A youngster approaches derrick DePriest, a pitcher for the Chatham Athletics of the Cape Cod Baseball League, and says, "I heard you are the punter for the University of North Carolina football team. Is that right?"
Says DePriest, "I heard that, too."
"So are you?" says the persistent boy.
"Yeah." Then DePriest mutters under his breath that he was until he started to play badly. He bursts out laughing.
Indeed, DePriest is a gregarious free spirit - "I have always lacked a filter between my brain and my mouth" - who was recruited to Chapel Hill, N.C., as a punter. In 1996, he averaged 38.6 yards per try. That's adequate but not eye-popping. However, his rsum also shows he had two punts blocked by Syracuse and two more by Florida State. That was enough to put then-coach Mack Brown in a sour funk.
Come 1997, DePriest had lost his job to Brian Schmitz, who has a career average of 42.5 yards. "Coach did the right thing," DePriest says cheerfully. "Good decision."
So he's heading into his final football season for the Tar Heels in which about all he does is hold for field goals and extra points. Regardless, special teams coordinator Ken Rucker says, "He's a super person, and he's vital to us." Still, does it make any sense to keep a guy on scholarship - worth, DePriest figures, around $25,000 a year - if all he does is hold? "Sure," he says, "if he also pitches."
And therein lies the story. DePriest is an enormously talented baseball pitcher. Last season, he led the nation with lowest earned run average, allowing only 1.71 runs per each nine innings. The previous season, he appeared in 44 games, a UNC record. DePriest's stepfather, Don Hess of Homestead, Fla., says Derrick "hasn't been simply remarkable but spectacular."
This summer, in a league for the best collegiate players in the country, DePriest has been beyond spectacular. During the regular season (the playoffs, which include DePriest's team, started last weekend), he was brought into 15 games to save the win for another pitcher; all 15 times he succeeded. That broke the league record of 13 saves and earned him the Outstanding Relief Pitcher award.
In 22-2/3 innings, DePriest allowed no runs. That's an unfathomable earned run average of 0.00 in a time when very few pitchers are under 3.00.
"Not bad," he says, with a sly smile.
All of which means the pro scouts, who are around like lemmings - 65 attended a recent game - are going bonkers over DePriest, right? Well, no.
The 0.00 ERA is attracting nibbles and conversation, but so far nobody has confronted DePriest with a contract and a pen.
"It would appear," Hess says, "that the scouts are fixated on the radar gun." They are.
DePriest does not throw a fastball 90 m.p.h., the minimum general benchmark. He does get up into the mid-80s, but close is not good enough. "I guess they want a little more velocity," concedes North Carolina baseball coach Mike Fox.
The reason the speed may be missing is that DePriest throws with an unorthodox submarine motion, which borders on underhand. That, too, makes scouts frown.
Conventional wisdom says that the pitching motion should be overhand, for speed and control. There have been, however, occasional excellent submariners, most notably the late Dan Quisenberry, primarily with Kansas City, and Kent Tekulve, mostly with Pittsburgh. But not many. Says DePriest, "All I do is get guys out."
That's obvious out here on the Cape, where teams represent towns like Brewster, Yarmouth, Falmouth, and Hyannis. In some ways, it's not so much a baseball game as a beauty contest. Charlie Thoms, general manager of Chatham, says between "80 and 90 percent" of the eligible players in the league are drafted by the pros. Among many who have come through Cape Cod in the summers are major-league stars Jeff Bagwell, Albert Belle, and Mo Vaughn.
"The problem," says one player, "is it's not good enough to be good. In order to get noticed, you have to dominate."
DePriest dominates. But he often has in the past. He became a submariner at UNC in 1997 at the suggestion of then-coach Mike Roberts, now coach at UNC at Asheville. "I just didn't think he could pitch successfully overhand," Roberts says. "I've had experience with submariners, and I knew Derrick was a quality young man. He was very open to an idea."
DePriest promptly soared. The 1.71 ERA answers all questions. Says DePriest, "I figured, 'The scouts can't ignore me now.' They did."
When DePriest was graduating from South Dade High School in Florida, nobody was interested in him as a college baseball player. For sure, nobody cared about the 6 ft., 8 in. DePriest as a basketball player: "I was horrible. Everyone could dunk on me. I got winded." He played a little soccer and wasn't very good. Several schools, however, did like his punting in football. Yet, on balance, what he liked best in high school was playing the drums.
Once at Chapel Hill, as his football descended, his baseball ascended. "The difference between the two," DePriest says, "is I dreamed I would play in the NFL. I believe I'll play big-league baseball. Dreaming and believing are two different things."
When DePriest, recently selected as a Cape Cod League all-star, starts to hear a question about what he will do if he ends up not playing big-league baseball, he interrupts the query: "Not possible." He's certain, he says, because "all I need is one scout who sees I get people out."
He has a timetable for his career: "I'm going to play ball until I'm 40, 45. I'm not going to give up." Then he wanders off and punts a few footballs, just for old times' sake.
*Sixth in a Tuesday series.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society