Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on March 27, 1980.
Everyone laughed and figured the silly-talking Pee Wee League coach had absorbed one too many bats to the head or was just plain crazy, due to natural cuases.
Babe Ruth may have called his shot – but a Pee Wee League coach?
“Joe, hit it out of here,” the coach demanded of his little batter who had never hit anything out of anywhere.
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The coach didn’t think of that. He was too mad at the other team to think of that.
So all that remained for Joe Carter was to grind his cleats into the dirt of the batter’s box, swing as he had never swung before and hope.
Joe was 8 years old.
“When my coach told me that,” said Joe Carter, now Wichita State’s batting piece de resistance, “everyone started laughing.”
Joe had hit plenty of home runs on fields without fences. He was a little Willie Wilson, not a Dave Parker. This was different. This field had a fence – 230 or 250 feet away from home plate.
As the pitcher whirled and threw toward the plate, laughter, not confidence, battered Joe Carter’s ears and settled in his mind.
Then, Joe swung, and as the ball began its hunt for the far side of the right-field fence, the laughter died.
“It sure got quiet for a while,” Joe said. “I shocked all of them. And I shocked myself, too.”
From this improbable beginning came the first seed of Joe Carter, Thunderbat, perhaps the most prodigious power-hitter in college baseball.
It was not until seasons later, however, that Joe Carter had gained enough confidence to consider himself a power-hitter, to actually stride to the plate, thinking long-ball, if not home run.
Not even after hitting 10 home runs in the 15 games he played as a senior at Millwood High School in Oklahoma City, did Joe Careter believe unequivocally in himself. Not even after a 500-foot missile over the center-field fence and into a trailer park beyond was he sure.
“I never thought I’d have this much success in college,” said Joe, who already has had an All-America season of 19 home runs,k 101 runs batted in and a .450 average.
Coach Gene Stephenson, on the other hand, believed early on.
“Not many people,” Stephenson said, “thought he could play this well. The scouts who saw him in high school thought he was too raw, too rough and too inexperienced to be a pro prospect.”
“I knew he would be a great player, but I didn’t know how long it would take.”
A year ago, after 14 games, Joe Carter had just begun to play. He had 30 more pounds than in high school, but none were pounds of confidence.
He had lifted weights to strengthen the flesh, to put the thunder in his bat. But only the spirit could release that thunder.
“There are a lot of big, strong players who never hit many home runs,” said Joe, who is a 6-foot-3, 213-pound sophomore.
“I think a batter’s ability to hit the long-ball depends on how much success he has had in the past. It’s mainly in the mind.
“Confidence is the biggest factor.”
Joe Carter uses the word so often that it should be as threadbare as a child’s teddy-bear. Yet it isn’t.
It wears well, as does Joe Carter.
Though he is batting .433, has 5home runs, 3 triples, 10 doubles and 27 RBI for the 11-3-1 Shockers, who will play host Saturday at 1 p.m. to 0-12 Kearney State, Joe Carter talks not of his greatness but of just wanting to play well every day, not sporadically.
He says he wants his ever growing confidence and that of his teammates to carry them to the College World Series.
“I’d trade all my stats for that,” Joe Carter said.
Even Stephenson chooses “confidence” when asked how Joe Carter has changed in the last year.
“He’s much better,” Stephenson said. “Much more confident. Much more experienced.
“He has seen the best players around the country. He has a compact swing. He’s quick, and he has great strength in his hips and in those long arms when they are extended.
“Joe can hit a ball farther than anybody I’ve ever seen.
“There has been only one player in my 9 years of college coaching – and I’ve seen some great ones – who can compare with Joe. That’s Dave Winfield, when he was a senior at Minnesota.
“Not even Winfield, though, can stay with Joe for all-around hitting and power at this stage of his career.”
Winfield, you may have noticed, is so good that he is asking the San Diego Padres to pay him $13 million over the next 10 seasons and not to sell the team without seeking his permission. He also is a National League All-Star.
“The problem for anyone who has already had the great success Joe has had,” Stephenson warned, “is that he will become complacent.
“As great as Joe is, the most important thing he must do is continue to work hard on his weaknesses.
“He has a tendency to swing at pitches he cannot hit, and his throwing arm isn’t as good as it could be. Winfield had a super arm.”
But Joe Carter is even confident that he understands his weaknesses.
“I know I might never make it big if I drive in 100 runs and let in 105,” he said. “I’m still learning to play the outfield. Until last year, I had always been a shortstop, third baseman or pitcher.”
Yet in the Intercontinental Cup games in Havana, Cuba, last fall, Joe Carter not only pounded home runs off the best of international pitching, he also saved a game for the United States by leaping above the right-field wall to steal a home run away from a Puerto Rican batter.
“Last season, the trip to Cuba, playing for Boulder Collegians last summer -- it all made me realize that we have the best talent in the nation, better than Arizona State’s, UCLA’s, USC’s and a lot of other teams,” Joe Carter said.
“All they have is the tradition of being good.”
And tradition is nothing but aged confidence.