High Heat: April 10

CLAYTON, N.C.–Sonya Clark watches–from a comfortable distance–near the metal bleachers just beyond the third-base dugout at Clayton High School. Her son, Chris Archer, has once again assumed his position at center stage tonight as the starting pitcher in the Comets’ home game against conference foe West Johnston High.

He’s the reason there’s not a vacant seat in the house, as parents, Clayton High students and residents of the town of approximately 7,000 people have packed the modest, well-maintained ballpark on the southwest side of the school’s campus.

He’s the reason 31 scouts, including at least two scouting directors and a handful of crosscheckers, are gathered behind home plate.

Archer is once again the centerpiece of another Comets win, as he records 12 strikeouts and throws a complete game in a 5-3 victory.

The students and fans rise from the bleachers and applaud Chris and his teammates as the players disappear down the dugout steps. Chris eventually emerges and greets a handful of them, including Ron Archer, a stocky man in his 50s with a coarse, white beard and a gleaming pair of blue eyes.

Sonya Clark is not among them.

Technically, Ron is Chris’ step-grandfather. He and Sonya’s mother Donna married shortly before Chris was born–when Sonya was just 16. But it’s apparent the bond between Ron and Chris is as strong as that of a father and son.

“I brought him home from the hospital,” says Ron, who was raised in a military home and is a manager at a hardwood flooring company in nearby Garner. “From the very start, it was understood we were raising Chris and he was our son.

“That’s my world–Chris.”

Steadfast Stance

Chris appreciates the fact his mother, who lives in nearby Raleigh, makes it to games, and says she comes to see him “every couple of weekends.” But he refers to Ron and Donna as his parents, and his allegiance clearly is to them.

Growing up without the presence of his biological parents doesn’t seem to have jaded Chris. He’s described by his teammates and coaches as engaging and outgoing, and doesn’t shy away from inquiries about his past. He did ask that Sonya not be interviewed, and said he doubts his biological father, whom he’s never met, has any idea where his son is today.

“I’m pretty sure that he’s not,” says Chris, when asked if he thought his father was aware of Chris’ accomplishments, last fall, as Clayton High’s starting quarterback on the football team and the baseball team’s ace. “If he was, he would call or keep in touch. But that’s not something I dwell on. My real mom put me up for adoption for a reason and I am fortunate to have two wonderful parents who have raised me and taught me everything I know.

“I don’t think about my real father.”

Ron and Donna have been the ones alongside Chris from the beginning, and willingly so. It wasn’t easy at first. Chris, whose biological father is black, accepted Ron and Donna, who are both white, perhaps because they were all he knew, even when others weren’t as accepting in the community.

“When Chris was real young, we might have gotten some strange looks, but it was a child,” Ron says. “We were raising a child. And that was all that we cared about.”

They bought the shin guards when Chris played soccer briefly as a pre-teen, the high-tops when he got into basketball shortly thereafter and the glove when he prepared for baseball tryouts as a seventh grader at Clayton Middle School.

And it was Ron who consoled Chris when he came home from tryouts, dejected following the news he had not made the team.

Chris’ ability has come a long way since those days. Last year as a junior, he went 11-2, 1.09, surrendering just 35 hits in 77 innings with 107 strikeouts and 43 walks. He attended a baseball camp in Maryland last summer, and made enough of an impression to earn a last-minute invitation to the East Coast Showcase in Wilmington, N.C., where he pitched two scoreless innings on the same staff as Jeremy Jeffress, a senior righthander from Halifax County High in South Boston, Va., and one of the class’ top prep pitching prospects.

Despite being buried on a roster deep with higher-profile players, Archer’s projectable 6-foot-1, 164-pound frame and high-80s fastball caught the eye of several of the college recruiters in attendance. Both North Carolina and North Carolina State recruited him, which is all a teenage boy raised in the heart of North Carolina could hope for. He chose to make an oral commitment to North Carolina State in the fall of his senior year at Clayton High.

But by the time the official early-signing date rolled around Nov. 9, Archer had received overtures from programs outside North Carolina, and he chose to renounce his commitment to N.C. State, instead signing a letter of intent to play at Miami.

According to Clayton coach Stacey Houser, Miami’s coaching staff contacted him because they didn’t have Archer’s personal contact information. When Houser explained to Miami coach J.D. Arteaga that Archer had made a commitment to N.C. State, he said he would discontinue his pursuit.

But when Houser informed Archer Miami had called, Chris deliberated for three weeks, took the only official visit he would make to Coral Gables, and eventually changed his mind.

Archer’s Apex

Archer’s next difficult decision might come sooner than he anticipated. With a fastball that has been clocked as high as 92 mph, and a filthy, if inconsistent, two-plane breaking ball at 78-82 mph, Archer’s upside is undeniable. As indicated by the bevy of scouts who have begun tracking his progress, his stock is on the rise.

