From putting out fires on the mound to fires on the ground

Cla Meredith has been a firefighter for more than five years. Photo by Adam Cheek

Adam Cheek, Staff Writer

He was warming up in the bullpen during the 2010 season with the Baltimore Orioles when he noticed his pitches weren’t as effective as they once were. It was his sixth year in Major League Baseball. That’s when Cla Meredith knew it was time to retire. 

“I was incredibly fortunate to be able to do what I did,” Meredith said. “I don’t recall really blinking when it was time for me to hang it up, I knew that I couldn’t do it anymore physically.”

Meredith, a former VCU baseball star, returned to Richmond after hanging up his cleats to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a firefighter. The day he got the job, he celebrated at a place he spent a lot of time at while playing with the black and gold: The Diamond.

“I remember the day I got hired, and I cried,” Meredith said. “I cried, and that night, we went to a [Richmond Flying] Squirrels game. I remember just sitting there drinking beer, a few rows behind home plate, and I remember just how at ease I felt, like that transition was over.”

Meredith got a job with the Chesterfield Fire Department, his first position in the field. 

He spent six years in the MLB on three teams, primarily the San Diego Padres, a team he played with for four years. Meredith is currently a firefighter with the Henrico Fire Department.

The Richmond native posted a career ERA of 3.62 in the big leagues, appearing in 286 games. 

Meredith was able to transition from professional baseball to another career, something that other players often struggle with. 

“You hear about it all the time, players unable to go from that lifestyle and moving to something else, it’s incredibly hard,” Meredith said. “I had this identity for so long, and then it was gone. I was fortunate enough to get hired and almost five years later, here I am.”

Prior to his professional stint, Meredith played under coach Paul Keyes at VCU.

“I would run through that wall right there for Coach Keyes,” Meredith said, pointing at the side of the firehouse garage.

Meredith said Keyes reminded him of his dad, and they developed a friendship over his time with the Rams. Keyes died of cancer in 2012.

Meredith honed an unconventional style of pitching — sidearm —  and it came from emulating big-league infielders like Cal Ripken Jr.

“I remember my dad telling me every once in a while you drop down to a lower angle, show the batter a different look, different release point, you might throw them off,” Meredith said.

The reliever is VCU’s all-time ERA leader with a 2.52 mark. He posted a 1.19 ERA in 2003, which was an all-around stellar season for the Rams. VCU posted a 46-13 overall record.

“We had the best pitching staff in the nation that year,” Meredith said. “We had a very good chance of winning.”

He was playing pool with friends in his Monument Avenue apartment when he got the call that he had been chosen in the 2004 MLB draft by the Boston Red Sox. Meredith was selected in the sixth round. 

Two days later, the then-junior was in negotiations with that year’s eventual World Series champions.

One year later, Meredith’s major league debut with the Red Sox came at Fenway Park, the second game of a doubleheader against the Seattle Mariners. He was sent up from Double-A within the span of a couple days.

Meredith said it was the first time in his career he was nervous before a game. 

“I couldn’t even feel my body,” he added. “It was the first time in my life where I physically couldn’t execute because I just was so nervous.”

After three appearances in the American League with the Red Sox, Meredith was traded to the San Diego Padres to play in the National League. 

Once Meredith switched coasts and leagues, he realized he had an extra advantage on the mound while he established himself as a middle reliever.

“Even though I was a rookie, the National League hadn’t had a sidearmer in it for a number of years,” he said. “It didn’t take me long to realize even though I wasn’t very experienced, these hitters have never seen me before. I had the advantage. … I was out there every night, throwing 87-90 mile an hour sinkers and sliders.”

The major-league experience was like nothing else he had ever been a part of.

“Being out there [in San Diego] was like living a different life,” he said. “I’m literally on the complete opposite coast of the country. At some point during the day, it would hit me like, ‘Wow, I’m in the big leagues. This is my life.’ And I couldn’t have been more grateful for the opportunity.”

Meredith, who has been a firefighter for more than five years, didn’t want to be known as the baseball player who happened to serve the community. He wanted to establish himself as a firefighter. 

“I wanted to kind of develop a reputation as being good at this job,” Meredith said. “Not just the firefighter who used to do this.”

Sports editor Noah Fleischman contributed to this story.

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