It was so sad to hear today of former Oakland Raider tight end Todd Christensen passing during surgery at the age of 57. Many of us have certain things that stick out from our youthful athletic pursuits, and Christensen played a starring role in one of my baseball experiences. It was one that went much better for him than for me.
It was the spring of 1973. I was in the ninth grade at Highland View Junior High in Corvallis, but was allowed to play baseball at Corvallis High. I pitched on the JV team, but one Saturday morning I was shocked when I got to school and was told I’d go with the varsity to Eugene for a doubleheader against the Sheldon Irish.
It was the first time I wore the Spartan uniform, and I remember to this day walking up the ramp from the locker room and getting chills at my reflection in a ticket-booth window adjacent to the gym.
I don’t remember how exactly the DH went. We might have won the first game but were getting shelled in the second. That’s when coach Carl Hutzler sent me to the mound in relief.
I was nervous beyond belief. Then Christensen stepped into the box. My body turned to Jell-O. Nervousness turned to outright fright. He was a man among boys, and there was no one more boyish than me out there. He must have gone 250 pounds. Under his batting helmet and a big mop of black hair, he looked like a grizzly bear to me. I’m sure I looked like a snack to him.
I had a good fastball in Pony League ball. Struck out a lot of overmatched batters. This wasn’t Pony League, and he wasn’t overmatched. I don’t know how many pitches I threw. It might have only been one. If so, it was one he really liked. He swung mightily, I ducked swifty. After the “THWACK!”, I turned to center field.
We had a really good center fielder, Jerry Miller. He would go on to play at Oregon State and, I believe, set a single-season hits record there. He knew baseball, and he knew he didn’t have to exert much energy chasing this one. He stayed in his crouch, hands on knees, and only slightly tilted his head as the ball zoomed overhead. It should have had a flight attendant on it.
Everything else about that day was relatively inconsequential. On the bus ride home, I sat behind coach Hutz. He knew baseball, too, having played shortstop in the Yankees organization, Scooter Rizzuto blocking his path to the bigs. I overheard him tell his assistant: “I’ve never seen a high school kid hit a baseball that far.”
It’s a story I’ve told from time to time, and likely will again. I only hope Christensen got a little mileage out of the time he hit a ball for a lot of mileage off me.