The first person he thought about was his father. Bob Armstrong was his best coach and biggest fan and would have loved seeing what became of his son Mark. Bob Armstrong was a former Division I hockey player who taught his kids all they needed to know about sports while raising his family in Clarence.
Sports weren’t always about the score, he would tell his sons, but were about playing the right way, playing with enthusiasm and, mostly, having fun. He placed character above performance on his list of priorities. He showed his children how to be good teammates and leaders. He made sure they were respectful in victory and upright in defeat.
Nobody sitting in the stands Tuesday evening could see Bob Armstrong watching over his son while Clarence played Victor in the Class AA West Regionals, but he was there. He was there in the first inning, walking around the mound and helping his son regain his composure after Mark walked three batters and allowed a single and the first run.
[Mark, we weren’t winning this ballgame without scoring a run, anyway. Let’s have the team do it. We came this far. Why quit now? Hey, have some fun and put a smile on that face. Do your job, trust your teammates and let the ball rip out of your hand. Don’t try to do too much. Just throw the ball.]
“And that’s exactly what happened,” Armstrong said. “I started bearing down and pounding the strike zone.”
Armstrong settled down, as he has all year, and allowed only two hits over the final six innings to lead Clarence to a 13-1 victory and into the state semifinals in Binghamton. And the first person he thought about was his father, whose crucifix Mark now wears around his neck to make sure Bob is always with him.
Some guy, Bob Armstrong.
He had a gift for saying just the right thing at the right moment. He provided a pat on the back when needed but also the proverbial kick in the fanny. He covered it all. What a shame he didn’t live long enough to experience it all, to watch his son evolve into New York’s Gatorade Player of the Year and professional prospect.
Bob was a chemical engineer by trade, a mentor in life. He was an assistant hockey coach at Clarence, where his wife, JoAnne, works as a teacher’s aide. He coached Mark in baseball until his son was 15. Mark said he was a tremendous coach, but you get the sense he was a better father.
[Whenever you’re going to do something, do it to the best of your ability. Have passion, and everything will take care of itself. Pour your heart into it, push yourself, never give up and have fun doing it. That’s the most important thing, having fun.]
Bob would have loved Mark’s senior year, when he was captain of the football, hockey and baseball teams. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder was a quarterback in football and defenseman in hockey. He was a terrific catcher in baseball who evolved into the most dominant high school pitcher this region has produced in years.
Armstrong has an 11-0 record with a 0.49 ERA after allowing five earned runs all year. He allowed only 28 hits, struck out 124 of the 258 batters he faced and walked only 14. During one stretch, he pitched 48 scoreless innings. He also struck out 18 in one game and allowed only 42 base runners all year.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Clarence coach Dave Smith said.
So much has happened since Jan. 30, 2012, when Bob suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting his mother-in-law in Clarence. Mark dialed 911 after his father started experiencing chest pains. By the time emergency crews arrived, it was too late. At age 50, much too young and with little warning, Bob Armstrong was gone.
Naturally, Mark was devastated.
You can imagine how many times they played catch and shot pucks. Or how many conversations they had about sports or school or girls or his future. Or how many times the father quietly nodded his head after realizing the message sent to his son was the message received. To hear Mark, it was a million.
“It’s always in the back of my head,” Mark said. “He’s not really gone. He has a big smile up there. He was very successful. He was an All-American in hockey at Clarkson. He always told me to have fun and that everything would turn out the way it should. It’s fun knowing all my accomplishments this year are because of him.”
Mark is hardly the only accomplished family member. His older brother, David, is a rocket scientist who works for NASA at the Johnson Space Center. His sister, Lauren, is a practicing speech pathologist. Another success story is on the way, but this one is just getting started.
Armstrong is expected to be selected today or Friday in the Major League Baseball draft. He threw 91 pitches Tuesday, felt fine Wednesday and was prepared to take the mound Saturday against Arlington in the state semifinals. He has been so overpowering this year that it’s difficult to fathom him losing.
The telephone in the Clarence athletic office has been ringing with scouts inquiring about the hard-throwing senior right-hander. His mother eventually set up a message system to let them know when he was starting. Games practicing or playing on an adjacent field would stop whenever Armstrong stepped to the plate.
His cannon arm, which topped at 94 mph this season from the mound, was used mostly behind the plate before this year. Last summer, he started blowing fastballs past good hitters, and developing a good curveball, while pitching for an AAU team out of Syracuse. Transpose the syllables in his surname, and you have an accurate description of the pitcher.
Ask anyone who has been around Armstrong, and you will get a different description of the person.
He’s a humble kid, tireless worker and selfless teammate who wants nothing more than a state title. He has been an example for his younger teammates. His opponents respect him for his ability and the way he carried himself.
Bob would be proud.
Now, professional baseball is a reasonable goal. His decision to sign a contract out of high school will depend on the offer. A team could throw him a signing bonus that would be difficult to turn down. If not, he has a full scholarship waiting for him at the University of Pittsburgh.
Pitt is a very good school that’s close enough to home and far enough away. He would be playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference and against the giants of college baseball. He figures to only get better and would be eligible for the draft again after his junior year at Pitt. At worst, he would earn a degree without spending a penny.
The kid can’t lose.
For years, his father told him as much. As usual, Bob Armstrong was right.