It was a simple, quiet act of leadership. Understated but effective.
David Cone was explaining it to me in the New York Yankees clubhouse more than a decade ago, how he loved when catcher Mike Stanley would put down a sign -- fastball, slider or split -- and follow up the sign with a little fist pump. "It's a sign of conviction," Cone said. "Like, 'I believe in you and I believe in the pitch I've just called. Let's do it.'"
I didn't say it to Cone at the time, but I knew a catcher who did the same thing. He was the backstop for Caldwell (N.J.) American Legion Post 185, and back in the summers of '81 and '82 when I was on the mound with very little to offer, my catcher, John McHugh, would give me the signs: One for fastball or two for curve, fist pump. There was no chance I was shaking off Johnny Mac. The fist said it all. I trusted McHugh 100 percent.
It was trust John had earned, not just with me, but with everyone on Post 185. Bust out the clichés: He was a leader by example. He was the first one to the park and the last to leave. Like a Boy Scout, he was always prepared. That was Johnny Mac.
There was only one grudge I held against our catcher. In the summer of '82, our last year playing for Post 185, Johnny Mac bailed on us before the state tournament. He had been accepted to the United States Military Academy at West Point and his appointment meant he had to report for duty just as our postseason was about to begin.
Without him, we were rudderless. The state tournament was over in a flash, I was soon on my way to the University of North Carolina and many years -- more than 20 -- would pass before I would hear from John again. Thanks to Facebook, I'd tracked him down. Not just John, but a bunch of old teammates from Post 185. Suddenly, all of us were 18 again. Busting each other's chops, remembering epic victories, humiliating defeats and the hot dogs, birch beer and shuffleboard at the Legion Hall on Bloomfield Avenue.
So when my Blackberry vibrated Tuesday night and I saw that one of my old teammates, Eddie Dean, had sent me a message, I figured it was just more banter.
I was so wrong.
"Jeff, in case you didn't hear ... very sad news. John McHugh was killed by a bomb earlier today in Afghanistan. Sorry to have to let you know via FB but I thought you should know. I just got the call from Tommy Bryant. We all thought he was home for good. I'm sure we will get more details in the coming days. So tragic ... Eddie"
My knees buckled. Tears poured from my eyes. All I could get myself to say, over and over, was "No." I ran downstairs and got on the computer. Word had spread quickly. It was true. U.S. Army Col. John McHugh, 46, had become one of the highest-ranking American officers to lose his life in the war in Afghanistan.
As I've said, John and I had only reconnected recently. I was able to learn through our Facebook exchanges that after graduating West Point in 1986, he'd made a career in the Army, married his high school sweetheart, Connie, had five children (three daughters, two sons) and had recently become a grandfather.
I also learned he had not changed a bit. Our catcher, the freckle-faced altar boy, the All-American-as-apple-pie kid who never seemed to frown or pout had taken those qualities into the field of battle, bringing, probably with a little fist pump, a sense of calm, quiet confidence to those around him. Another old friend and Post 185 teammate, Jim DiOrio, who graduated West Point with John, started a Facebook page, Remembering Johnny Mac, which went over 1,000 members in less than a day. Praise from American soldiers who'd served with and under Col. McHugh came streaming in. Here are just a few:
John was the ultimate straight shooter, always right, and never fazed by stress or challenge.
John was a man of true honor, respect, and one of the nicest men one could ever meet.
Col. McHugh is one of the best officers with whom I have had the pleasure of serving. He is loved by so many. He personified the word "leadership."
Of course, our stories get grander as we age, but to play for Post 185 was a big deal in Caldwell, N.J. Games under the lights at Kiwanis Oval, a couple hundred fans in the stands. A tradition of championships that began when my brother Scott (and Johnny Mac's brother Frank) won back-to-back state championships in 1977 and '78, and made a trip to the American Legion World Series in Yakima, Wash., in '78. It was pretty huge.
John and I gave up our summers to Legion baseball from 1977 to 1982. At first, we were batting practice shaggers and bat boys for our older brothers. We were both given uniforms as freshmen -- unheard of -- because the coach, Jack Venezia, knew how much it would mean to us to simply be on the team. John's main duty was to catch guys in the bullpen. Mine was to pinch run. We could not have been happier.
We knew our time would come. And when it did, we won a lot of baseball games and a few championships together. Of course, John contributed a lot more than I did. He was a leader -- a leader who always smiled. A leader who was always optimistic. A leader who never raised his voice, unless it was to shout, "Let's go, boys!" or our rallying cry during our 20-game win streak in the summer of 1981, which was (silly as it sounds), "We. Are. Awesome."
John was not only a great player for Post 185, he was our team beat writer, penning colorful stories for The Progress, Caldwell's weekly newspaper. Everyone on the team lived for Thursdays when The Progress would come in the mail and we could pore through John's copy, looking for our names in print. He had the same gift as a writer that he had as our leader, the ability to be straightforward without hurting anyone's feelings.
From exchanging Facebook messages with John in recent weeks, I know he was thrilled with the career path I'd chosen. While stationed at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, John had adopted the Kansas City Royals as his team and, in fact, fired a good question at me a couple of weeks ago. "Tonight," John wrote, "Bruce Chen was clocking at 94 and the Seattle short reliever (can't recall the name) was shown at 98. It wasn't THAT long ago that a good major league fastball was high 80s to low 90s; now it seems like the #5 starter in the rotation is clocked on the TV at 94-96. Given that, my guess is that Randy Johnson or Nolan Ryan would be clocked today at 110 to 115 mph, because they looked to throw significantly harder than any of the five guys the Royals start."
Now, tell me, is there a baseball guy out there, anywhere, who'd dispute my old catcher?
At West Point, John gave up baseball to concentrate on his best sport, which was soccer. Fitting his personality, he was a goalkeeper, and in 1985 he captained the Cadets. Anyone who knows the game of soccer knows it's the keeper's job to direct and organize the defense, to implore teammates to mark their men and give everything they've got. When you think of being the goalkeeper at West Point, it's not lost on me that John was directing the very same men who were training to lead our nation's military forces. Sure, it's just sports, but finding the right man to handle that task could not have been easy. "He was a leader among leaders," says DiOrio. "That was Johnny Mac."
It's close to 40 years ago that John and I became friends, our bond forged on the basketball court at St. Al's Catholic Church in Caldwell, shooting as many baskets as we could during timeouts of our older brothers' games. I grew up about 10 houses from the Caldwell line, so even though James Caldwell High School was about three miles closer to my house than West Essex Regional, I had to make the long trek out to West Essex for high school. Still, I got to be friends with many of John's Caldwell High buddies, guys like Kevin Morris, Tommy Bryant and Eddie Dean. In my mind, I was always thinking, "I'd fit in better with those Caldwell guys" because I thought they were all like John McHugh.
Now I realize those guys were just following his lead.
Rest easy, old friend.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.