April 19, 2014
PROSPERITY, S.C. — Ask anyone at the Waffle House in Newberry, S.C., and they can tell you how to find Prosperity.
“Just go down this road to the Shell and turn left. You’ll see a little green sign.”
But ask what the biggest thing might be to see in a town so small it doesn’t show up on most maps, and you’ll hear laughs.
“Big? In Prosperity? Well, they got a Piggly Wiggly.”
Turns out that’s a stretch because you can’t even see it once you find the weather-beaten gazebo and the slow drip of the fountain at the town center.
Besides, the biggest thing in Prosperity these days is C.J. Edwards.
“Everybody knows C.J., especially since he started playing baseball,” says Prosperity Drug store customer Kayla Dewelt, a former classmate of the Cubs’ pitching prospect. “He’s like our celebrity in town.”
“Hit the mitt, C.J.! Hit the mitt!”
Carl Edwards, a one-time college pitcher from one of the most talented baseball families in the area, took his eldest son in the field behind the house for his first baseball lesson. The kid was just 3.
“I would bend down in the yard and I would tell C.J. I wasn’t going to move the mitt, and he just learned how to hit it,” Carl says. “I just worked on his control.”
Eighteen years later, on a storm-soaked field in Dunedin, Fla., a slender right-hander from the middle of South Carolina — and a few miles past the middle of nowhere — throws strike after strike in his playoff debut for the advanced Class A Daytona Cubs.
“He called me before the game and said, ‘My stomach hurts,’ ” says Sherry Bedenbaugh, a family friend whom C.J. calls his “white mama.” “He gets nervous before every game.”
This time, he has reason. Making up about half the crowd are Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, general manager Jed Hoyer, assistant GM Randy Bush, two of the Cubs’ top three player-development bosses — Jason McLeod and Brandon Hyde — and Kerry Wood.
Nerves? Edwards strikes out the first four batters, seven of the first 10 and eight overall in the five innings he’s allowed to pitch — touching the mid-90s with sharp movement. Nobody gets a hit against him.
Hoyer and Wood use the same word to describe Edwards’ velocity: “Easy.”
Games like last week in Dunedin and last month in his Cubs-system debut, when he struck out the first seven he faced, show why the Cubs were so insistent Edwards be included in the four-for-one trade with the Texas Rangers for Matt Garza on July 22.
And why Edwards might be the prized prospect among the nine pitchers the Cubs acquired in trades this July. And why he could play a key role in their rebuilding efforts.
But very little beyond the ability, and that velocity, has come easy for Edwards — least of all how the Rangers even found him.
“Hit the mitt, C.J.! Just throw to your Uncle Chuck! Hit the mitt!”
The familiar voice encouraged him from behind the backstop when a 15-year-old Edwards made his “Bush League” debut in the early innings of a game already getting away from his Newberry Pirates, delivering to his uncle, Calvin “Chuck” Edwards.
The “Bush League” is a tradition, if not a rite of passage, for the baseball men in the Edwards family.
While the city of Prosperity and its schools are more integrated than Chicago’s, the area’s all-black, adult sandlot league is reminiscent of the loosely formed town teams of the segregated South 70 years ago.
This is where Chris Kemp, an area scout for the Rangers and a junior-college coach in the region, discovered Edwards — on a dusty, rutted field with rickety wood dugouts, along Highway 176, next to the old Rutherford Night Club.
“It’s like going back in time,” says Kemp, who heard of Edwards’ growing reputation through a couple of his JC players. “He came in and had like 12 strikeouts. I didn’t have my radar gun with me, but I knew, damn, this kid has a chance to throw hard.”
Kemp’s discovery came long after that debut at 15, when C.J. was called on to replace another uncle, Thomas, on the mound in a lopsided game against the Mapleton Black Sox.
“They had this dude on the other team named Downtown Brown,” Carl says, “and he was hitting them downtown.”
