Excerpt from “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…” available on Kindle at http://goo.gl/1afw3c
“There’s a ‘For Sale’ sign on a big old rusty tractor.
You can’t miss it, it’s the first thing that you see.
Just up the road, a pale-blue water tower,
With ‘I Love Jenny’ painted in bright green”
“My Town” by Montgomery Gentry
Lockhart is a relationship that, fortunately, I did not get to foster. You see, Lockhart is a small town in Union County South Carolina and not a person. I have been there twice and intend not to go there again if possible. It was a mill village in the heyday of textiles in South Carolina named for either James Lockhart, a miller who established a grist mill, or because of two sets of deer antlers that had been found locked together after both animals had perished. Today there are many more deer than textiles left in South Carolina and even fewer people left in Lockhart. If Some Town, SC, were to be called the armpit of South Carolina, then as far as I am concerned, Lockhart is where you would give South Carolina an enema. I am sure there are many good people in Lockhart, it is just I never had the opportunity to meet but a few of them. In forty years of coaching, no team of mine was ever treated as badly as we were treated at Lockhart High School. We were not treated badly by the players or coaches, the fans though were another kettle of fish entirely.
In 2001 I was in year one of a seven year tenure at Tamassee-Salem. For the previous thirty-one years that Tamassee-Salem had baseball, it had been an endeavor in frustration. Tamassee-Salem had not one winning season or trip to the playoffs in their history. I was so cocksure of myself that I thought that I could turn it all around with nothing more than hard work. Try as I did, there was nothing I could do to change the losing climate that was in place in year one of my stay there. We were in the latter third of the season and had not taken one game past the fifth inning “mercy” rule. For those of you who are not baseball fans, the high school mercy rule states that a baseball game is over if one team is ahead by ten runs after at least four and one half innings. Instead of preaching about winning I was more concerned about getting us into the seventh inning. I cannot describe how bad we were those first couple of years but I can tell you that in my first off-season workout, I hit four fly balls to three kids and all four balls found human flesh instead of leather. In our first game we went down eleven runs before we had an opportunity to bat and I had broken two clipboards in frustration. Most of the teams we played tried to keep the score down but for the most part it was a futile effort. I had to ask one coach to stop trying to bunt the ball back to the pitcher in an attempt to make outs. We could not field the bunts.
In addition to being bad there was no way to get anywhere easily from Tamassee-Salem. We would travel south to play Dixie, Ware Shoals and McCormick. To the southeast there was Christ Church in Greenville and Thornwell in Clinton. As we traveled toward the rising sun, we went first to Landrum and then on to Blacksburg. Once past Spartanburg we turned again to the southeast to Jonesville and finally on to Lockhart. Landrum was the shortest at just under an hour away, followed by Christ Church at just over an hour. The rest were far, far away, with Lockhart being the farthest. Because of the way that we played, most of our road trips ended in the wee hours of the next morning.
Lockhart school was typical of what had been built in the nineteen-forties or fifties in South Carolina. The Lockhart architecture consisted of one long brick building with an entrance framed by high columns that reminded you of the Parthenon (except the Parthenon’s columns were in better shape). In the spring, the outdoor athletic facility was a football field that doubled as a baseball field. In dead centerfield was a press box with bleachers that extended into left and right fields. Both sets of goal posts were in play as were several light posts that ran behind the bleachers. The right field foul line actually split the goal post which made them in play. The infield was placed off of what would have been the actual football playing field but dimensions were going to be strange. Somewhere near four hundred feet down the left field line, nearer to five hundred down the right and a mere two hundred fifty feet to dead center if you hit a ball over the press box. What really bothered me was the water spigot with the bucket turned over it in center field and the hole filled with tires beyond the right field goal post. The coach had used more chalk to lay out the out of play areas than he had used to line the field. During the longest ground rules meeting in the annals of baseball, I was told that if a ball rolled into the hole filled with tires it was a ground rule double. I was more concerned with what happened if my right fielder fell into it. This game was a tort liability waiting to happen and I decided the best thing for me to do was to put the outfielder I could most afford to lose in right. Sorry, Casey.
