I was blessed to grow up here in Vancouver, on NW 149th Street, in the days when even my oldest brother, Mike, could not hit another house with a rock. The road was flanked by hay fields and cattle that were surrounded by electric fences I would crawl under to get a better look at the cows. My parents, who struggled for years to raise my three older siblings — my dad worked three jobs to put himself through college, dental school, and eventually become an oral surgeon — took their first vacation sometime after their fortieth birthdays. Our house was the first “nice” thing they ever owned, and when they put a swimming pool in the back yard, I thought we were the luckiest kids in town. Today, the hay fields and cattle are gone, replaced by hundreds of homes built on small lots. One sits on our front yard where we used to play Whiffle Ball; another where the swimming pool used to be.

It was in that house that my love of baseball was shaped. Each spring, my dad would load his three sons in the car and drive us to Caplan’s Sporting Goods in Portland where he would buy a dozen Rawlings baseballs and, for each of us, a new wooden bat. Metal bats were new to the market and for sissies, as far as my dad was concerned. We would return home to play catch and Pepper until it was time to head to Kiggins Bowl or Columbia River High School for a Babe Ruth game. When there was no game, we would drag the old black-and-white TV onto the back deck to watch the only Major League Game of the Week.

I could say, as the youngest of my dad’s boys — Mike is nine years older, Dan is five — that I was dragged to the ballpark, but that would be a lie. The truth is, there was no place else I wanted to be. My only complaint was that because my dad worked a lot and coached my brothers’ teams, there simply was no time for me to play organized baseball; I didn’t start Little League until I was ten. I was always welcome in the dugout and was generally well-behaved, at least until I begged Chuck Valentine or Donny Nolan, the smallest boy on the team, to play catch with me. I sat close to my dad where I could hear him discussing the games with assistant coaches Val Valentine and former Major League all-star Gerry Staley. By the time I joined Hazel Dell Little League, I had a pretty good understanding of the game.

When I was fourteen, my body slowly began to catch up to the way I thought about baseball. My skills improved and I was finally able to hit the ball out of the infield. It was around that time that I pedaled my bike to Columbia River High School to get a look at the new coach who I was thrilled to hear had played and managed in the minor leagues. The first time I laid eyes on Curt Daniels he was drilling his players in the back with baseballs, hard, as they reluctantly took turns stepping into the batters box. The day before, two of his players had apparently dodged inside pitches in the seventh inning of a game they lost 2-1, without ever getting a runner on base in the final frame. I thought he was batshit crazy. One day, while Jeff Moe and I were leaning on the fence at Kiggins Bowl, peaking into the dugout during a Columbia River game, Curt motioned for us to join his team on the bench. Inside, a few of the older boys acknowledged us in their own ways: Ty Baker introduced himself enthusiastically before hustling out to second base, Craig Thomas asked us what we were doing in the dugout, and Bruce Barnum spit a mouthful of Red Man on my shoes. Occasionally, Curt mumbled something in our direction that I could not understand, but I was too scared to ask him to repeat himself.

The summer of 1981 was bitter sweet. On one hand, I was fortunate to be named to Hazel Dell Metro Babe Ruth’s 15-year-old all-star team where I was surrounded by players considerably more talented than me. On the other hand, I moved with my parents to a new home in nearby Battle Ground, right before the start of my sophomore year — away from my friends, my teammates, and the coach I wanted to play for at Columbia River.

The next summer, Curt asked me to play for AMI, a new Senior Babe Ruth team he was coaching with Greg Hopkins, the young coach at Hudson’s Bay. I was one of three sophomores on the team and the only player on the roster who did not attend River or Bay. Even though I was not a starter in the early part of that summer, I knew I was with coaches who could impact my development. What I didn’t know is that a year later AMI would become the Vancouver Cardinals, and that thirty-five years after that my experience with the Vancouver Cardinals would remain one of the most influential of my adult life.

