I assured my wife Jan that, wherever she could get a teaching job, I’d be able to find a job too.
She had worked as a clerk at one of my dad’s pharmacies as well and, after the birth of our son Ben in 1983, had taken up babysitting other little kids so she could stay home with Ben.
Feeling housebound after a while, she decided to go back to school to get her teaching certification in art.
In those days, however, there were very few jobs for art teachers, maybe one per school district. She searched east to Harrison, west to Tulsa, north to Joplin and south to Fort Smith and the only opening was a part-time position in Winslow.
With her Aunt Anne Short and her four sons living in Bryant and the families of my brother and sister living in Little Rock, she decided to try central Arkansas.
In June of 1988, she was hired at Bryant High School. A week later, she got an offer from Broken Arrow, Okla.
Too late. We were headed to Saline County.
I had to find a job. So I came south and interviewed at KARN then heard word that the Benton Courier needed a sports editor. I’d only worked two years at the Northwest Arkansas Times but I called for an interview anyway and the editor Judy Smith offered me the job.
I wound up starting my new job before Jan started hers. It was early July.
I’d covered American Legion baseball in Fayetteville so I asked about Benton having a team and learned there was one. So, on my second day on the job, I headed to Bernard Holland Park to cover some baseball.
And they were playing a game. There was a sparse crowd and not much of a press box. I climbed up there and greeted the gentleman, Mr. Cunningham, who was keeping the scoreboard. I told him I was the new sports editor at the Courier and he kind of chuckled. I guess I gave him a quizzical look because he explained that it was probably the first time that he knew of that anyone from the Courier had come to a Legion game. At least as long as his son Scott had been playing.
I responded with a line I still use often: “Heck, the best part of my job is going to games!”
He offered me a seat and he asked about me and I asked about Benton sports of all kinds. I learned quickly that Benton was a football town.
The game proceeded and I kept a scorebook. Mr. Cunningham told me I should talk to Mr. Goheen who was the team stat-keeper. He also pointed out the coaches to me. Mike Robinson was the manager. His pitching coach was Russell Goodwin and his right-hand man was Carroll Hambric. Mike was a lawyer, kind of a small guy, the calming influence. Russell was a little older. He owned Benton Monument Co., and had made a study of the game, particularly pitching. Carroll, I noticed, was a big guy. He was a builder and the heart of the team, the fiery guy, the competitor.
After the game, I went down to introduce myself and ask for a few comments about the game. They too were surprised and, it appeared, pleased. I got a few words from Mike. He and Russell talked a little bit about the guys that had pitched. I met Mr. Goheen too who promised to have stats for the guys the next day.
The players had all headed to the house.
Carroll, who had loaded the equipment in the back of his pickup and dropped the tailgate, pulled out a cooler, sat on the tailgate and offered me a cold beer.
I declined, taking a rain check and noted that I needed to write about the game for the next day’s paper. I asked for a copy of the schedule and Mike filtered through the papers in his briefcase and produced one.
A couple of days later, the team played again. Before the older guys played, a team of younger players had a game. I showed up to that, climbed into the press box and kept the scoreboard for that game.
A few innings in, Carroll joined me and started telling me about Benton and people in Benton and baseball and — well, everything. And what a storyteller! I laughed. A lot. Hard. Enjoyed the heck out of it.
There were many nights and afternoons thereafter, in which I visited with Mike and Russell and Carroll, together and individually. Such fun!
That went on for a few summers and those guys became friends. Oh, we didn’t socialize a lot away from the ballpark but I always looked forward to the Legion games and the season in general. Those nights when I could listen to Carroll tell a story, goaded on by Mike and Russell who had their own entertaining comments and additions to contribute.
There was one summer when Jan had gone back to Fayetteville to take classes to get her Masters that I started to bring Ben to the park. He had to be 8 or 10. Carroll, who was a big fan of the Miami Hurricanes back then decided that the Legion team would get new uniforms in the green and orange colors of the Hurricanes.
Ben, at that point, was a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He never missed a show and loved playing their video game (which was rudimentary by today’s standards).
At the ballpark, Ben would sit and watch the starts of the games and, at my instruction, return to the press box as the game got in the late innings. In between, he’d play with any kid that was willing.
He became fond of the Benton catcher who happened to be Carroll’s son Jarrod and, with the green in his uniform and his green chest protector and mask, Ben decided that Jarrod was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Catcher. Once he met Jarrod, it was Teenage Mutant Ninja Jarrod.
I wish I could remember well enough to tell some more tales, particularly the ones that Carroll would tell, cracking me up every single time. But I’m getting old now and the memory falters.
When the Courier let me go in 1994 or so, when it was sold to a corporation — that’s a whole ‘nother story — I didn’t see those guys much anymore. But those days and those guys have come to mind over the years from time to time. And I was truly happy anytime I ran into one of them.
Monday, I learned that Carroll Hambric had passed away. He’d been ailing for a while, I knew. But he was a tough hombre and it was a surprise. In recalling those days at Bernard Holland and the ballparks around the state, I was depressed at first but then I just had to recall those visits we’d have in the press box before those games. And the ones Mike and Russell would tell about Carroll’s antics, like the time he sat on home plate to protest a call against his team and his subsequent ejection. (Carroll was not reluctant to get tossed to make a point or to fire up the troops.)
What a joy he was!
You know, God relishes his creation, especially the folks. He loved and respected us enough to give us free will. And I genuinely believe that He wonders at what we do with that free will and the many individual gifts He bestows on us.
Sure He knows what’s going to happen and everything else but I can’t help believing we kind of surprise Him sometimes. He delights in us and we bring Him joy.
I see God greeting Carroll Hambric with a smile. I can imagine the Almighty asking him to tell that story about the time he sat on home plate in the middle of a baseball game — not for the particulars, necessarily; he knows all that — but just to hear ol’ Carroll tell it.
And Carroll lowers the tailgate on any handy pick-up (even if it belonged to an old umpire) and pulls out that cooler, offers God a cold beer and sets to it.
And God laughs.
And it just eggs Carroll on. The story gets wilder and wilder, grander and grander.