The man who won't let the boy in him fade Semipro Bryant baffles hitters half his age

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Russ Bryant's grayish hair, sore joints and creeping facial wrinkles serve as reminders of his approaching middle age, yet Bryant looks anything but old while he is mowing down hitters young enough to be his sons.

It wasn't always this way for Bryant. Twenty years ago, after graduating from Clemson and waiting in vain to be drafted by a major league baseball organization, Bryant decided to join the Central League, a 12-team, semi-pro baseball league in York County, Pa.

"I was working out with a friend from Clemson who had gotten drafted. I was thinking about not playing ball again, and this guy called me from York," Bryant recalls. "A scout had given him my name. I went up there [to York] and fell in love with the place."

And Bryant has never left. For a few seasons, while he enjoyed success pitching against opponents his own age, he wondered if he could catch the eye of a big-league scout. That never happened.

So Bryant took a different path by becoming a math teacher 18 years ago. But the 41-year-old teacher at Howard High School, has refused to let go of the game that embraced him as a child.

Today, after many of his baseball brethren have hung up their spikes in the face of expanding waistlines and fading skills, Bryant clings to a piece of his dream as the Central League's oldest pitcher. And with a 179-88 career record (.670 winning percentage), he also happens to be the league's most successful hurler.

"This is pro ball for me. I'm the decrepit elder statesman of the league," he said. "I'm the oldest guy in the league who is still functional, the oldest one can still throw 100 pitches without having one arm end up a foot longer than the other. I am now ordering Advil by the 55-gallon drum."

Three times a week each summer, Bryant drives 50 miles from his Randallstown home to the York area. Once a week, he takes his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame to the pitcher's mound and asks his right arm to deliver a win. And against hitters usually half his age -- many just out of college, some with minor league experience -- Bryant continues to hold the upper hand.

Thursday night in his final regular-season start for Dover, a team he joined last year after his old squad folded, Bryant experienced a rarity: a bad outing. Dover's opponent, Cly, pounded out 11 hits off Bryant, including two homers and three doubles, en route to a 6-4 victory.

Bryant called the performance his worst of the season. The statistics support him.

He wound up the regular season with a team-best 9-3 record and a team-low 1.46 ERA. In 80 innings, he surrendered 80 hits -- including only 12 extra-base hits -- while recording 51 strikeouts. Bryant, who pitched in the league All-Star game two weeks ago, has allowed only six homers this summer.

Where would Dover be without him? Probably not in third place with a 23-12 record and looking forward to this week's Central League championship playoffs.

Mike Kramer, 22, a part-time player for Dover, says Bryant is easily the MVP of the team.

"I've only faced him twice and he struck me out twice, both on curveballs," Kramer says. "That old man can pitch."

"We don't think too much about the age difference," says Ryan Reinert, Dover's 20-year-old center fielder. "He's just part of the team, and he is one helluva competitor."

Bryant certainly has not lost his youthful enthusiasm for the game. It shows in the way he glares at a teammate after he has committed an error, or in the way he screams at himself for serving up a home run pitch, or in the way he pumps his fist after getting out of a bases-loaded jam.

The bottom line is the old man knows a thing or two about pitching. That's a quick way of explaining how, in 20 seasons with four different teams, he has experienced only three losing seasons and continues to take batters to pitching school.

Bryant relies on three pitches: fastball, curve and changeup. He owes his success to his ability to mix pitches, change speeds, and keep hitters off-balance with excellent location. You won't catch Bryant blowing away hitters too often. Experience and guile are his trump cards. Witness his 13 walks in 80 innings, or an average of about one per game.

"There can't be more than handful of guys older than him left in this league," says Mike Reachard, Dover's 40-year-old manager who competed against Bryant for years. "When Russ first started, he could fire a ball through a brick wall. Back then, he wasn't nearly as much of a pitcher as he is now. Now, he's sneaky-fast."

