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One way or another, Richie Hebner has always dug his job

Rewind: One in a series of occasional articles about former prominent athletes in the area.

After an 18-year Major League Baseball playing career, Richie Hebner has no one but himself to blame for not making the Hall of Fame.

With a little more self-promotion, the pride of Norwood could have been a first-ballot shoo-in to join Charlie Hustle, Oil Can, and the Splendid Splinter on an ESPN fan poll of baseball's hall -- for nicknames, that is.

But the player long known as ''The Gravedigger" failed to make the cut.

''I've got an interesting nickname, no doubt," Hebner said recently by phone from Durham, N.C., where he's in his fourth year as batting coach for the Triple A Durham Bulls. ''The thing is, the nickname made sense. Digging graves is something I've always done, even during my playing days. It's the family business. I must have dug a thousand graves over the years. I like to tell people I'll be the last person to ever let them down."

Cryptic humor aside, Hebner, 57, who now lives in Walpole, continues his lifelong love affair with the game of baseball.

''I've spent most of my life in this game, and I still enjoy it. I've always told [wife] Pat that the day I don't enjoy it, I'll pack it up and come home and stay home," he said. ''For now, though, I'm still having fun."

A standout athlete at Norwood High School in both baseball and hockey, Hebner came within a contract signature of joining the Boston Bruins organization.

A goal-scoring, body-crunching machine for the Mustangs, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound wing had caught the eye of the National Hockey League team's general manager at the time, Milt Schmidt.

''Milt wanted me to play junior hockey with the Niagara Falls Flyers," Hebner said. ''I would have been with Derek Sanderson and Bernie Parent," two future NHL stars. ''Milt knew about my baseball. He told me to try baseball for a few years and, if it didn't work out, then to give hockey a try. I don't think much about it, but I might have been on those Bruins teams of '70 and '72," Boston's Stanley Cup championship years.

Instead, Hebner signed out of high school to play baseball after the Pittsburgh Pirates made him the 15th pick overall in the 1966 amateur draft. He made his big league debut in 1968, appearing in two games for Pittsburgh. The following year Hebner became the Pirates' regular third baseman, picking up his first big league hit off future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson of the Cardinals. He would finish the season with a .301 batting average, to go with eight home runs and 47 RBIs.

''Who would have thought three years after high school I'd be sharing a locker room with Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente," Hebner said. ''I mean, it was unbelievable."

By 1971, the 23-year-old Hebner had a World Series ring.

''We had a great team in '71," he said of the Pirates, who beat Baltimore with a lineup that included Stargell, Clemente, Al Oliver, and Richie Zisk, among others. ''I knew then that I made the right choice" between baseball and hockey.

Hebner was Pittsburgh's starting third baseman through the 1976 season. On Dec. 15, 1976, he left Pittsburgh as a free agent, and signed a contract to play for the Philadelphia Phillies. Hebner would wear three other uniforms before retiring from playing the game in 1985.

''I enjoyed playing for Philadelphia [1977-78], as I did the New York Mets [1979], the Detroit Tigers [1980-82], and the Chicago Cubs [1984-85]," he said. ''Moving around is part of the game."

During his three-year stint in Philadelphia, Hebner crossed paths with Jim Lonborg, former Red Sox ace and a hero on Boston's 1967 Impossible Dream team, whose own baseball career was winding down.

''I remember seeing Richie come into the clubhouse at spring training," in Clearwater, Fla., Lonborg said recently. ''I knew he was a New England boy, so I wanted to make him feel at home right away. We hit it off immediately."

Lonborg said he was impressed with Hebner's dedication to the game, and his love of children.

''Richie used to come over to the house my wife, Rosemary, and I were living in in Clearwater and play with our kids," Lonborg said. ''In fact, our kids to this day remember spending time with him."

Lonborg said that when it came to personality, Hebner was one-of-a-kind.

''Richie was hysterical. He was just different," he said. ''One time I drove him home from the park, and he was chewing tobacco. I said to him to be careful and make sure all the juice goes out the window. I drop him off and go home, where I find his side of the car a total mess with tobacco juice everywhere. But that was just Richie. He's just a regular guy."

Hebner's ''regular guy" persona continues to play well in Norwood.

''No one in town looks at Richie Hebner as a hero," said Norwood baseball coach Pete Wall. ''And that's a compliment. He's just Richie. I always say he still wears the same hat size today as he did in the majors."

It was Wall who steered Hebner toward the coaching ranks, asking him in 1986 to help coach Norwood's American Legion team.

''We went to the Legion World Series in Wisconsin the following season, and [Toronto] Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick is there and sees Richie," Wall recalled. ''He told Richie there might be a coaching vacancy on their Myrtle Beach farm team, and asked if he'd be interested. Richie said OK, and the next summer, he was off" to South Carolina, Wall said.

When Wall retired from coaching after the 2003 season, Hebner made sure he was part of a special video tribute to the coach. Hebner told Wall that coaching those two years with him on the Legion team was ''as much fun as playing in the majors."

''I'll never forget that," Wall said.

While Hebner is quick to point out the enjoyment the game has given him, he also said it has forced him to make many sacrifices.

''I've missed a lot of proms and Little League games and recitals," he said. ''Missing my kids -- Elizabeth, Katherine, Joseph, and Victoria -- has been tough. Nothing is more important than family."

It seems only right that one of the most grounded men in pro baseball spends his off-seasons digging graves.

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