Hometown of Conway savoring Jeff Locke’s Pittsburgh Pirate success
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Jeff Locke (49) delivers a warm-up pitch against the Houston Astros during the first inning at PNC Park. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
“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.
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.
For Jeff, this is home. And that word might mean more to him than it does any of his teammates.
Those born here rarely leave. And those who visit never want to.
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 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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“He never resented it,” agreed fellow teammate Robbie Knox.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Pam said. “But Jeff’s only thrown 27 pitches over three innings.”
High school star
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.
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.
“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.
The Atlanta Braves drafted Locke out of high school in the second round of the 2006 draft with the 51st overall pick.
“Good pitch, Jeffrey,” Stoney said after a nasty curveball got the Dodgers’ A.J. Ellis to strike out swinging to end the fifth inning.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.’”
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.”
All he has to do is look in his back pocket.