Hometown of Conway savoring Jeff Locke’s Pittsburgh Pirate success
CONWAY — Shadows start to creep up the southwest slope of Rattlesnake Mountain as Alan and Pam Locke settle into cushioned wooden chairs on their front porch. In a few minutes, their son, Jeff, will step on the mound at PNC Park, about 600 miles away, to pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But they have no plans to watch.
“We don’t even have the baseball channel,” said Pam, a slender, middle-aged woman with long blonde hair.
It’s not that they aren’t interested. In fact, they already had talked to Jeff on the phone earlier in the day, and their son gave them a scouting report on the only team to beat him this season.
“Remember,” Alan told his son, as he often does when the two are separated, “I’m always in your back pocket.”
Instead of watching Jeff pitch, Alan usually will sit in front of his modest wooden home and watch as cars pass. Or he’ll chop wood, piles of which are twice his height and dot his yard.
“I get too nervous,” said Alan through a thick New England accent. Tattoos crawl up and down his arms, including a black and gold “P” on the inside of his wrist.
For Jeff, this is home. And that word might mean more to him than it does any of his teammates.
Cradled between peaks of the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire, the Mount Washington Valley is like a painting lifted from the walls of an art museum.
Those born here rarely leave. And those who visit never want to.
“Are you kidding me?” Jeff said. “There’s no reason to leave. It’s like vacation all the time up there.”
He never took a plane ride until he visited Florida as a high school senior. He never left the Eastern time zone until he was 23 and making his second major league start in California.
The valley is a destination for many, but a home to few. Including the villages of North Conway, Center Conway, Kearsage and Redstone, there are about 10,000 year-round residents in the town of Conway.
“It’s small,” Jeff said. “But it’s everything you could want.”
The area attracts skiers in the winter, climbers and paddlers in the summer and explorers in between. Mount Washington dominates the landscape. At 6,288 feet, it’s the highest point in the Northeast, and its fierce winds curl over the summit and whip the valley.
But they never detract from its majesty.
“Sometimes I have to pull over when I’m driving, just to look,” said Bill Jones, president of the Mount Washington Valley Cal Ripken Youth Baseball League. “I’ll slap myself just to make sure I still live here.”
With tourism by far the area’s primary industry, hospitality is as much a means for living as it is a way of life.
Those who know Jeff — and now, even those who don’t — are bubbling with excitement over the success of this star left-hander who led Kennett High School to a state championship appearance during his senior season, 2006. Some swear Kennett would have won had Jeff been able to pitch, instead of being kept off the mound by New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association pitch limits. Named the New Hampshire Union Leader All-State Baseball Player of the Year at the end of that season, he remains the only two-time winner of the award.
Locke, who started for the Pirates Tuesday night against the Mariners in Seattle, leads National League starters with a 2.01 ERA and is tied for the team lead in wins at six. Only Boston’s Clay Buchholz (1.71) has a lower ERA in the majors.
Residents are shelling out hundreds of dollars for special TV deals that will let them watch Pirates games in Red Sox country. Students at Kennett are wearing more black and gold than usual.
“You walk down the hall, and it’s black and yellow all over the place,” said Noah Weeder, a substitute teacher at Kennett who was one of Jeff’s teammates. “Well, it’s Bruins, too. So it’s a mix of black and yellow and black and gold.”
Pam Locke tries to stay more connected than her husband when Jeff starts. She follows all of his outings online, and she is curled up in the living room, the computer in front of her on a low table, watching each pitch on an animated game tracker. On this Friday night, however, her plans have been compromised.
“I can’t get it to work,” she said, as she clicked around her browser window. “It keeps freezing.”
In the meantime, Alan strolls around his property. In one garage he has two motorcycles, the titles to which Jeff gave him as a retirement present after Alan had spent most of his life detailing cars at the GM dealership down the street. Another garage bears the battle wounds of countless days when Pam would sit on the porch and Jeff would pelt the facade with pitch after pitch.
That is, until Alan came home from work. Then, come rain, sleet or snow — and there was a lot of snow just 100 miles south of the Canadian border — the two would play catch to hone Jeff’s baseball skills.
“That’s all he did,” said sister Corie, 11 years Jeff’s senior.
Here, the Lockes have made their home for 36 years, first living on the land in a mobile home. Now there is a two-story wooden house adorned with balls, bats, jerseys, lineup cards and photos of Jeff’s career.
“Everything’s basic around here,” Alan said.
“No, everything’s baseball around here,” Pam corrected.
While playing catch is a pastime for many fathers and sons, it was a profession for the Lockes. Jeff was just 2 years old, swinging his left arm to grab pieces of wood when his father first thought he might have some talent.
So Alan pushed his son. And Jeff never pushed back.
“They had a special bond between the two of them,” Jones said. “It’s not too often a 6- or 7-year-old kid and his dad share the same vision. And they did.”
“Jeff wanted it,” said high school teammate and childhood friend Todd Frechette. “He loved baseball, so it was easy for him to have his father push him.”
“He never resented it,” agreed fellow teammate Robbie Knox.
Between phone calls from friends and family, Pam finally gets her laptop computer up and running.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Pam said. “But Jeff’s only thrown 27 pitches over three innings.”
