North Surry baseball icon Tony Martin used to tease David Mabe about why he wasn’t inducted into the Surry County Sports Hall of Fame yet.
Mabe laughed as he replied to the 2015 Hall of Fame inductee.
“Because I’m an umpire now and I’ve made everybody mad,” he joked.
The two liked to poke fun at each other since both are legends in the sport of baseball. Martin knew Mabe’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame was more a matter of when than if, for one of this year’s inductees. Mabe carries a lore of his own as one of the greatest baseball players to ever compete in Surry County and North Carolina.
Mabe’s name is still plastered atop lists both state and nationwide more than 35 years after graduating from East Surry. In the case of his 640 career strikeouts, which holds the state record and is 10th in the nation, Mabe said it will likely never be touched.
Mabe stood out in every league he participated in, from Little League through high school and into college. Once his playing career ended, Mabe decided to give back and become an official for baseball, volleyball and basketball, among others.
His determination to be the best led Mabe to incredible success as a player and official, making him a high-quality selection for the Hall of Fame.
“I’m honored and humbled by my selection to the Surry County Sports Hall of Fame,” Mabe said. “I’m not going to be able to meet the other recipients right now because of COVID, but hopefully things are back to normal next year. I’m praying so.”
A budding superstar
David Mabe had the tremendous advantage of having great role models in his life. First and foremost was his father, Russell.
“My daddy loved me,” Mabe said. “He pushed me hard to play baseball. There were marks in the front of our house where I would throw and he would catch. I wouldn’t be the pitcher I was without him pushing me.”
Mabe holds his father in high regard. Russell supported David in all his ventures, baseball or otherwise, until his death in 1991.
In high school, Mabe had phenomenal coaches such as Barry Hall, Harry Downs and Jim Morgan. Specifically of Downs, Mabe said: “Harry Downs means a lot to me. He’s a fine human being and I think a lot of Harry. He really meant a lot to us players.”
Even before that, Mabe was a Westfield boy who credits much of his success to Richard “Buzz” Hauser.
“I got a lot from his way of coaching,” Mabe said. “It was a lot of character building that wasn’t easy. I owe Buzz a lot. He’s a tough man.”
He attended Westfield Elementary through eighth grade and then made the leap to high school in 1980. Mabe said Hauser’s guidance made his transition a lot easier.
Cardinal legend Barry Hall had a lot of talented players and teams in his 41 years. Mabe was part of the first great team Hall had since he began coaching 1975.
“The first few weeks, Barry pitched the seniors,” Mabe said, referring to his freshman season in 1981. “They struggled a bit and I got to throw more and more. I actually got to play a few games.”
The 1981 season was the only season during Mabe’s career that East Surry missed the playoffs. Only one team per conference went to the postseason and Mabe said that South Stokes, coached by Barry Hall’s brother Bruce, usually won the conference.
When South won the conference by a game in 1981, Barry Hall took the team to watch the first-round playoff game to get a point across.
“I remember walking up to the parking lot after the game and Coach said, ‘This is the only time we’re going to do that. This is what it feels like when you don’t win.’ And it was,” Mabe said.
The next season, Mabe took on an increased role. He finished 17-2 on the mound and tossed 199 strikeouts, which only one other player in N.C. history had surpassed at that point.
“There’s no telling how many games that Barry Hall pulled me out of after five innings and I had no-hitters or one-hitters,” Mabe said. “I never even thought about stuff like that back then. I was just glad I was out so I’d rest and then start the next game.”
East Surry won the Northwest Conference’s spot in the Class AAA playoffs that year. After defeating Alexander Central, East Rowan and South Point, the Cardinals reached the State Championship series against East Bladen.
After pitching all seven innings in the first game in a double header, Mabe didn’t start Game Two. Hall subbed him in after East Bladen put runners on base in the second. Mabe threw the next five innings just hours after pitching a full game.
East Surry won the game 2-1 to advance to the sudden death game. Mabe wasn’t able to throw in Game Three after overworking in the first two. The Cardinals dropped the decisive game 6-0.
“I really wish we could’ve won one for Barry,” Mabe said.
Mabe’s strikeout numbers decreased as a junior and he finished 14-4 on the mound. East Surry still managed to win the Northwest Conference, but lost to Salisbury in the AAA regional semifinals.
