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

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; D08

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.

Wahl could tell his grandfather about last summer when he pitched for elite teams in the Metrodome in Minneapolis and at Wrigley Field in Chicago, and on a lot of college yards in between. He could tell him about West Springfield winning the past two Virginia AAA Northern Region titles and reaching the state tournament. He could tell him about how 25 major league teams have dispatched scouts to visit the Wahl home and gauge Bobby's background and aspirations, a phenomenon that has not sunk in for anybody in the family.

"To have pro teams come by the house and say, hey, we've watched your kid for two years now . . . and you think back: I remember him pitching in 9-10 all-stars," said Wahl's father, Bob, a retired Fairfax County policeman now working a government job. "You always think of your kid as a little kid. You don't think of him as a young man that's got serious potential to go on and do something [like this]."

Wahl has been projected to be taken as high as in the fifth round of the draft. Scouts say that his broad frame likely will allow him to add to his 6-foot-3, 200-pound body, and they like his mound demeanor and other intangible qualities. There are concerns, however, about his consistency.

"He's got the best arm by far of anybody in the area," said one pro scout, who wished to remain anonymous because of the nature of the business, "but he never got to that level [this season] where you would consider taking him really high. In my opinion, he didn't live up to what people probably thought he was going to be. He threw okay at times but never lights out. [But] you can certainly dream on him a little bit."

The scout said that Wahl is asking for "first-round money," which combined with his leverage of having a scholarship to the University of Mississippi makes the chances a pro team will sign him "very, very poor." The scout also said there have been few, if any, national "cross-checker" scouts at Wahl's games, another indication of possible slippage in the draft.

"He's such a dual personality," West Springfield Coach John James said. "Talking to him off the field he's a very humble, happy-go-lucky, just very down-to-earth person. You wouldn't think of him being a nasty competitor. But when he gets on the mound, his personality changes and he just becomes a demon."

Even if Wahl does not turn pro right out of high school, he still might have some negotiating to do. He wants to wear No. 19 to continue to honor his grandfather. Jordan Cooper, a freshman southpaw at Ole Miss this season, has that number.

"Ever since I've been wearing 19, it's all taken off for me," Wahl said. "Nineteen follows me around. It's just one of those things that it has to be my number. Or it doesn't feel right."

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