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  • Writer's pictureWritten by Joshua Smith

#WiffleCrushWednesday: Drew McClanahan

Our maiden voyage into the world of wiffle ball players that I adore featured my greatest respect and adoration for league co-founder Greg Sowards. Greg was (and still is) the bedrock of this league and without him none of this would be here. But as thankful for Greg as I am, Drew brings something else entirely to the table - national recognition. Where Greg brought us the creation and infrastructure, Drew put us on the map. Without the whirlwind 2014 season of Drew McClanahan a lot of people still might not know who we are.

Our league had humble beginnings in 2012. Rising from the ashes of our old league, this new project only had around a dozen players and all of us were average players. We did videos, articles, and all the other attention-drawing stuff that all popular leagues performed at that time but we lacked one key element: star power. We were a medium-pitch league living in a fast-pitch world and we were not exciting to watch.

In 2013 we attracted some new players and many of them were fun to watch and possessed considerably more talent. Players like James Clagg and Thelmer Damron displayed more deliberate skill on the field and we gained a little more attention on the national spectrum but we still were using black bats and throwing medium-speed and the parity in the league was laughable. Maroon Squad ran off with the season with only 2 losses and outscoring their opponents by 138 runs. We were hardly "a league to watch" despite having weekly articles, game videos, highlight reels and starting our league podcast (4 years running now). I believe that wasn't our breakout year due primarily to our incredibly poor performance in the NWLA Tournament.

In 2014, Greg and I decided to cut the kids stuff and ditch the black bats and make this game more challenging. The goal was to elevate the role of pitching and to attract and maintain more elite players and make us more comparable to other leagues so they could relate to us. But before we did that we had a 5-week fall ball season to finish off 2013 and make use of that splendid Indian Summer. We also started a season in Charleston and got only a limited reaction from the populace. One of the teams that came out was this group of guys that worked for the local paper. They were good and I knew they'd be competitive in Huntington but I didn't know that later that off-season they acquired who we would all come to know as Drew McClanahan. Ryan Pritt alluded to him often and said "you'll see what I'm talking about soon enough."

2014 didn't have much of a spring training turnout because of the poor weather but there was more smack-talk that season than any season before or since. Most teams had an ace and we had quite the crop that year: Steven Adkins, Nick Kappra, Josh Berletich, Jeremy Ray, Jacob Fischer, and Drew McClanahan. All of them had their unique attributes but they all had one thing in common: velocity. This caught a lot of attention from people outside the league and they took note that a change had occurred. Standing above that crop of talent was none-other than Drew. He turned heads around the nation all season and didn't give up a single run until almost half-way through the season. Since there were no rotation rules at that time, he racked up several strikeouts and really crafted his pitching to perfection. He achieved an 18-0 record (all complete games) with one save, struck out 149 batters, only walked 20, only allowed 5 Earned Runs and 15 hits. He finished the year with a 0.26 ERA and 0.36 WHIP. On top of that he threw 3 no-hitters and 5 perfect games.

Amazingly, he pitched 96 innings due to their being no rotation rules and was one of the main reasons we would create them the next year. He would throw off his arm if it meant winning. His fierce competitive nature made him burn bright with star power and illuminated our league in the minds of nearby leagues. He took us to the next level of national recognition. I came to respect him as a competitor right away but I've seen good players come and go in this league and my last one. People like him normally just came, conquered and would eventually become bored (some sooner than others) and leave as quickly as he entered. But not Drew, he was genuinely interested in the sport, this league, and it's significance as a growing community. That made him starkly different from some of the other great players I've seen come and go. He legitimately cared. He was constantly messaging me for updates on stats, commenting on videos, reading the newest articles and offering takes from the latest episode of any podcast. He was not only our best player but our biggest fan. So I went from simply respecting him to loving him.

When assembling our NWLA team in 2014, I got a few guys together to form the coaching squad and while getting a short list of players together for the team we all knew who our #1 pick was going to be. Drew impressed all of us from the very first inning he pitched in the first week of the season so there was no question: he was in. The rest of the team was carefully selected and we had created a sleeper pick that no one would have guessed would finish in the top 10. All the predictions had us finishing dead last (as we had in 2013) but they were fools who had not been following our season. Their lack of faith backfired as we finshed the tournament with a 4-3 record and although we didn't win the thing, we shocked them all. I put together a team of the best players we had to offer and while I was disappointed we didn't go farther I felt victorious leaving Columbus as a respected competitor by rival leagues. It was a good feeling.

Unfortunately, during that tournament Drew did not perform to the level many expected. The first day (pool play) saw a lot of rain and that certainly played a role in his performance on the mound against Skibbe Wiffleball League. But the biggest hurdle was the additional 3' that had to be thrown since our mound was only 45' from the zone and it's 48' at the NWLA Tournament. That faux pas was remedied in 2015 by our league as we adjusted accordingly but the damage had already been done. We had all been playing from 45' all year and practicing from that distance as well with our national team. Other pitchers adjusted with more success, most notably Nick Kappra. But while players like Jeremy Ray and Jacob Fischer were making names for themselves on the national stage, McClanahan found himself sitting on the bench or doing what he could at the plate to help the team. This undoubtedly was not what he or anyone else at the tournament expected.

