POCATELLO – Chris Needham sauntered out of the handshake line like a wise man who knows it’s pointless to be the first one over to the team huddle.
So the man who just polished off his complete game strolled over to the first-base line and reached over the fence to give one of his daughters the final-out ball and the other his black glove, then said hi to his wife before rejoining the Grays (7-3), victorious after a 7-1 win over the Brigham City Peaches.
Minutes later, Eli Hayes stared at Needham’s daughters and the handful of little kids they were running around with. The curly-haired catcher was the first to emerge from the dugout when Grays manager Rhys Pope wrapped his postgame talk, grabbing his sweaty catcher's gear near first base. He watched as Needham talked with his wife and kids, as the veteran pitcher threw a towel over his shoulders and grabbed a drink.
Hayes might be staring at his future self, but it’s a life that doesn’t even seem fathomable to him. He isn’t thinking about kids. He doesn’t have a job. Heck, he can’t even vote. When the 17-year-old Hayes looks at the 36-year-old Needham, it’s like a kindergartener gazing at a college grad.
“It’s crazy, he drove here straight from Boise. He was probably at his like, whatever, 9 to 5 job,” Hayes said. “I’m 17, dude. I show up and have a good time.
“Last week in the dugout we were talking and Chris said I could be his child and he wouldn’t have even had to have me with his high school sweetheart … That just shows you Chris is old, man.”
And effective. Needham has been with the Grays since their inaugural 2014 season and even if his hair has downsized to a buzz cut, the right-hander feels like the Greg Maddux of the Northern Utah League. He’s not a flamethrower. He’s been pitching forever. And he’s a calming presence for a young team.
“We know when Chris is coming down that he can go deep into ball games for us,” Pope said.
“I like that they have confidence in me like that,” Needham added. “I have confidence in myself. At the end of the day, though, it’s a long season and I’d much rather peak at the end of the year. I’m just getting started.”
This season, Needham is 2-0 with a pair of complete games, mainly using his devastating changeup to fan 22 batters over those 14 innings while giving up eight hits and no earned runs.
What’s odd about the whole deal is his battery mate is 19 years his junior.
“And they get along really well,” Pope said. “They have a good chemistry going.”
In between innings, Hayes and Needham will venture into the clubhouse together to grab water and talk over the past inning. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen much in society. A high school baseball coach with a shaved beard and seasoned maturity alongside a baby-faced rising senior who moves like he’s on a sugar rush. And they speak as equals.
Needham, a baseball coach at Eagle High in Boise, is playing this season because he wants to — and because he can. He plays pickup basketball and softball, too, games full of people who gave up their competitive thrill, jealous that Needham can still shove in front of paying audiences.
Hayes, who just finished his junior year at Blackfoot, plays for the Grays because it’s a more competitive and useful summer ball option than American Legion — and because he can. All his other high school counterparts are playing against each other. He’s playing against adults.
Some of his learning curve is understanding the talent guys like Needham have.
“People my age don’t have the confidence to throw the pitches Chris does,” Hayes said. “On a couple counts, we were full and he was coming with curveballs and changeups. Like, he trusts every pitch. It’s way fun. You can call whatever you want any time and you know he’s going to deliver.”
“I try to tell him that he’s got to be my eyes back there, too,” Needham added. “I let him know like, ‘Hey, if you want a particular pitch and you shake it off but you think we can get like a fastball by him, put it down again and I’ll trust you.'”
The relationship between pitcher and catcher is all about trust, which is why Needham and Hayes' success is so incredible. People separated by almost two decades naturally discount each other. The youngster always believes every 20th-century idea is antiquated, while the elder is prone to resist the new-age confidence.
Yet Needham and Hayes are both strapped into a car and willing to have the other take the wheel.
“Me and Chris just have this natural synergy,” Hayes said.
GATE CITY GRAYS 7, BRIGHAM CITY PEACHES 1
Brigham City 000 000 1 — 1 5 1
Gate City 220 003 x — 7 8 2
Brigham City — LP: Wyatt Sorenson.
Gate City — WP: Chris Needham. HR: Ben Ditton. 2B: Braden Palmer, Austin Shirley, Easton Watterson.