Some years ago, Greg Hopkins made the statement at a Hall of Fame dinner that he and Curt never talked about winning, implying that the scoreboard had little to do with their motivation. It was a load of crap! If you didn’t think winning was important to those two guys, just try losing and see what you get. In my experience, it was somewhere between hearing yourself breath on the car ride home and a blistering ass-chewing in which your poor play was rightfully called out in front of your teammates. The latter was almost always followed by fifty or sixty sprints from the foul line to centerfield and back. When Curt’s mother, Barb, used to point out that in each game one team has to lose, he would snap, “Yeah, well it doesn’t have to be mine.” Trust me, winning was a thing — a very, very important thing.

For most of us, a hero is a person we admire from a distance, an idol about whom we know very little. Our impressions are formed by what we see on TV, at Major League ballparks, and on the stage during rock concerts. I’ve had many over the years, including Frank Reagan, Pete Rose and Ted Nugent. But my affection for these men is limited by reality — Reagan is a fictional character played by Tom Selleck on CBS’s Blue Bloods; Rose was a great baseball player with a penchant for gambling and then lying about it; and Nugent … well … let’s face it, Ted’s the man. But my real heroes were not famous at all. They’d never been on TV or gotten a Major League hit or jammed on the stage at the Memorial Coliseum. They were not wealthy and would not be recognized on the street by anyone who did not already know them. They were just good men who lived in my community and cared about me and my teammates. They pushed us to become better than we ever thought we could be, loved us when we won and when we lost (the sprints and ass-chewings were just their way of showing it), and took part in our lives beyond baseball by helping us get to college, attending our graduations and weddings, and holding our children as if they were their own. My heroes were Curt Daniels and Greg Hopkins.

I spent twenty years coaching college baseball, a career I chose specifically because of the impact my heroes had on my life. It was an easy choice for me, but one not free of regret. The fact that I lost way more games than I won will keep me awake at night for the foreseeable future, and I failed at the one thing I wanted to accomplish most as a coach: I wanted my players to feel about me the way I feel about Curt and Hoppy.

I miss my heroes. Curt’s tragic death in 2003 left a void inside me that cannot be filled. And even though Hoppy and I worked in the same circles for more than two decades, we were rarely in the same ballpark at the same time. When we were, it seemed timeless. He’d still make me laugh by saying something really inappropriate, just beyond earshot of the people most likely to be offended — his special gift — or by tapping me in the nuts with a fungo. That’s Hop, am I right?

The Cardinal teams I was on in 1983-84 won 102 games and lost 19, somehow without capturing a state championship. We were brought together from varying backgrounds and sold on a vision of building the program that could finally supplant the Yakima Beetles as the best youth baseball organization in the state of Washington. Although we failed in our efforts to do so in the club’s first two years, my teammates and I had written on the dugout wall. Two years later, Curt and Hoppy hoisted their first state championship trophy; a year later they were in the World Series.

Being “OC” — that’d be, “Original Cardinal” — is something I will always cherish. The experience made me who I am today — whatever that is — and I’m grateful for having shared it with an incredible group of guys.

Written by Chris Sperry

Chris Sperry

Chris Sperry is a baseball consultant who develops players and amateur coaches, assists professional scouts, and counsels families of prospective college-bound student-athletes. He holds a Bachelor's of Business Administration from the University of Portland, the same institution at which he served as head baseball coach for 18 years. His key interests are in player and personal development as they pertain to a life in and beyond sports.

  • Cheryl Daniels says:
    May 11, 2017 Reply

    Chris – you are a magical writer. I read and enjoyed every word you wrote. You have brought Curt back to life for me. I have such fond memories of those early Cardinal days. I remember the meetings in our living room with your dad and my dad talking about the formation of the Cardinals. So exciting! I could feel the positive energy. I wish my dad would have been able to see you play and Curt coach that first summer. Baseball is definitely in my blood – how could it not be. I was 6 weeks old for my first game.

    Love you Chris very much.

    Cheryl

  • Terry M says:
    May 12, 2017 Reply

    Chris, something tells me your players feel exactly the same toward you!

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