Can you imagine a more thrilling way to win a baseball championship than with a walk-off hit? Jon Niemeyer can’t. Or a more crushing way to lose than by allowing one? Dion Puthoff can’t. But Puthoff also proved there’s no better opportunity for a show of sportsmanship and class.
Puthoff was the shortstop for the Raiders of Russia (pronounced ROO-shee), Ohio, about 100 miles north of Cincinnati and west of Columbus. They entered the bottom of the seventh – the final inning – of the Ohio Class IV state championship this season tied 1-1 with Minster. With two out and a man in scoring position, Niemeyer lined a single to left for Minster. Russia left fielder Trenton Monnin relayed the ball to Puthoff, too late to stop the winning run from crossing the plate. Niemeyer and his teammates went a little crazy on the field with the hugs, cheers, and backslapping that follow a sudden victory. Still holding the ball, Puthoff walked off the field “heartbroken,” he said. But not for long. “When we looked out at our fan section and saw how proud they were of us and how supportive they were,” he says, “it changed back to being a positive experience.”
So, the ball seemed destined to be a cool souvenir of a magical season. Except that Dion felt he wasn’t its rightful owner. “Baseball is a big thing to me. It’s important in my life,” he says. “So, I knew Jon would appreciate it more than I did. He had such a big influence on the game.” Dion grabbed the ball, got in his car and drove 20 miles to Minster. Jon wasn’t home, but his sister, Alyssa, answered the door. Dion asked if she could give Jon the ball and a note of congratulations that acknowledged “it would mean a lot more to you to have your game-winning-hit ball.” He handed them off and drove home.
The Niemeyers were caught off-guard. “There’s maybe one in a million people that would do that,” Jon says. “You just don’t expect it.” Jon’s father, Bryan, expressed his gratitude on twitter with a photo of the ball and the note: “Who says sports don’t teach life lessons? Fine young man! #classact” High school baseball fans across Ohio retweeted the message. That caught the attention of sportswriters across the state, who then shared the story with the rest of the country. Much to Dion’s surprise. “I didn’t expect any thanks because I didn’t see anything important about it, really,” he says. He later realized, though, “It’s positive news when we have so much hate and negative news. People need that.”
Since then, Dion says he and Jon have connected “a little bit, community festivals and stuff like that.” But they have taken separate paths. Dion is a senior who hopes to continue his baseball career beyond high school. Jon is a freshman at Columbus Community College, majoring in construction engineering technology. The ball remains at his parents’ home, on a shelf next to the ring he won for a state football championship. They are reuniting in St. Louis for the Musials. “It turns out my grandma really liked Stan, and my teachers have his jersey,” Dion says. “I’ve learned what a good player he was. But it seems like it was his character that people respected.”