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When you’re young, it doesn’t often seem that way but life does, indeed, go by fast.
And it can end in a second at any age.
A grim reminder of that came with the sad news Saturday that Charles Simpson had died after a fall in a workplace accident just a few weeks after his 56th birthday. The former Hunt High, Wilson American Legion and North Carolina Wesleyan College baseball star leaves behind his son, Charlie, and daughter, Ashley, as well as his mother, Christine, and sister, Kathy, as well as hundreds, if not thousands of friends. Deepest condolences to all who loved and knew Charles, whose smile was legendary.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him when he wasn’t smiling,” said Craig Parrish, one of his numerous friends. “It made you feel good to see him. He was who he was and didn’t put on any kind of act. He lived large, I guess you could say.”
In recent years, I didn’t often see Charles, who graduated from Hunt High three years ahead of me, but I did run into him with Scott Barnes, a mutual friend and teammate of ours, at Fleming Stadium during the Golden Leaf Invitational in April. I didn’t recognize Charles for a second, but after Scott said, “You know this guy, right?” and that familiar smile spread across Charles’ face and I exclaimed, “Legend!”
As someone three years younger, I remember like it was yesterday looking on with awe at some of his accomplishments on the baseball field. From the time I first became of aware of him when he was about 12 or 13 and I was about 9 or 10, it was an accepted fact on the ballfields at Denby St. or Jaycee Field that Charles Simpson, who grew up in the shadow of Fleming Stadium, was about the best player out there.
“When you had recess and you’d start picking teams for softball or kickball or whatever, if he wasn’t the captain he was always the first one picked,” said Al Hardison, who went to elementary school with Simpson and later played on Wilson Post 13 teams with him. “He was always just a heck of an athlete in everything and obviously excelled in baseball.”
Luckily for the Hunt High baseball program, Simpson’s family moved from Five Points to Westwood before he got to high school. He played three varsity seasons, all at third base, for the Warriors and, in my humble opinion, is still one of the best baseball players the school and Wilson County has ever produced.
“He had the arm, he could run like a deer and, boy, could he hit!” Barnes said.
Simpson was a key figure in the lineup of the 1980 Post 13 team that reached the North Carolina American Legion state semifinals and he was easily the best player Hunt had at the time.
“Easily, I can say he’s in the top five without a doubt and there’s been a lot of great players that have played in Wilson,” Hardison said. “He’s got to be mentioned in the same breath with all the other great players who played here.
“Back then you never heard of that but if they did, he would have been considered a five-tool player. He could do it all.”
Former Beddingfield standout pitcher Charles Davis, who recently retired as the longtime C.B. Aycock High head coach, played against Simpson in high school but played alongside him in American Legion baseball and later at N.C. Wesleyan.
“At that time, he was probably the most complete player I had seen,” Davis said. “Number 1, Charles had a desire when he went to the plate and he was going to hit the ball hard somewhere. That’s what made him such a great hitter. He was not going to give in. His goal was to hit the ball hard somewhere — not necessarily out of the ballpark.”
In addition, Davis pointed out, Simpson was an intense competitor.
“If he made an error in the field when he was pitching, he would always tell you, ‘I’ll get it back,’ and, sure enough, most of the time he did something at the plate to get it back for you,” Davis said, noting that Simpson had what he called the “it factor.”
Never an imposing figure physically, topping out around 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Simpson possessed great coordination, instincts and a natural athleticism.
“He had that natural ability,” he said. “He was a good friend and he was a good friend to have, too! If you got in a brawl on the baseball field, you wanted him on your side!”
Barnes recalled that moxie Simpson displayed on the ballfield. Hunt was playing Greenville Rose with its vaunted junior pitcher Roger Williams on the mound at Fleming Stadium. Williams, who would go on to star at UNC before a lengthy professional career, could throw it over 90 miles per hour and arrived in Wilson on that spring evening in 1981 with a sparkling 0.00 ERA.
“I remember Charles saying, ‘That ERA [b.s.] ends today!’” Barnes said with a laugh. “And he went out and jacked one about halfway up the light pole!”
On another occasion when both were teammates at Wesleyan, Barnes said the score was tied in the bottom of the ninth inning during a game against High Point. Mike Fox, who was the Bishops head coach, told Barnes to grab a bat and get ready to pinch hit before Simpson, who was leading off the inning.
“I was over there with a donut on my bat, getting loose. I was ready, boy!” Barnes said. “And Charles comes by me and said, ‘You can put your bat down, Barnes. I got this one.’
“And then he hit it over the center-field wall out there! He called his shot, man! He was a step ahead of everybody, or two steps ahead.”
Simpson led Wilson County in every offensive category as a Hunt senior in 1981 — a “Quintuple Crown” of average (.434), home runs (4), RBIs (19), doubles (5) and triples (3). He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates with the 850th overall selection in the 1981 Major League Baseball draft, the first player from Hunt to be drafted.
However, Simpson decided that Rocky Mount was a better destination than the minor leagues and instead left his mark at N.C. Wesleyan. Thirty-four years after his last season, Simpson’s 47 career homers is still a Bishops record and it’s not even close. The next guy, one of his teammates, Paul Prisco, hit 37. Simpson is the NCWC career leader in total bases with 437 and ranks in the top five all-time in runs scored (196), triples (14) and RBIs (175).
He was named Bishops MVP as a freshman in 1982 and again as a senior in 1985 when he earned All-America status.
Professional baseball didn’t call again for Simpson after his college career ended and he found other outlets playing slow-pitch softball and golf, excelling at both. While that smile was still there, so, too, was his competitive nature. Parrish recalls Simpson hitting pressure-packed golf shots or, one hilarious time in a softball tournament, being challenged by the other team. Simpson, playing outfield, came in dangerously close to the infield, drawing the attention of opposing players who urged their teammate at the plate to “burn him!”
Sure enough, the batter directed a fly ball well over Simpson’s head but he backtracked and chased it down before offering a rebuttal to the opposition: “I’m from Oklahoma! You’ve got to show me!”
“Nobody ever told Charles that it was Missouri that was ‘The Show Me State!’” Parrish said, laughing at the memory. “The funny thing about is that they didn’t know what he was talking about!”
Barnes cracked up at the mention of the story, saying that Simpson’s misstatement is still a common punch line among his friends who were on the field that day.
The memories of good times are what’s left for his friends and family but we’ll also remember Charles Simpson was one of the best ballplayers we’ve ever seen. And we’ll definitely remember that smile, almost mischievous but very much genuine.
“I just treasure the time I had with him,” Barnes said.