HOUSTON - George Springer sat alone behind the podium, with a sea of strangers staring at him, all wanting to ask questions.
He looked around the room, leaned back, closed his eyes, and remembered the days that he would be terrified to be in this situation.
He absolutely hated to talk.
When he was a kid, he would sit in the back of the class, hoping the teacher would never call him. When he went to the University of Connecticut, he enrolled in classes where there were no presentations. When he went out to eat, he’d simply point at the item on the menu.
“I was the guy who didn’t talk,’’ says Springer, who hit the biggest home run in the Houston Astros’ history Wednesday evening, a two-run shot in the 11th inning that provided the club's first World Series victory ever - a 7-6 triumph that evened the Series 1-1 with the Dodgers.
"I would sit in the back. I would avoid speaking at all costs up until I was 18 or 19 in college. I didn’t even like to order food on the phone. I didn’t like to open the menu, and say, “I want a steak sandwich. I would just point to it.
“I was just so scared to do it.’’
Springer, you see, has a stuttering problem. He had it his whole life. He doesn’t ever remember taking speech therapy, or getting outside assistance.
He just avoided talking.
“I remember my parents tried to slow me down,’’ Springer said, “and get me to say what I had to say. Not to speak too fast. But I was a kid, so I’m sure I spoke way faster.
“When I was around my friends, it didn’t seem to bother them. It didn’t seem to faze them. I would just talk, and if I did [stutter], they would wait until I was done, and then just continued the conversation.’’
It wasn’t until three years ago, when Springer was emerging as a star, and the cover subject of the famous 2014 Sports Illustrated that predicted the Astros would be World Series champs in 2017, that Springer realized he could no longer hide.
“I was talking to a group of kids in New York,’’ said Springer, a spokesman for SAY, the Stuttering Association for the Young, “and I kind of had an epiphany that I’m involved in this organization for one reason. And that’s to help anybody I can.
“I want kids or adults to see I’m a normal person. I just happen to stutter. Seeing these kids and the pain they go through because they feel bullied, and they feel isolated, is sad.
“I decided right then and there, “You know what, I’m going to expose myself.’’
So Springer began talking. He became one of the faces of the franchise. He was mic’d up at the All-Star Game while in the field. And there he was Wednesday night, talking to a room full of reporters, sometimes stumbling over a word, but sitting confidently, atop the world.
“I’ve become more comfortable talking,’’ says Springer, who hit a career-high 34 homers, all out of the leadoff spot. “I was like, I can’t tell somebody to do something if I’m not going to go out and do it myself.
“I can’t spread a message to kids and adults if I’m not willing to put myself out there. I’m going to stutter. I don’t care. It’s not going to stop me from talking.’’
These days, you can barely tell Springer ever had a serious stuttering problem. Oh sure, there are times when the words don’t come out quickly, or he’ll occasionally get stuck on a word, but it’s like a car getting momentarily stuck in third gear, trying to maneuver into fourth.
“I’ve learned to switch words without anybody knowing it,’’ Springer says. “I’ve learned how to do things, and speak with my hands, and slow down my sentence, or do something that you wouldn’t be able to tell that is actually helping me. If I’m feeling like I’m going to stutter over a word, I’ll just pause.
“I’ve learned how to do all of that stuff.’’
There are 70 million people in the world who have a stuttering problem, including 3 million in the United States, and if nothing else, Springer would love to be their role model.
He still remembers the pride he felt when he learned that one of his heroes, Bo Jackson, the former All-Star outfielder and Pro Bowl running back, had a stuttering problem. It was severe. When Jackson joined the Kansas City Royals, I’d talk to Jackson nearly every day. He was fine when we had private talks, but in groups, there was a sense of panic, and he’d struggle with the words.
He seethed when someone mocked his stutter, and was incensed when people thought he was arrogant by always saying his name in the third person.
“I would always say Bo,’’ Jackson told me privately, “because I couldn’t’ say the word, 'I', without stuttering. That was the only reason, but people didn’t know that.’’
Now, the world knows all about Bo, one of the greatest athletes who ever lived, and they’re starting to know about Springer, one of the game’s rising stars.
“I actually didn’t know that about Bo until someone brought it to my attention,’’ Springer says. “It doesn’t make him any more or less cooler, but I know what he’s going through and what he went through. For an athlete of his caliber to show that he’s human, it’s great for people to see.
“I would like to meet him some day just to shake his hand.’’
The feeling is mutual.
'I've got my eye on him,'" Jackson tells USA TODAY Sports. 'I'm proud of him."
Springer, who struck out four times in Game 1, only to come back with a single, double and homer, breathed new life in the Series by going deep off Brandon McCarthy with an opposite field homer, and now the Astros return home to Minute Maid Park where they have yet to lose this postseason.
"I had to take a minute," Justin Verlander said of Springer's majestic homer, "to recompose myself.’’
Springer, 28, refused to bask in the glory. He credited Marwin Gonzalez’s game-tying homer in the ninth inning as the biggest of the game, and praised Cameron Maybin for making it easy on him with his leadoff single and stolen base in the 11th.
Now, if everything goes according to plan, he’ll be on a parade float in downtown Houston in a week, grabbing every microphone he can find.
“I can’t wait to tell the world,’’ Springer says, “that the Houston Astros are World Series champs.
“That’s my dream.’’
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