Our very first pool play game was with SWBL and who else would we throw besides our ace? It started off rough with several walks and I left him in because I thought he would eventually settle in but I would come to find that would not be the case. He pitched 4 innings that game and we would be mercy-ruled. Drew allowed 23 runs that game, striking out only 3 batters and walking 10. He simply could not find the zone at that distance and the weather certainly was not helping. At first I only left him in to give him a chance to settle but ultimately I would let him remain in the game because the damage was already done and it was pointless to put anyone else in. I also figured maybe he could use that time to find whatever he was missing at that time for future games. Drew was a trooper and did not take the easy way out and walk off the mound. He came to pitch and he continued to do so until the game was over. I do not think I could endure it if it were me and although he was surely swallowing a great deal of pride at that moment, I admired him even more.

Word got around pretty fast at the tournament that Drew was having control issues. A lot of people were having issues with accuracy that day. It was drizzling and windy. So it was understandable he couldn't find the zone. I didn't put Drew on the mound again until we started the Double-Elimination bracket. Our first game was against Minnesota Wiffle Association. Again, he had control issues. He gave up 6 runs, walking 10 batters and only striking out 4. I couldn't let him finish the second inning because our chances of advancing were dwindling. It broke my heart to take him out of that game but it needed to be done. It was a tough pill to swallow but the 2014 NWLA Tournament was not going to be the Drew McClanahan show many people had imagined. Kappra, Fischer, and Ray rose to prominence in the spotlight and the introduction of WSEM's Stephen Farkas over-shadowed Drew's potential. The hype died down not long after the tournament as our season had already ended before that event. Farkas would be awarded National Pitcher of the Year and McClanahan had to settle for a chest of awards at the league level (except for Rookie of the Year). But to say Drew went home with a bruised ego to lick his wounds would be presumptuous. And if he did, he internalized it well. He didn't say much about the matter on the ride back home. Although he did go into great length about the hurt he felt about my refusal to stop at the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile on the way to Columbus a couple days prior.

I didn't hear much from Drew the rest of the year. I worried he might not return the next season. I worried that he might drown his sorrows in liquor and become a recluse from society. I worried that he would lose his job from all the questionable sexual favors he would perform for said liquor. I mean, he had money, but we all deal with disappointment in our different ways. So I gave Drew his space so he could process the big year he had in peace. I then turned my attention to planning for the 2015 season.

I didn't know it at the time but Drew was training himself to be better than ever. He pitched as often as he could wherever he could. He pitched in his backyard, the gymnasium at the school where he works, and at an abandoned warehouse in town that was used to build bombs during WWII. He silently labored all winter to be better than he had ever been. He finally reached out to me in February and insisted that we pitch from 48' feet instead of 45' as we had the year before. "We've got to be able to pitch from that distance if we want to compete." He had a great point and it was brought to the committee and passed unanimously.

The 2015 season saw a return from Drew as he showed us all that he still had more talent in his pinky finger than most of us possessed in our entire bodies. Jeremy Ray stole the show that year with the lowest ERA and WHIP with the most strikeouts and best win-loss record but Drew gave chase the entire season and showed the world that he could take care of business from 48'. But he didn't seem to care about the stats or any of that. He did not seem phased that we opted out of the NWLA tournament or that we enforced rotation rules. He cared about one thing: winning it all. The Breaking Balls finished the season on the top of their division and bull-dozed their way through the playoffs to face that year's Cy Wiffle and Strikeout King winner Jeremy Ray and the rest of Sit On My Base.

The previous year Drew did not have the chance to play in the big game after losing to the Honey Badgers in the semifinals. David Dillon's famous solo home run squashed the hopes of the Breaking Balls on finishing their masterpiece of a season with a league championship. This did not sit well with Drew and he made it his mission to finish 2015 differently. Three innings into the 2015 championship game, everyone had to retreat to their cars due to a torrential thunderstorm hitting the area. Once the rain stopped, we emerged to find the field soggy and with standing water in many places. Both teams agreed to finish the game and Drew threw as hard as he could in what may be his best pitched game of his career. Finally, he hoisted the trophy over his head and felt the satisfaction of finishing on top. It was a moment he worked tirelessly to achieve and it was an honor to witness. After the team photo, everyone left and the curtain closed on another phenomenal season.

2016 would be a lot different with the playing format and leadership change but one change stood out above the rest: Drew McClanahan was not present. He focused on his work and many assumed he preferred to end his career on a high note. And why not end it there? Not everyone gets to have such a short and impacting career in a sport like that. He is remembered as a fierce competitor with a great personality and unwavering character - making him an obvious person of interest for this column. The league has undergone many changes since his unofficial retirement, but I often wish for a day where I can see him back on the field not only as a player but as a friend and ambassador for all that is good in this league and in this sport.

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