He didn’t have much time to rest as American Legion Baseball soon took over his life that summer. A team in Mocksville, coached by Ron Morgan, saw the incredible talent from Surry and Yadkin counties and decided to recruit players from the area.
“Ron Morgan owned a construction company, and he gave me his company credit card so that I could fill up with gas every day and drive to Mocksville,” Mabe said.
Just like he did for East Surry, Mabe thrived on the mound for legion baseball.
He recalls driving to Kannapolis for a game in which he was originally slated to serve as a designated hitter. The starting pitcher gave up a few early hits so Morgan pulled him and subbed Mabe on the mound in the second inning.
Mabe set a new American Legion record for strikeouts thrown by a non-starting pitcher with 18 in eight innings.
“It was just one of those weird nights where everything went right,” Mabe said. “I can’t really explain it.”
Mabe’s last season of high school baseball was next and his mindset was that he and teammate Robert Gordan, someone Mabe said should also be in the Hall of Fame, had to step up as leaders on the young team
“I’m a senior,” he said. “How can I expect my teammates to do all the work when Robert and I were starters all four years. I had to be the catalyst.”
Mabe beat his previous tally of 199 strikeouts by setting a new NCHSAA record with 209 strikeouts that season. That currently sits at fifth all-time.
The regular season ended with a three-way tie for first in the conference between East, Starmount and Surry Central. Because 1984 was the first year that more than just the conference champions could make the state playoffs, the tournament would determine which two advanced to the postseason.
The bracket ended up pitting East Surry and Mount Airy against one another in one semifinal, and Surry Central and Starmount in the other. All East needed to do to make the playoffs was beat Mount Airy, then the championship result would only determine seeding.
East reached the championship game, qualifying for playoffs, but fell to Starmount in the finals. A win in the first round of state playoffs set up a rematch. This time, East Surry defeated the Rams 7-5.
“I didn’t have an extraordinary game pitching, but I did have a home run down the right-field line,” Mabe said.
His high school career ended soon after as East fell to Salisbury once again in the regional semifinals.
Mabe graduated high school with the following accomplishments in baseball:
Three-time All-State selection, four-time All-Conference selection, 658 career strikeouts still stands as an NCHSAA record and is 10th in the nation, NCHSAA second-most career wins (48), NCHSAA first and third in single-season strikeouts (209 in 1984, 199 in 1982), 380.2 innings pitched, .425 batting average, one perfect game, two no-hitters, 12 1-hitters, eight 2-hitters, seven 3-hitters.
Transition to officiating
Mabe attended various colleges and universities after graduating from East in 1984.
He started out at East Carolina, but got hurt in the fall season and was redshirted. He then transferred to Walter State Community College in Tennessee.
Mabe caught the attention of Division-I scouts at Walter State and earned a scholarship to Wake Forest. He was only at Wake Forest for a year due to a coaching change, but Mabe said he did pitch a no-hitter against UNC-Asheville and remembers having good games against the likes of N.C. State and Clemson.
Still thinking he may get drafted, Mabe finished out his college career at Elon.
“By then my arm was exhausted,” Mabe said.
When his baseball career ended, Mabe transitioned into officiating high school and small college events. This is something he had his eye on even before his playing career ended.
“I feel, personally, just as proud of my 30 years of officiating in the county as any of my baseball accomplishments,” Mabe said. “All the experiences I had as a player built me to be such a fair umpire myself. It’s all about being square and calling it down the middle. No matter their age, kids need to learn about fairness.”
Mabe has umpired more than 2,000 college baseball games alone and has no plans to stop anytime soon. He’s also officiated high school baseball, high school football, high school and college volleyball and high school and college basketball.
Just like when he played baseball, Mabe strives to be the absolute best official he can be and take on bigger and bigger jobs. In baseball, Mabe served as Crew Chief Umpire 2005 4A Baseball Championships.
He is already a nationally ranked volleyball referee and wants to keep climbing the ladder. He belongs to the Professional Association of Volleyball Officials (PAVO), was a referee in the 2008 NCHSAA 4A Volleyball Championship and was head official for the NCAA Div II 2009-2010 Southeast Regional Volleyball Championship.
Mabe was set to officiate for the Missouri Valley Association this fall, but COVID-19 cancelled fall sports. He said he’s interested to see how things work in the spring when there are a lot of sports that usually play in different seasons competing simultaneously.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith