Fred Nori, 73, has played baseball since he could walk. He has seen thousands of players from Little League to high school to college to the major leagues.
One player stands out: Kyle Schwarber, a Middletown native and key member of the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs.
“He’s the most special thing I have ever seen,” Nori, assistant coach at Indiana University, said.
Schwarber, who missed nearly the entire regular season because of injury, was activated right before the World Series and was used mainly as a designated hitter. He collected seven hits in four games, hitting .412, the highest batting average on the team.
The Cubs, in part, can thank Nori for winning their first World Series since 1908.
When Schwarber, a 2011 Middletown High School graduate, was playing baseball for the Middies, he was lightly recruited because college baseball coaches were concerned he would play football. He was a 6-foot, 235-pound, all-state linebacker in high school.
So Nori went to watch Schwarber, a burly-chested catcher. After scouting Schwarber, Nori reported back to Tracy Smith, head baseball coach at IU.
The conversation went something like this:
Smith: “How did the kid look?”
Nori: “You will never see another one like him.”
Smith signed Schwarber, who hit 39 homers in three seasons and was named a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award. Following his junior year at IU, Schwarber was drafted No. 4 overall by the Cubs, a pick most MLB executives thought was a stretch.
Last year, as a rookie, Schwarber hit .246, smashed 16 homers and drove in 43 runs during the regular season. He added five homers in the playoffs.
Many thought Schwarber would be an offensive force for the Cubs this season. Instead, during the second game of the season, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament in his left knee. The club said Schwarber would miss the rest of the regular season, but, if rehabilitation went as expected, would be healthy in time for Spring Training 2017.
Middletown’s Don “Woody” Withrow, who has followed Schwarber throughout his career, had other thoughts. He predicted Schwarber would pinch-hit in the playoffs even before the Cubs qualified for the postseason.
“That was wishful thinking,” Withrow admitted. “But nobody works harder than him.”
On Wednesday night, when the Cubs outlasted the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in 10 innings in Game 7, Schwarber played an important role in the victory. He singled leading off the 10th inning, then was replaced by a pinch-runner, who later scored the go-ahead run.
Back in Middletown, Middies fans were cheering their latest hometown hero.
Before Game 7, Withrow said he hoped Schwarber would win the game with a homerun. Then he singled and started the winning rally.
“My far-fetched dream came true,” Withrow said. “The whole thing is surreal. To see him as a Middie, and a linebacker and then at Indiana to the World Series. And to top it off, he’s a good person.”
Former Middletown High School athletic director Gary Lebo, one of the city’s largest Cubs fans, was impressed by how Schwarber handled himself on the sport’s biggest stage. When Game 7 was over, and Schwarber was interviewed, he never used the word “I,” Lebo said.
“That’s type of person he is,” Lebo said.
Lebo said MHS may soon have players in MLB, NFL and NBA. Jalin Marshall is playing for the New York Jets and Vince Edwards is a standout forward at Purdue and a projected professional player.
When Schwarber was a junior at Indiana, the Hoosiers played in the Big 10/Pac 12 Challenge in Arizona. That’s when Schwarber was interviewed by Theo Epstein, club president of the Cubs. Epstein wanted to know more about Schwarber, especially since they were considering drafting him in the first round.
After the meeting, Epstein told Smith that Schwarber was the “best player” interview he had conducted, so on Draft Day, Smith wasn’t surprised the Cubs took Schwarber.
Smith, now coach at Arizona State, attended Game 7 with his brother-in-law Gregg Darbyshire, an MHS graduate. Smith said it was amazing looking around Progressive Field and seeing the number of Cubs fans wearing Schwarber’s No. 12 jerseys.
“It was like he was some sort of super hero,” Smith said. “But he’s a humble young man from Middletown, Ohio.”
Schwarber became a folk hero throughout the World Series, thanks in part to FOX Sports announcer Joe Buck. Throughout Game 2, Buck talked glowingly about Schwarber and his miraculous medical recovery.
After that game, Indians fans created a wedding registry for Buck and Schwarber. The registry is at Bed, Bath & Beyond and lists March 4, 2017, as the wedding date.
Former Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller also created a stir during the World Series. There is a picture of Schwarber diving and missing Miller, then quarterback at Huber Heights Wayne High School. Miller, wide receiver for the Houston Texans, printed the photo on T-shirts with the words: “I made Kyle choose baseball” and sold them on his official site.
The Cubs also got into the act. After Game 2 of the World Series, the Cubs shared a video that made fun of Schwarber, once a member of the “Purple Pizzazz,” his high school’s show choir.
The players wore similar suits as Schwarber.