Baseball's Opening Day often feels bigger than a holiday. Expectations are high for everyone, spring is arriving soon and the promise of a successful season is as real as ever.
If all this is true, Lakeside senior Clayton Miller spent it in the most frustrating of places this year: in bed, his body ravaged by the flu.
Even though Miller had to wait an extra day to begin his career as Lakeside's catcher -- he did not even go to the ballpark for his team's 9-6 win over Greenbrier on Feb. 24 -- the subsequent results have made it well worth it.
Miller's volunteering to move to the position last summer has been one of the most important moves for a team on the brink of its first state title. The Panthers will play host to Marist, an Atlanta private school that has won 10 state titles, in the Georgia High School Association Class AAAA championship series beginning at 4 p.m. Friday. Fifteen minutes across town, Aquinas will play host to the Class A finals. Both area teams are trying for their first title.
Miller's only previous experience catching came during summer league and one junior varsity game as a sophomore, when he said he threw out four runners in one game. Things went so well last summer, Miller was signed to play at Armstrong Atlantic by December.
"Opening Day is special for everybody," said Ted Miller, Clayton's father. "There's pomp and circumstance. He may have even come back a little soon, but it's been a joy to see him progress."
Ted Miller played two years as a catcher in the Minnesota Twins organization and has stayed active in baseball. Miller, drafted out of Newberry College in 1985, is the official scorekeeper for the Augusta GreenJackets. He said his son is already better then he ever was.
Clayton Miller's switch to catcher allowed coach T.J. Davis to keep his bat in the lineup, lifting him away from a clogged middle infield that includes all-region performers Spencer Starnes and Ben Black. (Region 3-AAAA Player of the Year Jeffrey Stoner had third base tied down when he was not pitching).
Miller's bat has remained potent, particularly in the semifinals at Wayne County, when he hit for the cycle in an opening victory without dirtying his uniform. In four plate appearances during a 13-5 win, Miller went: stand-up triple, home run, single and stand-up double. Miller finished the series 6 of 7 with a pair of homers.
"I knew if I didn't switch positions this year I would be on the bench," Miller said. "I have just tried hard there. I'm in there on every pitch; there is no break. I enjoy it. It's strenuous work, but I just want to win."
Miller has worked with his father as a catcher to focus on receiving the ball, framing it for strikes and blocking balls that sail into the dirt.
"Pretty much everything," Clayton Miller said.
Said Ted Miller: "I've told him you have four opportunities to have a good game there: catch a good game, call a good call, throw a good game and then there's offense. Other players, it's just defense or offense. Of course, you also have that many more (opportunities) for failure."
Miller estimates he has caught all but around 10 of the Panthers' innings this year, after missing the entire first game and sitting out an inning every now and then in a blowout win. If everything goes well, he will work 14 more innings, then join in his teammates to celebrate Lakeside's first and Columbia County's 18th GHSA title.
"He has filled that need tremendously," Davis said. "He has made us successful. Looking back, it's one of the better things that has happened for us."