Winners and Losers

David Hume III

Playing interscholastic sports at a small high school in farm country south of Washington, D.C., helped us to understand what the term “underdog” meant. The Piccowaxen High School’s varsity baseball team was a perennial cellar dweller until the spring of 1957, when the decades of defeat disappeared. This radical change was due to the playing prowess of our catcher, Mike McFadden, who was always big for his age. Between his junior and senior year, he added an additional 75 pounds to his 200-pound frame, but no cleats could be found to fit his size 14, quadruple “E” foot. Instead, he wore his old brown leather, high top work shoes.

The season started with a home game against last year’s state champion, Saint Bartholomew’s Academy. The final score was a painful 10-2 in favor of Saint Bartholomew’s Academy. Our next game was against Riverside, who had won last year’s contest by 15 runs. They showed up looking for another easy win. The Riverside bench laughed when McFadden took batting practice, calling him Tank and the Blimp Bomber.

That attitude changed when their pitcher faced our first batter who crushed the third pitch over the outfield wall.  McFadden, batting clean-up, hit the first pitch straight between the pitcher’s legs, scoring two RBIs. The final score, 23-1, avenged our previous humiliation.  Piccowaxen continued to win and we swept seven of the largest schools in the D.C. Metro area. We squeaked by two more schools by one run in the semifinals. Our team was ready to play against our nemesis, Saint Bartholomew’s Academy, for the state championship. The game was held in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium on a Saturday morning in front of 25,000 people. 

The contest was a defensive battle fought by the pitchers. The score stood at 1-0 in favor of St. Bartholomew’s when Mike McFadden stepped into the batter’s box, and the shouted insults increased. Mike silenced his critics when he lifted a three and two pitch into the upper deck of the Oriole’s stadium, a spot rarely reached by professionals. At the end of the inning, the score stood at 7-1 in our favor. The powerhouse of Saint Bartholomew’s Academy collapsed. You could see defeat in the eyes of their players as the last three batters were struck out by our freshman pitcher. And finally, we were somebody!

McFadden had a12-year career with the AAA West Michigan Whitecaps, and he was selected by the Detroit Tigers as their top prospect. Two months before his reporting date, he shattered his right leg in a motorcycle accident. Orthopedic surgeons saved his leg, but not his baseball career. McFadden fell victim to the pain killers he was prescribed. As hard as he tried, Mike McFadden could never get close to the emotional high he experienced on that special day in June of 1957. He died alone of a heroin overdose in a shabby room of a Baltimore crack house like so many in the autumn of 1978. The police property receipt listed one item found in his back pocket; a dog-eared photograph of a high school baseball team with words above the smiling group of young men stamped in gold leaf, “Piccowaxen Pirates – State Champions -June 4, 1957.”

McFadden was not a victim of a random disaster or a sudden disease. He was destroyed by prescription pain medications—later to be called the opioid epidemic—a chronic, long-term health problem exacerbated by short-term “snake oil” fixes.