Cal wasn't always MVP in Mills' eyes


It goes down as one of the great blunders in local newspaper history. The year was 1978. The paper was The News American. The subject was the All-Metro high school baseball team -- specifically, the area Player of the Year.

The News American chose a shortstop -- but not that shortstop, the one from Aberdeen who has redefined the position, played 1,573 consecutive major-league games and become a two-time American League MVP.

Nope, the Player of the Year was Jimmy Foit. Mount St. Joseph's Jimmy Foit. The same Jimmy Foit who is now a phys ed teacher in Frederick, while the kid from Aberdeen, Cal Ripken, awaits a contract that could pay him $7 million per year.

Ripken was better known as a pitcher then, and that's how he made the All-Metro squad -- second team. Here's the best part: The man responsible for the blunder later became his best friend among the Baltimore media.

Think Bill Clinton regrets his past?

His conscience is clear next to Keith Mills'.

"Oh, you had to bring that up," the Channel 2 sportscaster said the other night, laughing and gasping and sighing, all at the same time. "I'll never live that down for as long as I live."

Hey, we all make mistakes: A certain columnist in his baseball-writing days once referred to pitcher Steve Farr as Jamie Farr, apparently convinced the guy was Corporal Klinger from MASH.

Mills, of course, is now "A Friend You Can Turn To" -- hah! -- but back then he was just a part-timer at The News American. His supervisor was prep sports editor Mike Marlow, who later became assistant sports editor at The Evening Sun.

Marlow gave Mills the assignment, and it haunts him to this day. Indeed, the guilt proved so overwhelming, Marlow decided to take the Baltimore Sun buyout and -- no joke -- move to Montana.

"I want to get as far away from this blunder as possible," he said.

For Mills, however, there is no escape. As legend has it, Ripken pitched a no-hitter in the state championship game the day after The News American announced its team. Obviously, he continues to get the last word.

Ripken doesn't remember the slight, but Mills will be delighted to learn that in high school he cherished such individual honors, especially when judged against players from larger schools.

"Those were everything," Ripken said. "You'd look not necessarily for the attention, but the confirmation you're doing well. You're insecure -- you think you're a good player, but you've got no way of confirming it."

Heaven knows where the Orioles would be if Ripken suffered a nervous breakdown, but there's a practical explanation for all this: The News American focused on the city, and Ripken played in Harford County.

"No one went up there and watched any of his games; we only knew of Cal through Cal Sr.," Mills said. "That year, St. Joe's was ranked No. 1. I must have seen those guys play eight times. And Foit was the best guy on the team."

No, you couldn't miss Foit. His father served as an assistant coach with Johnny's, and his coach at Mount St. Joe, Hal Sparks, served as his promoter. "Hal could put some pressure on you," Mills said. "He wanted nine guys on the All-Metro team."

Confronted with Mills' charge, Sparks issued a blanket denial. "I didn't bend Keith's arm," joked Sparks, who now is a fund-raiser for a New York development firm. "But he didn't have to buy a dinner for a long time."

Foit actually was a worthy choice. He later played four years at Virginia Tech, then three years in the Texas Rangers' organization, where he peaked at Double A. Still, the article heralding his selection sounded almost like an apology.

It said: "After an early-season fielding slump [three errors] against McDonogh, Foit settled down to become the area's most-talked about infielder. Not once in 75 chances did he allow a runner an extra base because of a throwing error."

Three errors in one game? That's a season's worth for Ripken. No throwing errors in 75 chances? Whoopee!

Today, Foit lives in Hagerstown and teaches at Yellow Springs Elementary School in Frederick. He earned a master's degree at Virginia Tech following his professional career. This spring, he takes over as baseball coach at Thomas Johnson High School.

As for Ripken, he said, "I didn't even know we were in the same situation. A couple of friends will kid me about it. But with that type of thing, it's a big area. It's funny. I was just lucky, I guess."

Everyone laughs about it now -- especially Mills and Marlow, who never got confused with Woodward and Bernstein as investigative journalists, and never received offers to become major-league scouts.

The Chicago Tribune gave us "Dewey Defeats Truman," The News American, "Foit Defeats Ripken."

No wonder people stopped trusting the media.

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