Rodney Ehrhard was supposed to talk about how proud he was of his son. How it had been great teaching young Drew how to play the game of baseball. How terrific his son’s senior season had been, and about how special it was to see him chosen as Hillsborough County’s best baseball player.
But he couldn’t. Not yet.
Overcome with emotion, Rodney could only stick a napkin in his eyes and walk outside to compose himself.
It was an emotional ceremony in the living room of Tony Saladino, the patriarch of one of Hillsborough County’s most prominent baseball families and the namesake of a popular spring break baseball tournament, as the 80-year-old host awarded Wharton High’s Drew Ehrhard the 47th Saladino Award, presented each year to the top high school senior baseball player in the county.
Drew led the Wildcats in hits (35), average (.422), RBI (24), doubles (9) and homeruns (4) this season, helping Wharton to a Class 8A, District 4 district title, two thrilling come-from-behind playoff wins and a spot in the Regional championship, where his team lost 2-0 to the eventual state champions from Tallahassee Lincoln High.
He became the first player in Wharton’s 20-year existence to ever win the prestigious award, which is voted on by the county’s coaches, and said he was shocked to win it.
“I didn’t think I would win it, to be honest,’’ Drew said. “I had always hoped I would, but I knew there was some good competition.”
He joins an impressive list of past winners of the award, including past major leaguers like Mike Heath (Hillsborough, 1973), Dave Magadan (Jesuit, 1980), Tino Martinez (Jefferson, 1985), Gary Sheffield (Hillsborough, 1986), as well as current Houston Astros pitcher Lance McCullers (Jesuit, 2012) and Chicago White Sox pitcher Tyler Danish (Durant, 2013).
“I’ve looked at the list, and it’s unbelievable to be a part of that crowd,’’ Drew said. “I have no words for it.”
Some Hall Of Fame Help
One major leaguer who played in Hillsborough County but never won the award, former Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Devil Rays third baseman and Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, played a big hand in helping Drew win it this year.
An assistant baseball coach at Wharton the past 17 years, Boggs — who teased Saladino about getting passed over for the award in favor of Brandon’s Sammy Spence in 1976 — said he remembers hitting ground ball after ground ball to Drew his freshman year as the youngster was converting from second base to shortstop.
Despite being undersized and having to adapt to making a longer throw to first base, Drew made the transition seamlessly and ended up, rather remarkably, playing every inning of every game in his high school career.
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,’’ Boggs said, proudly.
Boggs, along with head coach Scott Hoffman, also helped get Drew to the Saladino home in Brandon while keeping the award a surprise.
“He told me some story about how there were some reporters down from Boston for coach Boggs, and we had to go to dinner to meet them,’’ Drew said.
The coaches managed to get Drew into Saladino’s home, even though he had to step over a Saladino Tournament doormat to enter — “I didn’t even see it,’’ Drew laughed — before it finally dawned on him that he, and not Boggs, was the evening’s actual guest of honor.
“I was kind of confused when I got inside,’’ Drew said. “I had always heard stories about being in Coach Saladino’s house and seeing all the memorabilia on the wall…I was like, ‘whose house am I in?” Then I realized, oh, this makes sense now.”
Drew found a large crowd waiting for him, including his brother Zack, who will be a freshman at Wharton next year, his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and baseball coaches.
While Boggs compared Drew to current Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, others see a more apt comparison to Rodney, who was a high school standout as an outfielder at Plant City High who was drafted as a catcher and went on to play in the New York Yankees minor league system, making it as far as Double-A.
At Plant City, many considered Rodney Ehrhard the best player on a team that included future major league pitcher Kenny Rogers. Rodney went on to star at the University of Tampa, and was inducted into the Spartan Hall of Fame last year.
When it came to playing ball, Drew also chose the Spartans. Like father, like son.
“I hear his family make that comparison a lot,’’ said Shannon, Drew’s mother.
“Both of them hit well, they always started and they always worked hard,’’ said Rodney’s father, George. “I followed Rodney around when he was at Tampa, and I’ve got some more following around to do now with Drew.”
His napkin gripped tightly in his right hand, Rodney finally spoke proudly of Drew, who was given a stuffed baseball and bat when he was only three years old. He never put them down, his parents say. Soft stuffing gave way to cowhide and aluminum, but Drew’s grip, his father said, never wavered. He watched his son grow into the player he is today, relying more on hard work and determination than on God-given ability, as the two spent countless hours sharing their passion.
“He’s always been smaller than everybody, but he’s always been really good,’’ Rodney said. “But, he made up for that in hard work. He never stopped trying to get better.”