"He would always give you what they call 'a comfortable collar.' He wouldn't blow the ball by you or make you look bad, but you looked at the book and you were 0-for-4," recalls George Leckrone, 40, who retired five years ago after competing against Bryant for 15 seasons.

"I don't think many teams ever relished facing him, but he's a better pitcher now," Leckrone adds. "He hits his spots better, and he definitely has a better curveball. He always stays around the plate, always keeps the ball down. He does it with smarts."

He also does it by staying fit. Bryant lifts weights during the winter, plays racquetball all year. He takes meticulous care of his arm, icing his elbow and shoulder after every start. In 20 summers, he has pitched at least 75 innings each year and has never missed a start due to a sore arm.

"What else do I have to do in the summer? I'm a teaching bum," says Bryant, who also is blessed with a self-deprecating wit as sharp as one of his better curves.

Bryant appreciates the time his profession provides for baseball, and he is growing more conscious of his age. The ribbing he gets from teammates and opponents won't let him forget it. And the tightness he feels in his knees the day after he pitches sends him more signals that Father Time is lurking. He usually needs a week off between starts.

"When my stuff isn't good, I can still usually throw the ball where I want to. I judge a pitcher by how he gets out of trouble, because they all get in trouble," he says.

"I'm certainly not the hardest thrower in the league, but I'm not throwing pus up there, either. I'm not going to develop any funky knuckle balls or anything like that just to hang on. When I can't pitch legitimately, I'll quit."

Bryant has been causing problems for hitters since he was a boy. Born in Baltimore, he attended McDonogh, where he helped the Eagles win two MSA championships before graduating in 1968. A year later, he went 14-0 for an American Legion team that finished second in the nation. But a foot injury he suffered during his senior season at McDonogh -- causing him to miss most of the year -- made Bryant unattractive to college recruiters.

He went to Clemson and made the team as a walk-on during his freshman year.

"The coach and I didn't see eye to eye," Bryant recalls. "I made the starting rotation, had one bad outing when I was sick, and didn't pitch again for two months. I didn't have a lot in the way of opportunity after that. If I had to do it again, I would have been out of there after my freshman year. I quit my senior year because it was the same old thing."

Bryant graduated from Clemson in 1972. That summer, he joined the Central League and married Debbie, his high school sweetheart. They could not afford a honeymoon, so they drove to York the day after their wedding. Debbie watched Russ pitch a six-hit shutout for Red Lion, his first team.

Three years later, Russ and Debbie had a daughter, Kris, who already has made a name for herself in amateur sports. At Mount Hebron High School last year, Kris, a six-foot forward, led the Vikings to a county championship and was named the Sun's All-Metro Player of the Year.

"I guess I didn't think it would last this long," Debbie says. "I tell everybody I keep waiting for his arm to fall off. There's no point in telling him to do anything else."

Bryant probably wouldn't listen, anyway. After logging an estimated 100,000 miles on the road, after outlasting a generation of former competitors, he still is not ready to let go of the game that grabbed him so long ago.

"I love the pre-season practices, every aspect of it," Bryant says. "The ride gets a little old sometimes, but it's not that bad. I've enjoyed meeting a lot of friends, and I keep doing it because I love the game. It's been a blast."

Russ Bryant's "other" career

Year... ... ... Record

1972... ... ... ...6-3

1973... ... ... ...9-3

1974... ... ... . 11-3

1975... ... ... . 12-3

1976... ... ... . 11-2

1977... ... ... . 12-4

1978... ... ... . 12-5

1979... ... ... . 10-4

Year... ... ... Record

1980... ... ... .. 8-3

1981... ... ... . 10-2

1982... ... ... .. 7-3

1983... ... ... . 11-3

1984... ... ... .. 9-3

1985... ... ... .. 6-4

1986... ... ... .. 8-3

1987... ... ... . 6-11

Year... ... ... Record

1988... ... ... .. 9-3

1989... ... ... . 3-11

1990... ... ... .. 6-5

1991... ... ... .. 4-7

1992... ... ... .. 9-3

Total... ... .. 179-88

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