High school star
Almost every week, Jeff gets a call from Lloyd Jones, sports editor at the Conway Daily Sun. For many in the area, his articles are their best way to keep up with Jeff, whom he has covered since he pitched for the North Conway Royals in the Cal Ripken League.
“He hasn’t changed a bit since I met him,” Jones said.
Jeff is still the quiet and friendly guy who always threw hard, though most in the valley claim he threw harder in high school. Many remember those games Jeff’s senior year when dozens of scouts lined the backstop at the high school baseball field, with picturesque views of mountains in the distance and an active train track running parallel to the third-base line, just 50 feet away.
“They were all petrified of the moose,” Lloyd Jones said of the scouts, “because there were moose crossings everywhere.”
But the scouts weren’t scared off by this New Hampshire arm.
John Eastman, Conway’s parks and recreation director and the former pitching wins leader at Kennett, said he never believed a pitcher from the Mount Washington Valley would ever get a serious look from major-league scouts. Baseball season is so short there because the snow doesn’t thaw until April, so high school teams play just 12 games before beginning the postseason.
In baseball hotbeds such as California, Texas and Florida, pitchers can build arm strength by pitching almost year round.
“I used to think that living in New Hampshire, in northern New Hampshire, you couldn’t get a look because people didn’t think you could handle the innings,” Eastman said.
Though skiing, hockey and now lacrosse are all more popular in New Hampshire than baseball these days, the state does have some strong ties to the sport. Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk is from Charlestown in the southwest corner of the state, and Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter grew up in Raymond and pitched for Trinity High of Manchester in the middle of southern New Hampshire. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington also grew up in southern New Hampshire, in Milford.
And Babe Ruth’s last surviving daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, born in 1917, lives in Conway, on the other side of a creek from an old minor league ballpark.
The Atlanta Braves drafted Locke out of high school in the second round of the 2006 draft with the 51st overall pick.
Alan gives Lloyd Jones a lot of credit for helping generate interest in Jeff’s talent. Before the draft, Jones dubbed Jeff the “Redstone Rocket,” a nickname that has stuck in the valley to this day.
About three miles from the Lockes’ home, Dave Stone — Stoney to anybody who knows him — is far from settled on his living room sofa. He’s animated with each of Jeff’s pitches.
“Good pitch, Jeffrey,” Stoney said after a nasty curveball got the Dodgers’ A.J. Ellis to strike out swinging to end the fifth inning.
Between innings, he invites Alan and Pam over to eat pizza and watch the game, knowing full well what to expect in response.
“He knows I won’t go over there,” Alan said.
As operations manager at Horsefeathers in North Conway, a place for “Sustenance, Merriment and Cheer,” Stoney first met Jeff almost 15 years ago. Then, Jeff often ate at the restaurant after a youth baseball game across the street at Schouler Park.
Some things have changed since then. They rarely play baseball at Schouler Park anymore because too many home run balls cracked too many windshields as cars drove through downtown, said Kevin Drew, vice president of the Cal Ripken League.
Then again, some things haven’t.
“He still eats the same thing today he did 15 years ago,” Stoney said of Jeff, who seldom steers away from the panko crusted chicken tenders.
Stoney has been “like a wall” for Jeff, Alan said. And whenever Jeff is back in North Conway in the offseason, there’s a good chance he will be hanging out with Stoney at Horsefeathers.
The two are close, though Stoney is almost twice Jeff’s age. Close enough, at least, that a man with an homage to the Red Sox on his New Hampshire license plate admits to now knowing more about the Pirates than he does the Red Sox.
After a moment of surprise to see Brandon Inge pinch-hitting for Jeff after he had thrown just 75 pitches in seven shutout innings, Stoney stops to applaud his friend.
“Good job, Jeffrey,” he said.
Elsewhere in the valley, Bill Jones turns on his radio feed in his basement but he’s missed all of Jeff’s outing. He listens in as Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli finish the game, keeping the shutout intact.
Living the dream
Last week, Corie was watching one of those rare games at Schouler Park, a field as quaint and as awe-inspiring as the one depicted in “Field of Dreams.” From home plate, a batter can see Cranmore Mountain in right field and the town center beyond second base. From the mound, a pitcher can see a masterfully restored train station off the third-base line.
Her 9-year-old son, Ethan, who bears a strong resemblance to his uncle, was playing in the Cal Ripken League championship.
“He’s a pitcher,” she said of Ethan. “He’s just like his Uncle Jeff.
“I was just thinking, ‘Gosh, it was not that long ago we were up here watching Jeff play in an all-star game.’”
It has been more than six years since the Redstone Rocket left home to try to make it in the major leagues. And now the region is rallying around his success. The concern in New Hampshire isn’t whether Jeff can keep it up; it’s whether he’ll make the All-Star Game.
Months ago, most wondered whether Jeff would even make the Pirates’ opening-day roster.
After watching Jeff earn a win against the Dodgers, Corie pulled out her phone and texted her brother.
“Another awesome game,” she wrote. “So proud of you.”
The valley hasn’t changed much since he left. Neither has he. It helps that home is never too far away.
All he has to do is look in his back pocket.