Six-year quest well worth it for Campbell

Eric Campbell of the Mets waits for his turn during batting practice before a game against the Yankees at Citi Field in New York on May 12.
Eric Campbell of the Mets waits for his turn during batting practice before a game against the Yankees at Citi Field in New York on May 12.

Fate, once using him for its own stubborn amusement, had something redemptive in mind for Eric Campbell after all. This was the night of May 9, 2014. One of Norwich's favorite sons was in his hotel room in Salt Lake City. In walked roommate Kirk Nieuwenhuis with a scoop for the kid they call Soup.

"Wally wants to see you," Nieuwenhuis said, alluding to Triple-A manager Wally Backman.

And that's when Eric Campbell had an idea that finally, after he'd been baseball's Johnny Cash - he'd been everywhere, man - that The Call was coming. Suddenly, Met Life had new meaning.

"It was good walk down to the restaurant," Eric Campbell said Saturday from Citi Field, recalling the shapes and forms of the night that changed his life.

Fittingly, it was Backman, so instrumental in Campbell's development within the Mets organization, delivering the information. Start spreadin' the news. You're leavin' today.

"The phone rings at 1:30 in the morning," his dad, Duke was saying Saturday. "I got in late that night and I didn't want to disturb Amy (Duke's wife and Eric's mom), so I was sleeping in another room. Amy comes in and says 'you have to take this call.' I'm groggy. She says, 'no, you have to take it.'"

Fancy that. Every parent's worst nightmare: The phone call in the middle of the night. That's when Lincoln's better angels of our nature are swarmed by our demons. It can't be good news at that hour.

Or it's the best news of all.

"There were tears," Duke said.

And after six years in the minors … countless trips to Boston College and throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference to see him play … various outposts during summer leagues … Duke and pal/Norwich Free Academy baseball coach John Iovino tossing batting practice until their arms hung low enough to tie their shoes without bending … all the showcases and Little League trips …

Eric Campbell, the embodiment of persistence and gentlemanly disposition, was a Major Leaguer.

And still is. They call his name now, the kids do, for autographs. And he signs them all.

"Minor league life is not easy," Campbell said Saturday before the Mets played Arizona. "Obviously, some guys get a lot of money and might advance quicker. But for a lot of people, it's not easy. Some guys do have to play for six years before they get a shot. But if that's your dream, stick with it. These last two weeks have made up for those six years."

These last two weeks, in which Campbell has hit .368, perpetuate the ECC-palooza in the majors. Yes. The ECC. Our own Eastern Connecticut Conference. Our little corner of the world trumpets John McDonald, Rajai Davis, Matt Harvey, Eric Campbell and Dom Leone. Andrew Carignan is close to working his way back to the Giants. There's Jesse Hahn in Double-A with the Padres, too.

Lest we forget Pete Walker and Paul Menhart. Several others who hung around in the minors. Surely, we are the kings of diamonds here per capita, despite rotten spring weather in a part of the country that's often a baseball afterthought.

"We all had a passion for it and I think it helped we all played together and had success together," Campbell said. "That group of kids realized we were as good as anybody."

Indeed, baseball is the one sport where we lose our inferiority complex. Maybe that's the residual effect of having historically good baseball towns. Waterford. Mystic. Montville. Or great coaches: Rousseau, Bidwell, Harvey, Varjas, O'Neill, O'Keefe, Orbe, Littlefield, Schiffner. And, yes: Campbell. Iovino.

Still, it's a long way from our hills to the big, bad city. It was a lifetime for Eric Campbell.

"I always thought about 'what if?'" he said. "I could have played as well as I could, if they didn't want to bring me up that's the way it is. You always need a backup plan. I saw so many guys that made it. I felt like I belonged up here. I would have never forgiven myself if I stopped playing without really trying to get here."

Campbell's "backup plan" isn't just rhetoric. New teammate Curtis Granderson told him the other day that Campbell (along with Granderson) is one of 39 players in the majors now - of all 750 - with a college degree. Almost hard to fathom. Campbell went back to BC, taking up the Mets on their offer to pay for his last year of school.

"I knew I wouldn't want to go back when I hit 30 or my late 20s," he said, "but I wanted to do it just in case the baseball thing didn't work out."

Indeed, the Campbell preamble should be as scholarly as his background. Cue the words of Longfellow: "Let us, then, be up and doing, with a heart for any fate; still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor, learn to wait."

Eric Campbell labored and waited. Fate finally relented. Now this story of the kid raised right, the kid who has made NFA proud, goes national.

"All those people from Norwich that would stop me even in the grocery store saying 'I check your stats every night,' those are the people who kept me going," he said. "I'm playing for all those people in Norwich."

Two especially.

"My mom and dad have been to a lot of my games, some small towns in the middle of nowhere," Eric Campbell said. "They deserve this every bit as much as I do."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.


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