by Dan Cleary
Pleasantville, NY - As the baseballs disappeared over the wall in rapid succession, a fidgety 2-year-old watched with wide-eyed amazement. Former Philadelphia Phillies sluggers, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, and fan favorite Greg "The Bull" Luzinski, were putting on a massive power display during a home run hitting contest in between games of a doubleheader at Veterans Stadium in Philly during the summer of 1990.
The toddler loved what he saw and he wanted in on the action.
"He grabbed me by the shirt and he wanted to get down on the field," recalled the boy’s father, Dave Allan. "We bought him a glove that night. It was a blue glove and we put it in the bassinette. He still has that glove. Right then, and there, we knew he would be a ballplayer."
That little boy, who is not so little anymore, has fulfilled that prophecy, and then some, becoming the top scholastic baseball player in Warren County last year for North Warren Regional High School in Blairstown, N.J., leading the Patriots (17-6) to the North 1, Group II state sectional championship.
Mackenzie King, now a hard-throwing 6-foot-3, 200-pound righty, has taken his immense talents to the collegiate level and is enjoying an outstanding freshman campaign as a relief pitcher for Pace University, one of the top Division II programs in the nation. The Setters (as of May 3) are 27-22 and 17-10 in Northeast 10 Conference play.
King, the Star Ledger’s West Jersey Player of the Year and Express Times’ (Pa.) Player of the Year in 2006, is 4-1 with two saves in 25.2 innings pitched. He also sports a sterling ERA of 1.40 and a team-best batting average against of .168. He has also fanned 31 in just 13 appearances and walked 10, while allowing just 16 hits.
"It is a big change from high school. The hitters are so much better and the speed of the game is much faster," said King. "The No. 9 batters all can hit and the defense is so much better. But I’m becoming a much better pitcher and I’ve worked hard on my mechanics. My pitching coach (Trevor Brown) worked with me all fall and told me to be a bulldog. He helped me with the speed of my motion. I was kind of nervous at the start of the season, but I started to get the hang of it, and now I’m pitching pretty well."
King, who was an outstanding starter as well as a hitter in high school, has been a stalwart in coach Hank Manning’s bullpen as a middle reliever and sometime closer. Manning, who is in his seventh season, has had 16 players taken in the Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft, including four pitchers last year, which freed up room for King, who signed on in July of 2006.
"We’re very happy and exited with his progress, "said Manning. "He is a raw physical specimen and a great looking athlete. He wanted to come in and swing the bat, but his future is on the mound. He has the ability and he also doesn’t get rattled in key situations. That is so important.
"He can get so much more out of his body," the coach added. "The future is all in front of him. He has a good fastball and slider and he needs to work on his changeup. But it is up to him. He has been a very happy surprise for us."
King said he knew he could compete at this high level, but it was after his effort against national power Cal State-Los Angeles, the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, that he knew for sure. In a 1 1/3-inning stint in the fourth and fifth innings, King shut down Cal State’s potent attack. King allowed two hits, no earned runs and fanned three of the seven batters he faced, while protecting the Setters’ lead. Unfortunately for Pace, Cal State rallied after King left the game for an 11-8 win on a grand slam.
"It was amazing. My heart was pumping just like in the state finals. It was a great feeling to go out there and shut them down. It gave me a lot of confidence and it showed that Coach (Manning) had confidence in me, too. Plus, my parents (Dave and Sally) came out to see me play and that meant a lot to see them there. They are my biggest supporters."
King had relied just on his four-seam fastball and curveball in high school. Now, he has command of a two-seam fastball, which is closing in on 90 mph, to go along with the slider. "My big out pitch is a hard slider I call a "slurve." The new motion has helped me hit my spots and it really isn’t hard to throw at all. Sometimes I call it my 40-foot pitch because I can get hitters to swing at it when it hits the dirt."
One of the advantages of playing in the Northeast 10 Conference is that wood bats are used in conference play. This enables both pitchers and hitters alike a chance to prepare for next level.
"For a pitcher, it is huge. You dream about it. You can mess up and they (hitters) still won’t get a hit because they have to get the good part of the bat on it. It is a huge advantage for a pitcher. But when we play out of conference (against aluminum bats), you still have to stay with your stuff, hit your spots and let your fielders do the work. You can’t change your approach."
King developed his approach under the tutelage of his father who coached him from Little League to American Legion. "We never pressured him. He always wanted to play. He was always the biggest and best kid on the team, but he was always a team player and never had an attitude. He is a great kid," said his father, proudly.
Once King got to high school, his coach at North Warren, Jim Haupt, recognized his talent and King became a four-year starter and ended his career as a First Team Group 2 All State selection. He went 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA for the Pats and he won all four playoff games en route to the section crown last season, an incredible feat. He also hit .446 with 26 RBI and four dingers.
"Mac was the backbone to our program," said Haupt. "He had tremendous talent and he was also a great team leader who led by example. You only get a few players like him during your career. But the best compliment I can give him is that as good as a player he is, he is even a better person."
The duo developed a bond over King’s high school career and that relationship became even closer after a near-tragic accident in the Spring of 2005. During batting practice, King sent a screaming liner back though the box that missed the pitching screen and hit Haupt square in the head. A woozy Haupt went to the hospital and was sidelined for a week.
"He is a very coachable kid. Maybe too coachable. I always told him to hit the ball up the middle and he sure did," joked Haupt. "But he and his family felt terrible. We will always have a special relationship."
"He (Haupt) believed in me so much and we got close over the four years," said King, who had a growth spurt after his sophomore year and really started to take baseball serious his junior year. "When I hit him, that was the scariest thing ever. I had no idea what was going to happen. But he is a great coach and helped build me up."
After his stellar senior season, King was looking at St. Joseph’s University (Pa.), Rider University, and Seton Hall University. But none of them panned out and King thought he might have to play at a junior college his freshman year.
"I was nervous and I thought I would have to play at a community college for a year, but then Pace called. Then I heard they had four guys get drafted and that really clicked for me and I wanted to go there. It was the right choice and it has worked for the best."
After this season, King will head to Wellsville, N.Y. to play summer ball for the Allegany Nitros of the New York Collegiate Baseball League. King hopes to work on all of his pitches and come back to Pace ready to battle for a spot in the starting rotation in the fall.
"I definitely want to start again. My ultimate goal is to get drafted after my junior year, but right now I just want to get better every day."
If King accomplishes that goal, the sky is the limit for the big kid from the small town in Warren County. And in the future, maybe, just maybe, a fidgety 2-year-old will want to head down to the field to see King work his magic, just like King did that summer day in Philly 17 years ago.
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