All of my Lloyd McClendon memories are surfacing again.
They produce joy, by the way. They always do this time of year, after the ballpark gates open in Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. That's because whenever I see this event, I think of McClendon. Then I recall the summer of 1971, when me and my family from South Bend, Ind., kept hearing about a 12-year-old kid in nearby Gary that folks nicknamed "Legendary Lloyd."
Then we saw McClendon play. We actually went to watch McClendon and our cousin Damon, who also was a star of that team, but there only was one legend amongst those gifted Little Leaguers. We discovered as much after McClendon traumatized those crying on the other team by slamming pitch after pitch toward the other side of northern Indiana.
We saw more games after that as McClendon's 1971 team became the first all-African-American bunch to make it to the Little League World Series, and then he morphed into "Legendary Lloyd." He set a record for the event with five home runs in five consecutive at-bats. McClendon would have slammed more, but he never got the chance in the championship game.
"What's funny is, we had a press conference the night before, and they asked the coach from Taiwan, 'Would you walk McClendon?'" McClendon told me the other day. "The coach said, 'No, we would lose honor if we walked him. We would rather lose with honor than to walk him.' I guess that coach said, 'To heck with honor,' after my first home run. I got walked the next four times up."
McClendon laughed, but 43 years ago, when Taiwan yanked the bat out of the hands of Legendary Lloyd, he and his teammates battled tears after they lost to Taiwan in the first Little League championship game to go extra innings. Without all of those walks, Team USA likely would have won, and who knows how many home runs McClendon would have hit? He laughed some more, adding, "I might have gotten out, too."
That's doubtful, but this is for sure: McClendon remains legendary at 55, but only as a Major League manager instead of as a Little League slugger. This is his first season in charge of a Seattle Mariners team that hasn't done much in more than a decade. Even so, this young and inexperienced group roared into Friday night's action with a four-game winning streak and a 65-55 record that placed them a half-game behind the Tigers for the American League's second Wild Card spot. If you go by the Mariners' ERA that hovers below 3.00, they've pitched better than any team in the league in nearly 40 years except the Yankees in the strike-shortened 1981 season. Plus, with McClendon's knack for shuffling his lineup for the moment, they are clutch when it counts.
Can you say AL Manager of the Year? Easily, but it took a while for McClendon to get a second chance. Prior to joining the Mariners, he was more noted for his explosions at umpires during his five years managing the Pirates through 2005 than his dealing with flawed rosters in Pittsburgh. He spent the next eight years as the Tigers' hitting coach under future Hall of Fame manager Jim Leyland, and Leyland wanted McClendon as his successor. It didn't happen. Neither did other managerial jobs for McClendon until the Mariners called.
There also were McClendon's eight years as a mostly non-descript player in the Major Leagues with the Reds, Cubs and Pirates.
Here's all I know: Whether you're talking about McClendon as the player, the coach or the manager, he remains Legendary Lloyd to me -- always highly baseball knowledgeable, always pleasant, always the guy who was the most intimidating Little Leaguer I've ever seen.
That anybody has ever seen.
"You know what's really funny about that? Obviously, when you're 12 years old, you don't realize what you're accomplishing," McClendon said. "We were like any other group of 12-year-old boys, just trying to chase the girls over the fence and have a good time. And as I get older, people still talk about that Gary, Ind., team, and you come to the realization that, maybe you did accomplish something that was pretty special, especially since we did become the first all-black team ever to make it to the Little League World Series."
The latest all-African-American team to reach the Little League World Series is captivating the nation now. It is the Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago, which sits only a few Legendary Lloyd blasts away from Gary's city limits. The star of these Chicago Little Leaguers is Pierce Jones, who helped his team advance in Williamsport on Thursday with three home runs.
It's great stuff for Jones and his teammates, but it still isn't the stuff of McClendon. In addition to Legendary Lloyd's ability to bash, he was among the leaders of a chant that his Gary team uttered before, during and after games.
"Yeah, let's see," McClendon said, trying to roll back the years. "The chant was kind of silly. It went something like, 'Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are. We are Anco. The mighty, mighty Anco.' Something like that. Then we would say, 'From Gary, Ind.' Pretty cute for 12-year-olds."
Hmmmm. I guess you had to be there -- not only for that chant, but for those rocket shots from McClendon.
Even the man himself remains in awe.
"When I sit here and think back to those five home runs, I'll tell you what. That part was surreal," McClendon said, shaking his head. "It was like I was living outside of my body, so to speak. I mean, whether you're talking about doing that in Little League or anywhere else, who in the heck hits five home runs in a row?"
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com.