1st of Jul | Story

Almost famous


AUGUSTA, Georgia | Some time during the spring of 1966, back when no one bothered to track pitch counts, back when pitchers pitched and hitters hit and talk about ligaments never entered dugout discussions, a teenager named Mike Caldwell hurled more innings in one night than most Major Leaguers do now in a week.

Caldwell is the pitching coach now for the Augusta GreenJackets of the Low-A South Atlantic League, but back then he was 17 years old, a junior at Tarboro High School in eastern North Carolina with a strong arm and stronger pitches. He struck out 31 Washington High School hitters that historic night and walked off the mound after the 18th inning neither a winner nor a loser. 

The game finished in a tie. 

No North Carolina boy had ever pitched more innings or finished with more strikeouts in a single game.

“I thought we should have won it. I thought we could have won it. We had as good a team in ’82 as they did, but we just didn’t win.” — Augusta pitching coach Mike Caldwell

Sixteen years later, Caldwell was on a mound somewhere else in the country, this time with more eyes and cameras and attention focused on him. He started two World Series games for the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers and picked up wins in both, a hero all but forgotten. The rest of the Brewers staff picked up one. The Cardinals outlasted the Brewers in seven games. 

“I thought we should have won it,” he says. “I thought we could have won it. We had as good a team in ’82 as they did, but we just didn’t win.” 

That was the apex for Caldwell. He had pitched a dozen seasons in the Majors and would pitch two more. He finished with 137 wins, 23 shutouts and those memorable October nights.

After all that, he headed back to North Carolina to teach others. The game provided an itch he needed to scratch, so he finished his degree and walked right back into dugouts. He coached a high school team for a season and Campbell University for five seasons. Then he went back to the minors.

During his initial climb from North Carolina State to the Major Leagues, more than four decades ago now, Caldwell pitched 19 games. He has now coached or managed 20 seasons, and the list of stops is long. There were Helena and Beloit, El Paso and Louisville, Huntsville and Adelanto, Indianapolis and Erie and Fresno and Phoenix and, now, here in Augusta, his first season with the GreenJackets, a San Francisco Giants affiliate.

“The fun of it is it’s real baseball,” he says. “You get on a bus, no one cares when you get into town, no one cares when you leave town. Just get to the ballpark and play, have a beer, have a Coke, eat some peanuts. Plus, we get to watch the young kids play. I get to watch them go from thinking they’re good to actually being good sometimes.”

He is 63 now, not particularly old, not particularly ornery. He pitched during decades that were different for pitchers and he knows that. Pitchers are treated more cautiously now and he understands why. He seldom mentions those pitch counts, though he keeps them. Not for much longer, though.

“One more year,” he says. “I’m going to do one more year after this, then I’m going to sit in the stands, drink the beer, eat the popcorn and watch the games.” He might watch the Carolina Mudcats and the Durham Bulls, the teams closest to him home in Raleigh, North Carolina. If the San Francisco Giants have any interest, he would like to work for them, just part-time, maybe scout a handful of leagues.

“I’ve enjoyed baseball,” Caldwell says. “I’ve loved every minute of it of my life.”


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Time for minor league trivia. Before they moved to Augusta and changed their name — in 1988 and 1994, respectively — the GreenJackets played their first eight seasons in Macon, Georgia, first as the Peaches for three seasons, then as the Redbirds for one season and the Pirates for four. During that single season as the Redbirds, a future Major Leaguer set a minor league record that remained untouched for decades (until, spoiler alert, this season). What was the record? (Keep reading for the answer.)

Rain started to fall hard not long after noon and the Augusta GreenJackets front office staff and interns pulled the tarp over the infield. Then lightning rattled near and clouds cut through the dark sky and the gates opened on time. The turnstiles moved maybe a couple hundred times and wind whipped across the open outfield. Those same interns sprinted to the wall to hold down a banner and keep it from blowing away. For a while, the GreenJackets and the Savannah Sand Gnats sat in their dugouts and watched a circle of kids play Duck, Duck, Goose. They thought they might never play. They never did. Not one inning. Not one out. Not one pitch. They walked back to their clubhouses, no rain on the field for hours, just enough wind and lightning to postpone a game. The next day, they split a doubleheader.

Want to sneak a look or two at the famous (and infamous) Augusta National Golf Club? Good luck. A small entry drive and guard house is tucked off Washington Street, a little more than two miles from Lake Olmstead Stadium, and is visible only if you know exactly what you need to find. The rest of the club is ringed with green fence and thick woods, nary an iron gate or azalea in sight. Even on a wet Sunday three months after its biggest weekend of the year, the course is still invisible without a membership.

Want the answer? Future St. Louis Cardinals blur Vince Coleman capped an incredible 1983 season with the Redbirds with 145 steals in 113 games, good for one more than Donell Nixon, who finished the season with 144 steals in 135 games for the Bakersfield Mariners. Prior to that season, no other minor leaguer had ever swiped more than 125 bases from opening day to Labor Day (and, until Billy Hamilton raced from base to base this season for the Bakersfield Blaze and Pensacola Blue Wahoos, no one had come close since).

And in random statistical news, no one ever sang the national anthem, the game never started and there was no first pitch. We did at least eat some chicken and fries, chugged down bottles of pop and helped GreenJackets radio broadcaster Eric Little fill about 45 minutes on the air. If you were listening, we apologize for our general incoherence.

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.