Riddle returns

Former Mr. Baseball begins series in Lexington Tuesday

By Brian Rickerd Published:

Emotions promise to be swirling faster than a tornado on the plains when Frankfort’s own J.T. Riddle returns to home turf Tuesday night as a member of minor league baseball’s Greensboro Grasshoppers.

Greensboro opens a three-game South Atlantic League series in Lexington Tuesday against the local Legends in Class A baseball action at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.

Game time Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is 7:05 nightly. Tickets are available, with prices ranging from $6 to $19.

The Legends are rolling out the red carpet for Riddle and a slew of family and friends, proclaiming Tuesday to be Frankfort Community Night, to go along with a three-hot-dogs-for-$1 promotion.

“J.T. has a lot of friends,” said Riddle’s stepfather, Buddy Ritchie, in a phone interview Sunday. “Mr. (Andy) Shea, the general manager of the Legends, and Brandon Muravchick have set us up with a suite that seats 20 people. Plus, Coach Fry (Craig Fry, former WHHS baseball coach and current athletics director) is getting a Frankfort community program together. So I think it’s going to be a nice crowd.”

This is the closest the 22-year-old Riddle will be to Frankfort since his playing days ended at the University of Kentucky some 13 months ago.

That was before Riddle, a former Mr. Baseball at Western Hills High School, was drafted into the Miami Marlins’ organization in the 13th round after three solid seasons at UK.

Riddle spent last season in rookie ball in Batavia, N.Y., and made it up to Greensboro this spring.

Riddle comes into play on an up-tick, with a .248 batting average, which is up nearly 100 points higher than it was early this spring.

In the field, the versatile Riddle has moved around from third base to shortstop to second base, though his professional future appears to be at short.

But, wherever he plays in the field or how many hits he has, Ritchie said the support for Riddle does not change, both from inside the family and out.

“We’re so thankful for the way this community has supported J.T.,” Ritchie said. “I had a guy, David Wade — one of Western Hills’ biggest fans — call me the other day and say, ‘I saw where J.T.’s average went up eight points last night ... he went 3-for-6, you know’?’ It’s like they’re out there keeping up with the numbers even more than I do.

“People in Frankfort have always taken in their kids that go somewhere and do well.”

Ritchie said he hopes that Riddle does not press in front of the home folks, though he admits it’d be unnatural if he does not.

“As his old coach, one who has been with him since he was 2, I always tell him, ‘Go have fun,’” said Ritchie, who coached Riddle through summer ball for years and assisted at WHHS during most of Riddle’s brilliant prep career. “’People are going to support you. Play your game.’”

The irony in Ritchie’s comments is that Buddy himself will be pressing, so to speak, watching Riddle this week.

Three times in an interview that lasted some 30 minutes Sunday, Ritchie had to fight back tears, talking about J.T.

“We have a unique relationship,’’ Ritchie said.

This is the second time this season that Buddy, his wife LaKeta and daughter LaKenzie have seen J.T. play, with the first being a three-game set at West Virginia June 9-11.

“He’s a kid, but he’s like my best friend, too,” Ritchie said. “I mean, we have gone through a lot together. And I know I’ve been hard on him at times, but there’s always been respect there ... always an ‘I love you’ at night. We’ve always been close.

“When we walked into the stadium that night in West Virginia, I was like ...”

Ritchie choked up, and finally added, “I was like I am now.”

That said, Buddy and LaKeta will both tell you that J.T. is a “momma’s boy.”

“It’s hard,’’ LaKeta said of being away from her son. “He’s my baby ... I don’t care if he is 22 years old. You worry about him, wondering if he’s eating or sleeping, just from a mom’s perspective. I think he misses his family, and I’m sure it’s tough being on the road constantly. But I think he’s adapted, and he’s doing what he loves to do.”

Buddy and LaKeta hint that the only living being who might be even more emotional this week is J.T.’s 18-month-old black Labrador retriever, Chipper (named after former Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones).

Chipper is living with Buddy, LaKeta and LaKenzie, and presumably could be a star during Wednesday night’s Bark In The Park promotion when dogs are not only permitted, but encouraged, to attend.

Chipper, of course, cannot comment, though he’s been known to whimper profusely when J.T. and Buddy are not around.

LaKeta said the family hopes to get ample opportunity to visit with J.T. off the field this week.

“I think he’s planning on coming home Tuesday night and staying, and hopefully Wednesday night, too,” LaKeta said. “We have a lot of family and friends going to catch the games, and I know he’s excited about coming home and being back in Kentucky.”

This reunion will also be emotional because of two people who will not be physically on hand at the ballpark: Buddy’s mother Linda Green, who died July 20, 2011, and LaKeta’s father, George Cook, who passed this past July 20.

“We’re sure both of them will be there watching,” said Buddy, again fighting his composure. “I’m sure they are both very proud of him, and would love to be there in person. But J.T. knows they are always with him. He talks to them before every game when he goes out there and takes his hat off and kneels.”

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