One handshake can say a lot

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June 10, 2015

As a young, wet behind the ears journalism pupil at Louisiana State University, I sat in a musky class room as Professor Bill Shearman taught me that one handshake is better than 20 phone calls.

That’s a motto that I’ve carried with me for most all of my career. I don’t do much business over the phone. I’m a people person. I like to shake hands, give hugs and build working relationships with the people that I meet. I can’t help it. It’s the Cajun in me. Besides, I have no choice. I’m not technologically savvy. I can hardly use my iPhone at all. To use it WHILE maintaining a voice recorder WHILE taking notes? Yeah, I’d rather just bypass the phone call and hop in the car to meet you in person.

So while we’re on the topic of handshakes, I want to tell the tale of the most memorable one in my now-10-year career.

It was a sunny afternoon in May. The heat wasn’t overbearing, but it was present. It was the typical hot, humid Louisiana summer day.

Amidst the heat, I drove out to the old Terrebonne High School baseball diamond for a feature story about a very special young man, one who was becoming a household name in the Houma-Thibodaux area. That would be a fella’ by the name of Justin Williams. He was an outfielder for the Terrebonne Tigers at the time, a sensational player in every sense of the word.

This was the summer before Williams’ senior season, and the write-up was going to be focused on the young man’s success, his commitment to LSU and whether or not he’d consider bypassing college altogether in favor of a big-money professional deal.

When I got to the ballpark, there were just a couple cars parked in the lot. On the hot shells sat my clunker, a couple trucks belonging to coaches and one for Williams.

Terrebonne’s old (now torn down) ball field only had parking in the outfield, so one had a long walk to get to the diamond – even if parked in the first row of the lot. So I got out of the car, loaded up my equipment and started my roughly 500-foot trek. As I got to the left field foul pole, made a 90-degree turn and beeline toward the infield, I noticed that a baseball had just soared over my head – a frozen rope that cleared the outfield fence by a cool 50-60 feet.

That got my attention.

As I got closer and closer to the diamond, I could see Williams was taking batting practice. It didn’t take me long to piece together that the home run ball hit over my head was a byproduct of Williams’ bat and amazing talent. It also didn’t take me long to realize that almost every swing was the same result – one hard-hit laser beam after another. The kid was putting on an absolute show.

By now, my walk was complete, and I had made my way to the first-base dugout where I patiently waited for Williams to get done. After hitting about a half-dozen more rockets splattered around the field, he dusted himself off and headed to the dugout to take care of the business at hand.

“Do you mind if I pick up my stuff first?” Williams asked, while combing through his bag.

I complied.

After putting his bat, shoes and a couple gloves in a row, he walked to me. He took off his batting glove, extended his right arm to mine and we shook hands.

At that moment, before Williams even said a word to me, I knew that he’d be successful.

It wasn’t anything psychological. It had nothing to do with the grip.

It was the texture of his hands. They were rough and battered – torn to bits with calluses and other scars.

Williams acknowledged his callused hands in the interview, touting that they were a byproduct of hours of hard work in the cage.

He said that he loved the game of baseball.

I believed him. He had the ugly hands to prove it. He didn’t just talk the talk, but he walked the walk by committing himself to his craft.

So flash forward to the present and it’s no surprise to me that Williams, 19, is a professional player with a bright future.

He signed with LSU, but never enrolled, opting instead for the pros. He started with the Arizona Diamondbacks system, but has since been traded to the Tampa Bay Rays. He’s hit at every level of pro ball he’s ever played. In 169 games, Williams has 218 hits with a whopping .329 average.

He’s not a Big Leaguer yet, but he will be. You can bet on it. All it took was one handshake for me to find that out.