“I would say it has to be him,” says an area scout with a National League organization when asked which player in his area has made the biggest leap forward among draft-eligible prospects this spring.

“Look at that body,” said a crosschecker with an NL organization, who compared Archer’s spindly frame to Red Sox reliever Julian Tavarez’. “He’s ultra-athletic and there’s plenty of reason to think he’s going to add some velocity as he grows into his body and learns to utilize his strength and leverage.

“He’s got a lot of room for improvement with his delivery, but he shows you some things that make you believe you can send him out (to minor league baseball) and see what you’ve got.”

In terms of intangibles, Archer’s unconventional upbringing hasn’t become a deterrent in the eyes of scouts. If anything, Archer’s makeup makes him more attractive.

“I asked him what his career goals were and he said ‘I have a strong desire to be a Hall of Famer,’ ” the area scout said. “That’s pretty heady stuff. But the way he delivered it was something that took me aback. It wasn’t cocky or over-confident, it was something where this kid genuinely believes he can do it, and just the way he said it, the eye contact he made, really impressed me.”

Six months ago, Archer was overwhelmed at the prospect of playing at a prominent Division I college. Come June, he might be contemplating signing as a draft pick–possibly as high as the third or fourth round.

To Chris, such decisions could easily seem trite. Growing up without his biological mother by his side, and still having no knowledge of who his real father is, Archer has an outlook on life few other 17-year-olds can relate to. Thanks to the nurturing of a grandmother and her husband, as well as his own precocious sensibility, Chris Archer has become a young man all parents would be grateful to call son.

“What I know is that I live a better life because I’m with them,” said Chris of Ron and Donna. “If I lived with my biological parents, I have no idea where I’d be today.”

Around the nation

• One factor that contributed to the number of scouts who attended Archer’s outing against West Johnston High, was an injury to Alex White, a senior righthander from D.H. Conley High in Greenville, N.C., located about an hour east of Clayton. White’s stock has soared this spring along with Archer’s, but when he was scratched from his scheduled start the first week of April, many of the scouts who had hoped to evaluate him, swung over to see Archer. “He’s good,” said Conley coach Jason Mills. “I think we just have a tight arm. It’s not in the shoulder or the elbow, it’s his lower deltoid. He said he felt pretty good, just a little tender and a lot better than he felt (a week ago).”

White, a 6-foot-4, 185-pound righthander who committed to North Carolina, was 4-0, 0.68 with 50 strikeouts, two walks and 14 hits in 31 innings, a resounding start considering he spent much of the fall and winter on the hardwood as Conley’s starting point guard, averaging almost 18 points per game.

• The third annual Myrtle Beach Pelicans high school tournament pitted four South Carolina schools against four teams from North Carolina. East Columbus (N.C.) High freshman outfielder Demetrius McKelvie helped North Carolina salvage a split with a pair of hits, and was the event’s most promising prospect.

• An injury aborted Billy Bullock’s junior season in 2005, but he’s bounced back well as a senior. The 6-foot-6 righthander from Riverview (Fla.) High broke a floating rib while pitching an 11-strikeout, one-hit gem in his debut last year, and threw just once the rest of that season. “I thought that was the end of it,” Bullock told the Saint Pete-Brandon Times. But Bullock, who committed to Florida, flashed high-80s velocity this spring and could shape into a strong starter for the Gators in the future. “He’s OK,” said a scout with a NL organization. “He’s not spectacular, but he has brought the velocity up. His secondary stuff is just OK. He’ll bump 91 and maybe 92 but 86-90 more realistically. He’s a draft, but not a top draft.”

• For the fourth time in as many polls, the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association Top 50 featured a new No. 1 team. The Woodlands (Texas) High took over the top spot in the latest poll on the strength of a 12-game winning streak, including three straight shutouts. No. 2 Monsignor Pace High (Opa Locka, Fla.), No. 3 Agoura (Calif.) High and unranked Russell County High of Seale, Ala., have each spent two weeks atop the poll thus far this season. The poll was expanded to 50 teams to accommodate for the season opening for many of the nation’s teams in the Northern U.S.

• Archbishop Rummel High (Metairie, La.) rose six spots to No. 10 in the latest poll, on the strength of its 4-1 victory against No. 11 Jesuit High of New Orleans. It was the first of four scheduled games between the two district rivals this spring. “After a loss, you get a chance to have your character stick out,” Jesuit coach Sam Dozier told the Times-Picayune. “This was just one game. We’re in this for the long haul.” Unfortunately for Jesuit, it will be without preseason All-American shortstop Ryan Adams, who was expected to miss at least a month with a hamstring injury.