Let's not flip the pages of the calendar ahead just yet. Why should we? What time, when you think about it, could ever be better than the spring of '88 for Jon Peters—Big Jon, as the 6'2", 190-pounder is affectionately known around town? Why not stop the clock right now, while he is still the soft-spoken star in a jewel of a community, only a junior yet already the author of the longest unblemished pitching record, 36-0, in high school history, a member of the National Honor Society (with a 92 average), apple of a loving family's eye, with the prettiest girlfriend in all of south Texas, a young woman whose eyes shine like the bluebonnets that bloom there in April? Why try to look into a crystal ball and talk about whether he'll turn into the next Nolan Ryan or the next David Clyde (box, page 26) when the present is so satisfyingly rich? Peters is only 17 and still a year away from being eligible for the amateur draft. So what's the rush?
The attention given Peters, who has already been named Athlete of the Week on ABC-TV's Wide World of Sports and has been featured in USA Today, reached its peak the first two weeks in April as he approached, then passed, the national high school record of 33 consecutive wins, set by Mike Pill of West Covina, Calif., from 1975 to '77. More than 1,500 people—the biggest crowd to see a game in Peters' hometown since 1965, when the Brenham High School Cubs faced a kid from Alvin, Texas, named Nolan Ryan—shoe-horned into Fireman's Park on April 12 to watch Peters go after win No. 34 against Oak Ridge. He had been 13-0 as a freshman, and as a sophomore he went 15-0 with 209 strikeouts in 104 innings, two no-hitters in the state tournament playoffs and an ERA for the season of 1.07. The last game Peters lost was in the final round of the 1986 Senior League World Series in Kissimmee, Fla., when Brenham was beaten by Taiwan 3-1.
Brenham, Texas. Seventy-three miles northwest of Houston, in the heart of Washington County, where Texas's Declaration of Independence from Mexico was issued in 1836, this town of 11,000 radiates pride. "We're known for our three B's," folks will tell you, though there is some disagreement as to what the letters stand for. "Beer, Baptists and barbecue," says Jon's mother, Ruth, who teaches phys ed at Alton Elementary School. "Bluebonnets, Blue Bell and baseball," says mayor Dorothy Morgan, an English teacher at Brenham High.
Blue Bell, for the uninitiated, is the best ice cream in Texas, which, naturally, makes it the best ice cream on earth. The creamery is just down the road from the high school, and if the locals are a mite fanatical in their devotion, who can blame them? The company is a darn good neighbor and one of the largest employers in town. Its motto is "The cows think Brenham is heaven."
May 8, 1988
And so, by most accounts, do the residents—at least in the months before the summer heat wave arrives. The green hills roll gently, the wildflowers splash color along the roadways, and oak and pecan trees offer plenty of shade. "Every once in a while this is a great place to be," says high school principal Richard McCarson, proudly ticking off a list of Brenham High's athletic accomplishments: district girls' golf champions eight years in a row, state 4-A champions in girls' track, back-to-back state 4-A champions in baseball. "And we have the Midas touch right now. It's hard to talk about Brenham without sounding like you're bragging."
The Brenham Cubs have quite a tradition of success in baseball—23 district titles in the past 30 years, plus five state 4-A (for schools with between 800 and 1,400 students; Brenham has 1,140) crowns. Cecil Cooper, the former Milwaukee Brewers first baseman, is the most famous alumnus, but he is just one of 11 Brenham grads to have played professional ball since 1967. "I don't know why God saw fit to put so many good players in the same place, but it's been that way for years," says Jerrell Weir, former president of the Washington County Little League.
"There's a certain chemistry between the community, the Little League, the parents and the kids themselves," says former Brenham High coach Lee Driggers. "They all expect success. They have this mentality that they're champions, and they're not afraid to work to be champions. When you put all those things together, it makes Brenham different from anyplace else."
Peters, then, isn't seen as all that unusual but as just one more piece of evidence that the town is blessed. He isn't even the biggest hero in the community right now. That honor belongs to his friend Jeff Toll, the baseball team's student manager, whose recent battle against leukemia has stirred the town.
The night he went for the record, however, Peters was definitely the center of attention. Five television stations—two of them doing live broadcasts—and dozens of newspaper and radio reporters had descended on Brenham for the event. "Jon had cameras in his face all day," recalls McCarson. "He couldn't even go for a drink of water without someone following him. Most kids wouldn't have been able to hit the backstop. Then, for six and a third innings he throws a no-hitter. We're all watching him with lumps in our throats, thinking, is he really this good?"
Peters struck out 13 of the first 15 Oak Ridge batters he faced. Then, with one out in the seventh, and final, inning, a lefthanded hitter named Billy Hawes hacked a fastball for a single down the third base line. That was the only hit Peters allowed in the record breaker, a masterful 5-0 win that lowered his 1988 ERA to 0.41. Afterward he was carried through the crowd on his teammates' shoulders, and when he got down, he hugged his parents, Ruth and Valgene, a math professor at Blinn College. Later, after the crowd had left, Peters retired to a pay phone in the parking lot and called Toll at the Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.
