Even though senior Darin Campbell of DeMatha High is rated the top high school shortstop in the country according to the publication Collegiate Baseball, the 45 or so scouts who have come to see him play still want the age-old question answered.
Can he hit the curve ball?
DeMatha's assistant coach, Vince Kerley, believes he can answer that one.
"We had this game earlier in the year where about six or seven scouts came," he said. "Well, the first time up, somebody threw Darin 'a slurve,' kind of a slow curve that broke outside like a slider. Real tempting, but he let that go by. Next pitch was a high curve that broke off right about the numbers. Looked like a ball, but it was in there all right. He knocked it through the infield for a single.
"The next time up he gets another high curve. It was the kind of pitch you don't get fed often. He smacked it over the infield for a double. That made my day. The scouts knew right then that curve balls would be no problem for Darin. He can hit anything a pitcher's going to throw him."
Campbell has had very few problems this year. His coaches and peers have only glowing words for him. His harshest critic, in all probability, is his father.
"Somebody's got to keep me humble," Campbell said with a sheepish grin. "My dad does a great job of that. If I make a mistake, I'll hear it. . . " His voice drops to a rumbling, throaty murmur, spoken out of the side of his mouth like Lou Grant. "Get down on that ball, Darin! Move up and charge it next time, Darin! You're slacking, Darin! Choke up on the bat, Darin!"
His voice becomes normal.
"Dad's a great coach. And he never misses a thing."
Campbell created a minor tidal wave when he entered the high school baseball scene two years ago. He made the varsity team as a freshman but spent most of the season watching Steve Miller, an all-Met player who now is in the San Francisco Giants rookie organization.
The next year, 1983, Campbell earned the starting job for himself. And he backed it up with solid numbers -- a .428 average, 12 homers and 42 RBI batting in the No. 3 slot.
The next season, though, his power production fell -- only five homers -- though his average climbed to .470 and he drove in 62 runs.
"His first year," Kerley said, "nobody respected him. He was a sophomore. Pitchers said, 'Here comes this fat, little, black kid; let's just throw this fastball . . . whoops.' They were all getting fitted for neck braces watching him hit home runs all over the place.
"Then the next year he pulled a hamstring and missed the first two games. He came back and said, 'Oh, look what I got to do to catch up.' And the pitchers were feeding him junk all the time. He put too much pressure on himself. And his power fell. He ended up hitting a lot of holes."
This year he is hitting .590 with 11 RBI and 11 walks. It's an "honest" .590, Kerley said, with no "flubbers or bloopers."
The difference? Experience and steadfast concentration. Campbell saw pure fast balls his sophomore year. He saw pure junk balls his junior year. Now, there aren't too many pitches that can fool him. And none can smoke him.
He is aided by the fact he can't be pitched around. The leadoff hitter, Gary Pyne, is hitting .487 and has an on-base percentage of .600. The No. 2 batter, Pat Lemon, is one of the team's best hitters with a .680 average. The No. 4 hitter, Billy Smith, is at .500.
"I guess I have some pretty good insulation," Campbell said with a wry grin. "Pitchers are so worried about the first two guys they don't think about me or the guy behind me. And sometimes it's the other way around. It doesn't bother me."
"He has great pitch selection," said DeMatha's assistant coach, Daryl Grose, who works on the team's hitting. "He has excellent vision, great bat control and doesn't mind where he is in the count."
"In fact," Kerley added, "he's a better hitter with two strikes on him than when he doesn't have any."
Campbell's recruitment has presented many interesting bonuses for his teammates. With flocks of scouts attending every game, several other DeMatha players have wound up as recruiting targets themselves. Pitcher Joe Roha, playing baseball for the first year, has a 1.40 earned run average and a 3.9 grade point average. Despite those credentials, he probably wouldn't have been even glanced at if he hadn't happened to be on the same team as Campbell. Now, Kerley said, he may wind up with a college scholarship.
Then there was the trip to North Carolina.
On spring break, the Stags were invited to Chapel Hill to play the North Carolina freshman team. The Tar Heel coaches wanted to take a look up close at Campbell and scheduling a game was the easiest way. That was fine with DeMatha; the team was on its way to South Carolina for a scheduled trip and the stopoff gave it a chance to see North Carolina's Boshamer Field, one of the best in the country.
"Oh my goodness, that field was nice," Campbell said, shaking his head. "Just beautiful. Made the whole trip worthwhile."
"It looked like somebody had taken a can of brown spray paint and painted an infield on a giant pool table," Kerley said. "The players were in awe."
Campbell was sufficiently impressed with the Carolina program that on Monday he signed a letter of intent with the school.
"The coaches impressed me, the atmosphere impressed me, the exposure the school and the team gets impressed me," he said. "It's also a good academic school. I feel more comfortable now that I've gotten that out of the way."
His signing still hasn't deterred the pro scouts, who still see a gold mine of major league potential. At least 11 pro teams have sent representatives. The Giants, in particular, are still sending personnel to DeMatha games.
"Darin's a super ball player and a great kid to watch," said Mike Toomey, a scout for the Giants. "He'll be a good player wherever he ends up."
Another scout, who asked not to be identified, said, "He's the peskiest hitter I've seen. He just waits and waits for his pitch. Then he kills it. And his fielding is . . . well, it's amazing."
Campbell takes great pride in his fielding. It separates him from the other power-hitting shortstops in the area. It separates him from everybody. He lacks tremendous foot speed, but he gets an excellent jump on the ball. Anything else he lacks in speed he atones for with quickness and velocity. The ball hardly seems to touch his glove before he sends it toward first base.
"It's great to watch him play against teams that don't know him," Kerley said. "The look at his size and think he moves like a tank. They hit the ball up the middle and start jogging down to first base. Suddenly there's this flash, and before they know it they've been thrown out. He gets rid of the ball so quickly."
Campbell is physically imposing; at 5 feet 11 and 195 pounds, he looks more like a football player. In fact, his brother Deno was an outstanding football player for DeMatha several years ago.
"I've never worried about my size," Campbell said. "I can't do anything about it. I can't get smaller or anything. I have to learn to make up for it. That's why I want to work on quickness and speed and the other factors that make me a good shortstop."
That was where Miller came in. When he came back for Thanksgiving and Christmas break, he spent almost every day in the gym with Campbell, working on technique.
"He wanted me to get soft hands," Campbell said. "He had this drill with a tennis ball. I'd go to field it and because I stabbed at the ball, it would squirt out. I learned to field it softly, pulling it to me instead of grabbing at it. Steve learned a lot out there. He taught a lot of it to me."