By BRANT JAMES
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001
BROOKSVILLE -- If only Pearly Woods could see him now.
It was she who helped instill the essence of her grandson when he was just a little boy, with two firm fingers on the ear and a tug around the grocery store when he was disrespectful.
Though she passed away more than 10 years ago, her grandson, Ozzie Whitten, remembers and lives the lessons she and his mother, Nadine Woods, taught.
The words the Hernando senior hopes best describe him?
"Hard-working, competitive and very respectful."
Ask around. That's 3-for-3.
"He is the All-American guy that mama wants their daughter to bring home," Leopards baseball coach Tim Sims said. "And daddy will like him because he'll see him give it up for the team. This is a kid you just can't say enough about."
"Ray-Ray" isn't likely to say much about himself.
Oddly, sports have more greatly defined Whitten the less he has dominated them. He was a star pitcher back in his Kennedy Park Little League days, when he played with and against Leopards teammate Dee Brown, but Whitten became more of an average player as he entered high school.
"I accepted I wasn't the best player anymore," Whitten said. "I guess I dreamed of making great plays like any other normal kid does.
"Every kid wants to be a star, but I know I'm not the greatest person in the world or have the best bat," he said. "But I've got a little speed here and there and try to utilize it in situations."
Whitten was valuable enough to earn spots on the 1999 Hernando Youth League state championship Dixie League team and the 2000 Dixie national champion Majors squad. His presence almost was a foregone conclusion to Sims, who coached those Dixie clubs.
"He'll be one of those guys where I look back and say he got the absolute most out of his ability," Sims said. "He will find a way to beat you from a hunger as being a competitor."
Whitten played a standout cornerback and some quarterback for the Hernando football team, providing as much leadership as yardage, and has been a reserve outfielder for the baseball team. His statistics are not fantasy league glossy, unless your league has an "intangibles' category. Whitten batted .184 last year and is hitting .235 this season.
In short, he's no star, but he's regarded as invaluable to his coaches and teammates. Sometimes a defensive specialist, sometimes a pinch runner, Whitten isn't looked to for glory work. He bunts, he steals bases, he advances runners with hit-and-run plays.
"He does what the coach asks for," Brown said. "You can't ask for more than that."
Whitten's willingness to contribute was so great this year that he is attempting to learn to switch-hit.
"Coach pretty much trusts him and respects him more than anybody on the team," said pitcher Jason Dunn, who played on those HYL title squads. "That's because Ray-Ray's not a goof-off. He works hard in school and he works hard out here, so everybody respects that."
Which make the quiet senior the perfect foil for a little fun sometimes.
"We were struggling earlier this year and I was frustrated and I was in a bad mood, and a couple of the guys on the team, knowing I would never yell at Ray-Ray, set him up to come talk to me," Sims said.
"He says, "Coach, I think I have an answer to the problem. Why don't you let Coach Whitehead coach third and call the offense like he did in Dixie Majors.' I just looked at him and said, "Ray-Ray, tell them they got you in trouble again and I'm going to take it out on them.' "
Whitten said he would like to play baseball in college but doesn't know if that will happen. His best high school numbers, a 3.0 grade-point average, should help him work toward the engineering or computer science degree he seeks.
The same desire he shows on the field will get Whitten wherever he wants to go, Sims said.
With his final season winding down, Whitten still works on the little things to help the team, but he allows himself the indulgence of an occasional fantasy.
"It's Legends Field, I'm to bat," he smiled. "Coach Sims, Coach Whitehead are on their toes. There's people on the base paths. I get the game-winning hit ... state championship."
Likely? Perhaps not. But he's earned the right to dream big.
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