Whatever happened to Shorty Ames?
If you lived anywhere near Columbia County in the 1970s or '80s, you knew who Ken "Shorty" Ames was.
If you knew anything about big-school Oregon baseball or football back then, you knew who Shorty Ames was.
And if you grew up in St. Helens in the second half of the '70s or the first half of the '80s, Shorty Ames was nothing short of a legend.
Ames, a 1979 graduate of St. Helens High School, was a three-year starter at quarterback for the Lions and St. Helens' best pitcher for all three years of his high school career. He is also a member of St. Helens' athletic Hall of Fame.
In baseball, Ames' fastball clocked in at over 90 miles per hour, his curveball buckled knees and his swagger was years ahead of his time.
After high school, Ames — a 6-foot, 190-pound righthander — was selected in the fourth round of the 1979 Major League Baseball draft by the Atlanta Braves, bought himself a brand-new Trans Am and raced into his professional career.
The rest of Ames' life, however, has been far less predictable.
Cut by the Braves after just three seasons, Ames moved on. He went to college, moved into coaching, got married and settled into a long-term job, where he worked with people that became some of his closest friends.
What also happened, however, was a slow, downward spiral into alcoholism, embezzlement, a six-month term in jail, the near dissolution of his marriage and — finally — humility and redemption.
The early years
Ames was nothing short of a sports prodigy when he was growing up in St. Helens. As a 15-year-old Babe Ruth pitcher, his fastball was already close to 90 miles per hour and his breaking ball was so sharp that it literally drew gasps from fans.
In football, Ames was the best quarterback around from the moment he entered junior high, to when he took the helm of the freshman team, to when he stepped up as a sophomore starter for the St. Helens varsity in the fall of 1976 (back then, St. Helens was a three-year high school).
Ames — his talent unmistakable and his arm unstoppable — led the Lions for all three years of his high school career in both football and baseball (he also played two years of varsity basketball), missing just one start in football and leading the league in passing as a senior. He was named a unanimous first-team all-Coast Valley League pitcher three straight times and a Class AAA (the largest Oregon classification back then) first-team all-state pitcher as a senior.
Along the way, he led the St. Helens football team to a successful senior season, while the Lions baseball team won a state playoff berth in '78 and a Coast Valley League co-championship in 1979.
"It's kind of ironic because my junior year (in baseball) was my best year," said Ames, who also played third base when he didn't pitch. "I should have been (all-state) both years. I definitely should have been my junior year because I was way better my junior year."
It wasn't all as easy as it looked, however. It took time for Ames' older teammates to accept him, in part because of his age, but more because of Ames' ego. There's no two ways about it — he just knew he was cooler and better than everyone else around him.
"As a freshman … I matured a little early and I was a little more coordinated than most guys," he said. "I was better than everybody else in all three sports."
Emblematic of Ames' conceit and the effect it had on his teammates is a story — perhaps apocryphal and perhaps not — about his first road trip with the Lions varsity football team in September of '76.
Ames, the story goes, walked onto the team bus wearing his sunglasses and dragging his toes in his characteristic pigeon-toed strut. The upperclassmen on the team responded the way you might expect — they spit on him.
"Yeah, I would say that probably happened," said Ames, who celebrated his 60th birthday in late January. "They didn't like the fact that I was playing up to their level, you know, in football and baseball, especially.
"It took two years for me and Bob Webster (a three-sport St. Helens star and 1978 grad who won a baseball scholarship to Oregon State University) to come to an agreement that he was OK with me doing what I was doing."
They didn't like the fact that I was I was playing up to their level, you know, in football and baseball, especially."
— Shorty Ames
But the Lions — in both football and baseball — unquestionably became Ames' teams as he moved through high school.
While St. Helens was the smallest school in the Coast Valley League — the Lions dropped down to the Class AA level the year after Ames graduated — the Lions remained competitive in both football and baseball. His senior-season football team was his best, going 6-3 in the fall of '78 (back then, only league champions reached the state playoffs) with Ames leading the CVL — a league that included state semifinalist Forest Grove — in passing.
"I got recruited by a lot of big colleges for football and baseball," Ames said, mentioning Notre Dame as one of the schools that tried to secure his talents. "I think that if I'd gone there, I probably would have been a Division 1 backup quarterback and a punter. I was a heck of a punter."
As strong as Ames was in football, there was never a question that baseball was his best sport. He dominated opponents from the mound, swung a potent bat and proved himself against the best.
Indeed, Ames and the Lions were dominant during his junior year — they only lost the CVL championship because Canby's own fireballer — 6-foot-6 future Major Leaguer Jay Baller — no-hit St. Helens in the league title game at Civic Stadium. In his senior season, Ames and the Lions came back to win a piece of the league crown.
Foremost in Ames' memory from his senior year was a 2-0 victory over Canby in both teams' 1979 CVL opener, a game that saw Ames outduel Baller at Canby High School. In that game, Ames threw a 12-strikeout, one-hitter to beat the Cougars in eight innings.
"That was a big deal," Ames said, "winning down there."
Other high school highlights included a 13-1 win over Dallas with 15 strikeouts in '78, a 7-1 win over McMinnville with one hit and 10 strikeouts in '78 and a 29-4 overall high school pitching record.
No stopping now
Almost as soon as his high school career ended, Ames was drafted by the Braves and began the next step in his baseball odyssey.
To suggest that Ames' life was a whirlwind back then would have been an understatement of almost biblical proportions.
"So, I graduated … I was drafted by the Atlanta Braves with the third pick of the fourth round (on June 5), I signed on the 10th of June, and on the 14th, I was in Atlanta for workouts for two weeks," Ames said. "Then I went to Tennessee for rookie ball that summer."
The Braves gave Ames a signing bonus of $12,500 — equivalent to about $45,000 today and a very large amount of money for a young man with few boundaries in life — and he immediately purchased a dark blue 1979 Pontiac Trans Am, the one with the huge Phoenix emblem on the hood. After that, Ames flew 2,600 miles to Georgia for two weeks of workouts at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium — the home of the Braves — and the start of his professional career.
While he was physically ready for professional baseball, Ames was admittedly less ready for the many responsibilities required of a professional baseball player. Ames pitched competitively his first year — he went 1-4 in eight starts with 17 strikeouts and 18 walks in 43 innings — as a starter in Rookie League ball for the Kingsport Braves in Tennessee.
In part 2, Ames deals with the end of his professional career and the start of his coaching career.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.