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About Utah: A champion on and off the field

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Forty-seven years ago, when Roy Partee, a scout for the New York Mets baseball organization, sat across the kitchen table from 22-year-old George Theodore, whom the Mets had just selected in the 37th round of the amateur draft, and asked him what it would take to sign him, George said, “Well, how about a year of graduate school?”

Tuition at the University of Utah, where George had just graduated with a degree in psychology, cost $3,000 a year in 1969.

So that’s what the Mets paid him, and then sent him off to the minor leagues.

“I had no idea what was going to happen; I was one of the last people drafted,” he remembers. “But I figured I could always go back to school; I couldn’t always chase this dream.”

Little could he know at the time he was setting up both his careers at once.

George Theodore is about to finish his 38th year as a social worker for Granite School District, almost all of those years at Lincoln Elementary in South Salt Lake.

Before that, he played professional baseball for seven years, five in the minor leagues and two in the major leagues as an outfielder for the Mets.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 45 years getting paid to do what he loves.

He’d have played baseball longer if he could have. He exceeded everyone’s expectations, including his own, to even make it to the big leagues in an era when baseball was king.

As he puts it, “I knew if I went 0-for-4 for a week, I’d probably be gone.”

At that, he managed to pack two seasons in the majors with enough highlights for a 20-year career. His manager was Yogi Berra, his teammates included Tom Seaver and 42-year-old Willie Mays in his final season. In July of ’73 he had a highly memorable, and highly unfortunate, outfield collision with teammate Don Hahn that practically registered on the Richter scale, breaking his hip and sending him to the hospital for a month. When he returned in September, the Amazing Mets put him on their roster just in time for the World Series against the Oakland A’s, who won in seven games. He had two at-bats in the Series, and on one of them lined a shot over pitcher Vida Blue’s head he was sure was a hit until he rounded first and saw the ball in shortstop Bert Campaneris’ glove.

In short order, with his offbeat sense of humor, his colorful nickname — he was called “The Stork,” because of his lanky frame — and willingness to talk to sports writers about anything under the sun, he became a media darling in New York.

He hit .259 in ’73 and .219 for his career after being relegated to a pinch-hit role in ’74. “I was never really the same after the accident,” he says. “I don’t know why, I didn’t have the timing, it ended my career.”

And launched the next one.

George came back home to Salt Lake City, got his Mets-funded master’s degree in social work at the U., and in 1978 went to work in the public school system.

“I was going to do this for five years and then do something else, and now it’s 38,” he says.

Part of the reason is, like the rest of us, he could use the paycheck. (Making it to the big leagues may have been more difficult when he played, but it didn’t pay nearly as well. He made $36,000 in two years with the Mets — compare that to 2016’s minimum MLB salary of $507,500).

But the bigger part is no one will let him leave.

During decades of change at Lincoln Elementary — a school that is now 50 percent Hispanic and refuge to no less than 70 refugees from all corners of the world — the tall bearded man known as “Mr. T” (who bears a remarkable likeness to the school’s namesake) has been the glue that’s kept it all together. He’s nudged and nurtured generations of kids toward stability and positive self-esteem. In 2016, he finds himself counseling grandchildren of his first students. (The grandparents may have had an idea he’d done something before he was a social worker. But today, he says, “Most of them have no idea I ever played baseball.”)

His excellence has not gone unnoticed. In 2007, the Granite School District honored him with its Excel Award — given to the district’s top educators; and this past February the South Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce named him Educator of the Year.

“I don’t know how they chose it. I tell people it was because I was the tallest one in the building,” George says in his self-deprecating way. “I’m flattered and humbled because if you could see each teacher and how hard they work, and each psychologist and social worker, I’m no better than any of them.”

Amid howls and protests, he insists he’s going to retire at the end of this school year.

“For four years I’ve said, ‘One more year, one more year,’ ” he says. But now he says he means it. “I think it’s time for somebody else to put their mark on things.”

What’s his best advice for those who relieve him?

“Be yourself, give of yourself,” he says. “Really what has to come across is a genuine caring for the kid. I don’t know how many kids have come back and said to me, ‘Boy, you really helped me Mr. T,’ and I say, ‘Well, you’re welcome,’ and I don’t remember doing anything with them except playing basketball, or some game. But they did know that I cared about them and I was there to talk about things and help them get a little bit of control over what’s going on in their life.”

Teaching kids has suited him, he says, “because I’m a kid myself.”

As for what’s up after baseball and counseling, he says: “People keep asking me that. ‘What are you going to do? What are you going to do?’ I say, ‘I’m not going to do anything.' ”

Bet he’s good at it.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.