"Jon and his family call all the time," Jeff said later. "I just told him I was proud of him. I can live out my dreams through him."
"I try to keep things in perspective," says Peters. "When you think you have everything, and then you think about the hell Jeff's going through, it brings you back into yourself."
Not that Peters has ever been accused of having an inflated ego. "From an educator's standpoint," says school superintendent Gerald Anderson, "what pleases me most is I know that if something, heaven forbid, ever went wrong with Jon's arm, he would still be the best at whatever he chose to pursue. It's his personality. After all the media coverage has died down, he'll still be the same Jon Peters he's always been—a humble, respectful, courteous young man."
Jon's mother cannot remember when her son didn't want to be a major league pitcher. "He's been working toward that his whole life," says Ruth Peters. "Pushups, sit-ups, running several miles a day. People think he has all this talent, but his hard work and dedication are unreal—it makes you sick almost."
When Jon was younger, he asked his parents for a pitcher's mound as a Christmas gift. They built him one in the backyard and then had to take turns being his catcher, along with his older brother Ronnie, who is now a senior at Texas A & M, and his uncle, Jesse Gibson. One day, when Jon was 12, he uncorked a fastball that hit his mother on the wrist with such impact that the seams of the ball cut her skin, forcing her to get a tetanus shot. Later that year, in a Little League All-Star game, he pitched a perfect game, striking out all 18 batters he faced and hitting three home runs. That's when his family began to think he might someday be able to make it to the majors.
"I'd like to see him go to college," Ruth says, "but there's both pros and cons to that. If the money's there, you never know. He'll be 19 by then. He'll make up his own mind."
Houston Astros scouts, who have seen Peters several times, are coy when asked about his prospects. "He's a big boy, and what he's done is spectacular," says one. "But we have to project where guys will be down the road. Some guys come out of high school and stay at that level."
Peters, who had exploratory arthroscopic surgery last July on his throwing arm, has had his fastball clocked as high as 87 mph, and he threw it consistently in the mid-80's in last year's state tournament. This season he has been throwing in the low 80's—hardly eye-popping by major league standards—but he estimates that his arm is only 95% of full strength. Peters does have an excellent curve, and with his uneven, almost lunging delivery, it's hard for the batter to pick up the ball. "He hides it well," says Brenham's coach, Earl Hathaway, who calls all the pitches for Peters. "You can't teach that. Some people think he short-arms the ball [pitches without full extension], but that's because he can't straighten his right elbow. Maybe that's why he's got such a great curve."
"So many guys don't make it when they turn pro out of high school," says Peters, who is leaning toward attending college. "If I get a chance, I'd probably want to play for the University of Texas. I've got cousins who went there."
On Tuesday night last week, Peters got win No. 36, beating Willis 10-2 to raise Brenham's record to 23-3. It was a sloppy game. Both Willis runs were unearned, and after the crowd had gone, Hathaway had the team doing wind sprints in centerfield. Peters, who allowed just four singles, was sprinting with them, despite the fact that he had struck out 15, including seven in a row over one stretch.
It was a beautiful night, and about 600 people had seen the game, an average crowd. Fireman's Park, which is owned by the town, has to be one of the nicest high school ballparks in America. The covered wooden grandstands form a horseshoe behind home plate and a freshly painted wooden 12-foot fence encloses the outfield. Beyond the left-field wall, oh, 360 feet from home plate, is an electric scoreboard, donated by Blue Bell ice cream.
Folks of all ages come to the games. Elderly fans sit behind the backstop in their folding lawn chairs, while babies gaze up from their mothers' laps. Teenage girls lean along the fence snapping their gum, and 10-year-old boys play a game of their own in foul territory. The men sit in one part of the stands, the women in another. "Go get 'em!" shouts Jon's mother as he takes the mound.
"Come on, Jon, breeze it!" yells Nancy Maass, a teammate's mother.
The park is hard by the Sante Fe train tracks, which are set on an earthen embankment, so that the trains go by at about the level of the grandstand roof. Three times a game, at 7:05, 7:30, and 8:30, a train rumbles past, loaded with coal. The game continues. It takes two minutes for the train to pass, and since there is a crossing just beyond the park, the engineer, leaning out of his cab, blows the whistle long and loud.
If you like trains and you like baseball and you like the sweet smell of honeysuckle growing wild along the embankment, you should take in a game at Fireman's Park this spring when Jon Peters is pitching. When he is 17. It is a very good time, and he will remember it the rest of his life.
"Why not stop the clock right now, while he is still the star of a jewel of a community?"