But with Carl behind the screen, and the usually quiet Chuck getting more animated with every strikeout by his nephew, the Pirates came all the way back to win.
“That Downtown Brown,” Carl says, “C.J. struck him out the next three times he came up.”
By the time Kemp got a look, the kid had a toughness and a poise from pitching against the men.
“I thought if we could get 30 pounds on this kid, something good could happen,” Kemp says. “It was almost like a scratch-off lottery ticket.”
So few scouts saw Edwards play in high school or during sporadic appearances for travel teams that the Rangers were able to wait until the 48th round — a round that no longer exists — to draft him in 2011.
Fewer still saw him in summer travel leagues because the family didn’t have the money for it. So he didn’t play until late, when coaches recruited him to play for free.
“He would have had a chance to be a first-rounder,” Cubs scouting executive Tim Wilken says.
Carl Edwards wasn’t happy about how late he was picked. “I was shocked,” he says.
But C.J. says, “I just wanted an opportunity, man. If I can get the opportunity, I can make things happen.”
If there was a chance Edwards wouldn’t sign, it disappeared at
4 a.m., three years ago this December, when C.J. got a call about the accident.
His best friend, Will Bedenbaugh — Sherry’s son — had been killed in a one-car accident on a trip back from Charleston Southern University. Edwards had planned to join him on the CSU baseball team after graduation that spring from Mid-Carolina High.
“After the funeral, that’s when I really started taking life itself — taking it more serious,” says C.J., who says a prayer for Will before every game. “After that day, that’s when everything turned.”
The Rangers offered a $50,000 signing bonus — exceptional for such a late pick. But not before Kemp got lost trying to find the Edwards’ trailer about six miles outside of town, on wooded acreage that has been in the family for generations.
“He had to pick me up on a dirt road,” Kemp recalls, “and I had to follow him on another dirt road.”
If C.J. gets to the big leagues — “when” he gets there, says his mother, Faith — he might finally put Prosperity on some of those maps.
Mark Bowers, who owns the Bowers BP station in town where Faith used to work, said he can’t remember anyone in his 59 years making it big out of Prosperity. “I think there was a junior-college basketball player, but I can’t think of his name,” Bowers says.
But those who know C.J., who still sings in the choir at the church where his mom is a minister, say he already has made a mark.
That doesn’t mean he has always been a choirboy. In eighth grade, with his grades slipping, C.J. talked smack to a teacher who confiscated his CD Walkman. Faith got a call from the school to meet with C.J. and the teacher.
“I told him, when that bus pulls up at 1310 Paradise Road, you best be on it,” she recalls. “And you will not be playing baseball this year.”
It was no idle threat. He didn’t play.
“After that, I didn’t have any more problems out of C.J.,” she says. “After that, no more talking back to the teacher, he did his work and kept his grades up.”
“He’s a better person than he is a pitcher,” says his high school football and baseball coach, Louie Alexander. “It’s the rearing. The big thing is they’re just great people. Good hard-working, country people.”
They call him “String Bean Slinger” — because of his 6-2, 145-pound frame in high school — or some version of “Satch.”
The comparisons to Satchel Paige and Oil Can Boyd are certain to follow Edwards to Class AA Tennessee next season, even if the Cubs’ training staff puts a few more hard pounds on his lean body during what it considers a pivotal offseason for his development.
At 6-3, 165 pounds on a heavy day, he still weighs 15 pounds less than the Hall of Famer Paige did when he pitched.
Edwards, who turned 22 on Sept. 3, has a career 15-5 record and 1.63 ERA in four minor-league stops over two seasons, including 10 scoreless playoff innings for Daytona in which he allowed one hit. He has 251 strikeouts and just 68 walks in 1931/3 innings.
But the most impressive fact might be this: A guy who throws that hard and throws that many pitches in the strike zone has yielded one home run.
“He is extremely driven,” Daytona manager Dave Keller says. “You can tell he doesn’t just want to be a pitcher in the big leagues. He wants to be somebody who makes a difference.”