Combs brought major smiles to Minors
Paul Stabile felt like entering professional baseball meant starting life over. He was born in Brooklyn, went 33-0 as a high schooler on Staten Island and was selected in the eighth round of the 1987 Draft, thanks to a 202-strikeout season at a community college in Northern New Jersey. Beginning
Paul Stabile felt like entering professional baseball meant starting life over. He was born in Brooklyn, went 33-0 as a high schooler on Staten Island and was selected in the eighth round of the 1987 Draft, thanks to a 202-strikeout season at a community college in Northern New Jersey.
Beginning his career in Erie, Pennsylvania, where the Pirates had a Class A Short Season affiliate, made for a long summer. Heading down to Spring Training in Bradenton, Florida, the following year was a daunting endeavor.
Chris Combs made it easy. The fifth-rounder out of North Carolina State and lifelong resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, lived at about the midway point on Stabile’s journey south. So Combs let Stabile crash at his house on the way down, and the two completed the rest of the drive together.
One sentence from Stabile reveals his New York roots. His accent is unmistakable. Combs mocked it. Stabile jabbed back, roasting Combs’ country music fandom and southern drawl. He called him a “meatball.” Laughter was the soundtrack in Stabile’s car for 700 miles.
“Chris helped me out so much,” Stabile said. “He comforted my heart, being around someone like that.”
That was Combs. He stood 6-foot-7, threw heat and belted dingers. But beyond his intimidating frame and power skill set was a kind, hilarious teammate who made those around him confident and comfortable.
Combs died earlier this month after a four-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the nervous system disease better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS. He was 45. He spent nearly as much time fighting ALS as he did in the Minor Leagues. His career, however short and unspectacular, still brimmed with examples of a man who did so much good for others, even when the world didn’t always have much good to offer him.
“He's one of the best guys I've ever met in my life,” Stabile said.
Combs was born into a family of NC State legends. He became one himself by hitting 42 home runs, fifth-most in program history. He decided to return to school after he taken in the 14th round of the Draft after his junior season. The Wolfpack won 13 conference games in a row during his senior year and have never replicated that feat. NC State honored Combs this spring by painting No. 26, his uniform number, on the outfield wall at Doak Field.
After college, the Pirates made Combs a fifth-round pick. But they wanted one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's best sluggers to pitch. Sure. Combs threw 24 2/3 innings in the New York-Penn League that summer. He struck out 36, walked three and compiled a 0.73 ERA. His velocity, former teammates said, was in the mid- to upper-90s.
Everyone in professional baseball is good, but Combs was a specimen that year. He looked smooth for his size. Sometimes, even though he was strictly a pitcher after playing both ways for parts of his college career, he’d take batting practice. SeaWolves manager Marty Brown pitched to him. When Combs got his hacks, Brown put a little extra on it, recalled Kory DeHaan, the Pirates’ 1997 seventh-round pick. Combs found a groove anyway and started sending balls onto the roof of the hockey arena beyond the left field wall.
“My jaw was on the ground the rest of the day,” DeHaan said. “I’m like, ‘I’m not worthy dude. You should be hitting. Why aren't you hitting fourth in our lineup tonight?’”
Even with the hype, Combs was the ultimate teammate. Whenever Stabile was angry with his performance, it was Combs who put an arm around him and reminded him he’s better than that. His smile, DeHaan said, stood out over his imposing figure.
That smile became infectious. Combs and several teammates bunked together in a giant old house they pooled together to rent. Some of them signed out of high school, some out of college, some out of other countries. Their differences didn’t matter. They grilled during off days. Once, during a rain delay, DeHaan dipped chewing tobacco for the first time and got so lightheaded he nearly threw up. He still remembers Combs and several of their Latin teammates cackling at the sight.
“That's what you hope continues to live on from basically his legacy, from his memories,” DeHaan said. “He was one that brought people together rather than divided.”
Stabile might know that better than most of Combs’ former teammates. They were roommates early in their careers. One day, Stabile returned home and noticed Combs’ car wasn’t around. He figured Combs wasn’t home. He found out he was wrong when he opened up the closet to grab a towel before showering. Combs jumped out and “scared the [crap]” out of Stabile.
During a Spring Training meal, Combs snuck some vinegar into Stabile’s mashed potatoes. When Stabile took a bite and needed a drink to wash out the horrible taste, he found that Combs had tainted his water with vinegar, too. Their relationship, which continued well beyond their playing days, grew because of the humor.
“He's like a big kid,” Stabile said, fighting off tears. “Great personality, loves to laugh -- wow.”
Combs could, and did, get serious when he had to. Tommy John surgery derailed his career after three seasons, so he tried switching back to hitting. It didn’t work. He didn’t play professionally beyond 2001. He started working in the NC State athletic fundraising department in 2005. Almost immediately following his diagnosis in 2016, he and his wife, Gena, set out to fund and find a cure for ALS through Team Chris Combs. The organization partnered with Project ALS and has raised more than $4 million. Not even a terminal disease could change the fact that Combs was wired to put others first.
That mission brought him back to Pirate City for Spring Training in March 2017. His speech had slowed by then, but he still was able to address a group of about 140 Minor Leaguers that day. He talked about what it meant to be a good teammate, about the value of inclusion, about the joy he gets when people go out of his way to help him, about the strength he drew from others’ encouragement.
“I remember kind of getting emotional behind him, seeing your teammate here and knowing he's talking about dying and talking about how he wanted his life to be,” said Andy Barkett, Combs' teammate at NC State and the Pirates’ Triple-A Indianapolis manager in 2017. “It was really a neat way for him to give back to Minor League players and baseball and have a voice.”
Combs wasn’t naive. He knew the grind. So to show those players he'd been where they sat just 20 years ago, he told a story that exhibited his knack for having fun. One spring night in the late '90s, a teammate came back from Walmart with a paintball gun. Soon enough, Combs, Stabile and at least a dozen prospects had bought paintball supplies of their own. They wore ace bandages and shower curtains and goggles for protection. Overnight, they snuck onto the golf course behind Pirate City and played capture the flag. Broken pins and painted links ruined their secret, and they had to run poles as punishment.
Stabile still has pictures of it all somewhere. He and so many others are going to miss Combs. He loved Combs, because pranks and jokes aside, Combs made him a better person.
“They need to make more people like that,” Stabile said.
Joe Bloss is a contributor for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.