Baseball is so special. It’s a game we play as kids and then likely only watch as adults. It’s something that’s part of our soul if we love it, maybe even more than it should be. We just can’t help it.
Every business has great people, and if you’re involved in baseball in any way you soon learn about the people. As a reporter, I’ve met great folks in the sport for over 20 years. While we all do our job, when you have associations with people you inevitably become friends with some of them.
Some of those friends become like family, and on Sunday I learned I lost a member of my family.
Bill Champion died in his sleep Saturday night. He was nine months shy of his 70th birthday. For those who knew him, he was not called Bill. He was, quite simply, Champ.
I first met Champ in 2001. He was in his second season with the Braves organization, the first of two years as the pitching coach in Double-A Greenville. It was perfect for him, since he lived in nearby Spartanburg.
His name rang a bell. I looked up and found that he had pitched in the big leagues, with the Phillies and Brewers from 1969 through 1976. He pitched 202 games, half of them as a starter. His numbers weren’t great, but he still had a great career.
Champ was drafted by the Phillies as a 17-year-old kid out of Shelby, NC. He made it to Philadelphia four years later. Champ actually spent time in the Braves’ organization, pitching for Triple-A Richmond in 1976. He told me a few stories about how his catcher for a couple of games that year was a lanky kid from out west named Dale Murphy.
Champ got into scouting and then coaching after he was done pitching. Sometimes the best coaches are not the Sandy Koufaxes of the world, but the ones who learned a lot trying to be like Sandy Koufax.
Champ helped pitchers become better. Horacio Ramirez and Matt Belisle are two Braves pitchers I remember who credited Champ with his work with them.
There are likely hundreds more who could probably say Champ helped them. He coached with the Rockies and Mets in the minor leagues. He then went overseas and helped many there, some of whom he could barely communicate with. And he did lessons with young kids, who were all probably better because of working with Champ.
My experience with him wasn’t in a bullpen learning how to refine my changeup. I would joke with him about how I wish he had been my coach in high school. Instead, I had a TV show with the Braves on the minor league system. It was my job to interview Champ to learn more about his pitchers.
I would arrive at Greenville Municipal Stadium and find Champ just outside the clubhouse, sitting at a picnic table puffing on a cigarette. At first, we saw a gruff exterior, someone who probably preferred doing something besides being on television. But then he came to enjoy it, to look forward to our visits that we would jokingly say "make him a star."
He would for some reason be glad to see us, and it wouldn’t take long before we heard all that was going on with his pitching staff. The interviews grew into a friendship, with lunches and even a round of golf where we saw his little bottles of Captain Morgan help him swing the clubs.
Some of the stories cannot be repeated. He quickly trusted us to not publicize the stories to all the world. But then when the camera was on, Champ would talk up his pitchers, no matter how special they really were. He wanted us to believe they were all getting better and all had a chance.
Since I love pitching, I loved talking with him, or simply loved listening to him. I learned a lot from Champ, and he seemed to enjoy my questions. Maybe he wished some of his pitchers asked the same questions, but it was just a couple of guys talking pitching. That’s what baseball people love to do.
One of his managers told me he had never had anyone better than Champ manage a pitching staff. That’s important, even in the minor leagues. It also means Champ would’ve been a great big league pitching coach if given the chance.
When Champ left the Braves after 2002, it didn’t end our friendship. If anything, it strengthened it. He always wanted to stay in touch, wanting to know what was going on with his boys. And sometimes he would call up and we would just talk pitching.
Like most old ballplayers, Champ had long stories. Sometimes I would be on an email chain as he told many of his friends the same story. I told him he could write a book if he accumulated all our emails, and the chapters from his days in Taiwan would have been legendary.
When I was in a baseball card store about a decade ago, I found an old baseball card of Billy Champion. I couldn’t believe that young kid on that card was actually my friend.
Champ moved close to me a few years ago, about 50 miles away, for a few years. That gave me a few more chances to see him, have a few more lunches and tell more stories. I wish now I had secretly tape-recorded them.
The last time I swapped emails with him was last May, after his former manager in Greenville, Brian Snitker, had been promoted to manage in Atlanta. Champ was thrilled for Snit, and he knew Snit was going to do great. Like many projections from Champ, he was right.
He ended the email as he did most all of them. "Love ya." It was something I would reciprocate in my response. I knew he was genuine in his salutation, and so was I.
This death won’t be on the bottom line of MLB Network. It’s not a Hall of Fame player dying. You’ll probably have to google him to find out more about him. But anyone who knew Bill Champion, or excuse me, Champ, will feel like a Hall of Famer in their life is gone.
He was a pitcher, a coach, a teacher, a good man and a friend. He was Champ, and we’ll all miss him greatly.
Listen to "The Bill Shanks Show" from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on "Middle Georgia’s ESPN" – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.