Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Small-Town Catch: Cards' Top Pick Has Big-Time Arm

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Small-Town Catch: Cards' Top Pick Has Big-Time Arm

Article excerpt

When Braden Looper was a sophomore in high school, he moved with his family from Mangum, Okla., to Dallas.

"The town was crushed," said Mary Jane Burgess, Looper's mother. "I don't know how many parties people in Mangum had for him here before we left."

Before long, the people of Mangum tossed some welcome-back parties. Burgess had decided the little southwest-Oklahoma town was the best place to raise her two sons, the right setting for them to nurture whatever dreams a boy might want to nurture. And Mangum High once more had its star pitcher and hitter, its star quarterback in football and forward in basketball.

On June 4, the townsfolk celebrated Braden Looper once more. The Cardinals chose him in the first round, with the No. 3 pick overall, in the annual baseball draft. He is working out now with Team USA in Millington, Tenn., and probably will pitch in the Olympics before beginning his professional career.

With a fastball that has been caught speeding along at 98 mph and two other fine pitches, Looper's career should take him far beyond the narrow streets of Mangum. He's always wanted to make good money, his mom said, and has been curious about life in the big city. Three years at Wichita (Kan.) State probably whetted that.

But wherever he goes, whatever he does, Looper plans never to lose three gifts from his mom: humility, confidence and, he said, "never forgetting where I came from."

Mangum might as well be Mayberry.

He said: "You'd be surprised how much it really is like Mayberry," TV's fictional home of Andy, Barney and Opie in the 1960s.

What's a hot night on the town in Mangum (and you can bet there are plenty of hot nights when you're only 28 miles east of the Texas Panhandle): "You're driving along the main street and see somebody, then you pull over on the side of the road and talk."

Looper knows everybody in Mangum. His mom teaches computer courses at the junior high. He has five uncles on his dad's side (uncle Benny Looper played Class AAA ball in the Cardinals' system and scouts for the Mariners), three uncles on his mom's side. He spent a lot of time with his paternal grandfather, LaVern Looper, who has a farm near Granite, 13 miles north of Mangum.

They provided the male influences for Braden, whose parents divorced before his first birthday.

"The only things to do around here in the summer for a kid is play baseball and go swimming," Looper said.

He lived a block and a half away from City Park, with its playground and shade trees and swimming pool. Looper said he could "swim like a fish for as long as I can remember." Across the street from the pool is Little League Field. Two diamonds, no waiting - especially if you were Looper.

"I never went out and started throwing rocks or anything like that," he said. "We didn't play that much pickup because our little league team played three or four games a week. …

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