Going With Fastballs

Oct. 16, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– Chuck Crowder faced yet another tough decision while assembling with pain the speech that he would give Friday night upon induction into Georgia Tech’s Hall of Fame. Would he go with a fastball, which is to say the short speech he’d vowed to make, or give in to sentiment and go off-speed with extra details?

As a stalwart pitcher, Crowder had been about the hot stuff. His fastball routinely flew in the mid- to high-90 mph range at Tech from 1996-’99.

Yet he knew of pain and difficult decisions, none so grave as the surprise that popped up just a couple days before his sophomore season, when he and the Yellow Jackets were to have rolled.

The year was `97, Tech was ranked in the preseason among the nation’s top teams, and Crowder had been named first team freshman All-America by Baseball America in ’96 after going 10-5 with 98 strikeouts and an ERA of 4.30. He picks it up from there . . .

“I was supposed to be our ace. I remember . . . we were having an intra-squad game a couple days before the season, and I couldn’t get the ball down [in the strike zone],” said the lefthander from Mantua, Ohio. “You’d always heard stories from scouts who’d been injured about what it was like. I knew. I walked in the clubhouse and coach [Danny] Hall says, `What are you doing in here?’

“I said, `I tore my elbow.’ “

The pain was not severe, but an orthopedist soon confirmed Crowder’s suspicion. He did not tear the elbow ligament completely, but enough so that Tommy John reconstructive surgery was an option.

Crowder instead chose aggressive rehabilitation, which if successful would return him to action sooner but leave open a greater possibility of degeneration or re-injury than would successful reconstruction.

“I should have had Tommy John, but [trainer] Walt [Smith] did a great job,” Crowder said. “It was painful. I remember working for two hours at a time. It was not fun, but it worked.”

He bounced back with a vengeance, even pitching a bit by the end of his sophomore season to pick up a win. Crowder was then 12-4 with a 3.03 ERA as a junior.

There were signs, however, of more problems.

Crowder was drafted by the Tigers in the third round out of high school, but opted to go to Tech. He was drafted by the Pirates in the eighth round after that junior season, yet, “I didn’t sign because my arm was a little sore.”

After an honors-laden senior season in which he was 10-5 as a senior with a 3.62 ERA, Crowder was drafted in the fourth round by the Rockies.

He signed, leaving his name through Tech record books.

Crowder is one of three pitchers to win 10 or more games in three separate seasons, joining Tech Hall of Famers Brad Rigby and Doug Creek. He remains second in career innings pitched (346.2), and third in strikeouts (377) and wins (33) even with a truncated sophomore season. His three career shutouts tied for most in Tech history.

That elbow began barking again, though.

In his second minor league season, at high A Salem [Va.], Crowder was 14-9 with a 3.52 ERA and 154 strikeouts in 168 innings. He walked 86, but his greater problem was wear and tear.

“A lot of games it really started bothering me. It was just sore, and . . . then my shoulder started bothering me, and my velocity went down and I didn’t have much of anything.”

The 2001 and ’02 seasons were agonizing physically and psychologically.

That was the end of play for pay, but Crowder still spends time in baseball, giving instructions a couple days a week with several other former Tech players including Heath Honeycutt, Jeremy Slayden and J.J. Thomas. Honeycutt’s business, located in Chamblee, can be found at ninthinningbaseball.com.

Crowder works chiefly with a real estate closing business started by one of his former agents.

Add a family of three (Charlie, 4; Max, 2; and Luke, 6 mos.) that keeps Crowder and his wife, former Tech volleyball player Danielle Olein, busy, and there’s only so much time for reminiscing in their Mableton home.

“I loved being on the mound. There was no place that I was more comfortable,” he said. “I played a little softball, but I don’t think I’ll ever play in a men’s baseball league. Every once in a while when I start feeling good out there doing the pitching lessons, I have to remind myself that I’m 34.”

Crowder’s bittersweet romance with baseball is not unlike the inner conflict he battled in writing that speech. The relationships he formed at Tech made that difficult.

“I’m good friends with [fellow HOF inductee] Jonas Motiejunas, [former football player] Craig Page will be there. I see some old teammates like Jay Hood and Scott Prather. That was the best part about Georgia Tech, the guys I played with and in other sports. A lot of us would tailgate at football games. It has sort of dwindled with everybody having kids.

“I was trying to come up with a singular moment for this speech, but I couldn’t come up with just one. I enjoyed it so much. I’ve been to these things, and speeches can go on for 15 minutes. I said I wasn’t going to do that, but there are so many people I want to talk about. I want coach Hall to know how important he was, and so many others. There was no singular moment or person. There were many.”

Chuck Crowder and fellow Hall of Fame inductees Matt Kuchar, Beth (Mallory) Old, Drew Barry, Chris Brown and Motiejunas will be honored at halftime of today’s game against Middle Tennessee State. Send recollections, if you have any, to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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