West Springfield's Bobby Wahl owes his love of baseball to his grandfather

When West Springfield's Bobby Wahl decided to wear No. 19 to honor his grandfather, Elden Boothby, his mother's father (who was born in 1919) wrote him a letter that inspires him to this day.
When West Springfield's Bobby Wahl decided to wear No. 19 to honor his grandfather, Elden Boothby, his mother's father (who was born in 1919) wrote him a letter that inspires him to this day. (Richard A. Lipski For The Washington Post)
By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

In the garage, there is the Orioles bat, the accompanying black and white ball long since lost after a backyard dinger off Grandpa. In the scrapbook, there is the handwritten letter, secured in plastic and consulted in times of doubt. In the bedroom, there is the faded baseball from the pre-Depression era.

And on the uniform and underneath the bill of the cap, there is the number -- always the number. Nineteen or bust.

If West Springfield pitcher Bobby Wahl is selected in the Major League Baseball amateur draft that begins Monday -- the right-hander is considered the best high school prospect in the Washington area -- Elden Boothby, deceased, and with no baseball pedigree of his own, will be selected right along with him, breathing new life into the mementos that a grandfather passed on to his grandson.

Boothby died 4 1/2 years ago, but the retired Air Force colonel with the worldly wisdom and understated manner has remained a steady influence in Wahl's life. Their fateful Toys "R" Us junket more than a dozen years ago yielded not only that Orioles bat and ball but a little boy's deep love for a game, and, quite possibly, a professional baseball career.

Wahl and his grandfather, who in their baby pictures look almost identical, would play for hours at the Boothby home, where Bobby and his parents lived for a time when he was young. Even now, on some days, Wahl's recollections of those backyard sessions on Tammy Drive in Alexandria are as vivid as a game he might have pitched last week for West Springfield.

"It's definitely one of those memories that's etched in my brain," said Wahl, an amiable fellow with a quick grin, all-county sideburns and a tendency to sleep with his glove. "It was the start of something, you know? He always thought I had a good arm from day one, and he wanted to initiate that for me. I give him credit for starting me to play baseball."

When Boothby was found to have gall bladder cancer, Wahl, an eighth-grader at the time, decided he would wear uniform No. 19 from then on as a tribute to his grandfather, who was born in 1919. The letter that Wahl has saved, handwritten on notebook paper ("excuse the fancy stationery," his grandpa tacked on at the end) is a thank-you note of sorts acknowledging that honor.

Boothby died later that year at his home in Wisconsin, the day after Bobby returned home from visiting him.

"It's not a big life lesson letter," Wahl said, "but it's definitely something that can hit you hard just by reading it."

Wahl's mother, Terry, had to agree with her father that Bobby, who weighed 11 pounds 2 ounces at birth, had a lively right arm. Wahl split her lip with a water-filled baby toy ball at 20 months and has been pounding fastballs ever since, sometimes over 90 mph.

"That's when it all started," Terry Wahl said recently, watching her son pitch during a playoff game. "My dad said, 'This kid is going to be a pitcher.' They adored each other. My dad would travel from Wisconsin on day trips to watch him play in Little League. [Before] he passed away, he wanted to hear about Bobby's baseball."

There would be so much more to tell him now, as Wahl sometimes does, dropping by his grandfather's grave in Fairfax County. Last Christmas Eve, he left one of his old gloves there for him. "This is something you've been missing out on," Wahl recalls saying.

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