As we waited to begin the game, it became apparent that we were the social event of the week. Our dugout consisted of a portable bench on the first base foul line. There were no bleachers so everyone in Lockhart sat behind us in lounge chairs. Before the game everyone was the amiable Dr. Jekyll but as soon as the umpire yelled “Play Ball!” they all became the very hostile Mr. Hyde. There was one particular gentleman directly behind me who rode me like a fine cutting horse. I usually don’t mind this as it usually keeps the cretins off of the kids. He was dressed to impress, wearing bib overalls over a discolored “wife beater” tee and tipped the scales at least one hundred pounds over what would be considered healthy. Graying brown hair stuck out of his mesh cap in every direction and it was hard to discern where his mullet ended and his back hair began. Every time he tried to get under my skin, I tried to wise crack back. I did take offense when he yelled across the diamond to the umpire: “Kain’t you keep that fat son of a bitch in the coach’s box?” When I came back over after our at bat I pointed out that there was no coach’s box and I really wasn’t that fat. After the fifth inning, I asked him what was going to give his life meaning after I left to go back to Salem. He must have gotten depressed contemplating our separation because I heard nothing from him for the rest of the game.
Everybody who batted got a good dose of fan ridicule. Some of it was the good natured, “You swing like a broken gate” ribbing but a lot of it was personal and most of it focused on body features or types. Todd Oliver became the focus of two young men standing near the concession stand and every time he came to the plate they began to chide him with comments about the Pillsbury Doughboy or the Michelin Man. Todd was somewhat rounded but I really never considered him terribly overweight. I wondered if these two fans actually owned or had ever looked in a mirror. To be honest, had they been a couple of inches taller they would have been round. Both boys would have dressed out at about two seventy five or three hundred pounds and they only stopped yelling when stuffing their faces with hotdogs. I thought about bribing them with food to shut them up but I realized I had not brought enough money for the food they might consume. With hands on hips, I fixed them with my steely glare from the third base coach’s box, in hopes it would draw their attention away from Todd. That simply got the woman who sat with them questioning what I might be looking at. I assured her that it was not her. Maybe if she shaved…her chin. I know…sometimes my mouth should have a locking brake.
At some point I asked their coach if it was always this bad. He studied me a moment and smiled, “This isn’t bad; you should be have been here when we played Jonesville.” I asked if he had ever tried to do a little “fan training” on the accepted methods of taunting and he laughed as if I had told the best joke he had ever heard. “What gives?” He calmly explained: “You did notice that I am black and that this is Lockhart, right?” He went on to say that the only reason he had the job was because no one else would take it and that he was riding out the season. This would be Lockhart’s last baseball season as they consolidated the following year with Union. The people of Lockhart were upset. I was not.
The game itself was the best we played all year. Not only did we get it past the fifth, we held a seven to six lead going into the bottom of the seventh. In my mind I knew that the baseball gods would not shine upon us that day. I could only hope that somehow, someway we would stumble into a win. Their best hitter tripled to right field. I tried to will it to land in the hole filled with tires but he actually hit it over the hole. He scored on a sharply hit ball that skipped through the infield in to right field. As the batter tried to stretch his hit into a double, Casey’s throw got by the five players who should have fielded it. It bounced over the third base foul line and rolled into out of play territory. The umpires deemed that the runner had made third and awarded him home and the game. I really don’t blame them. The umpires had absorbed a great deal of fan abuse and were ready to go home. As I left the field, everyone had turned back into Dr. Jekyll again. They were such gracious winners. One older gentleman came up to me as we left the field and apologized for the conduct of the fans. I started to say that it was okay but decided that it wasn’t. I simply thanked him for his concern.
Tamassee-Salem baseball survived the trip. I tried to build on the positives and soothe sore and bruised pride. I also tried to explain why I felt everything that went on at Lockhart was wrong and how we could not let the fans get under our skin nor would I allow us to stoop to that type of strategy. Getting into our heads was what the Lockhart supporters wanted to do, and by allowing them to distract us, had contributed to our loss. Nietzsche taught that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It must be true. We played every remaining game into the seventh inning and found ourselves ahead in the seventh inning of our final game of 2001. As we faced our opponent’s last batter I had a different feeling than the one I had in the Lockhart game. We were not going to have to try to stumble into a victory and find ourselves falling short. As we recorded the last out, I reacted to the victory but no one else did. As I jumped to my feet and pumped my hands over my head in jubilation my team looked at me as if I had lost my mind. It was their first victory in two seasons and the team was stunned into a silence reminiscent of funerals and libraries. Our kids had not won in so long that they did not know how to celebrate. It did not take long for them to figure it out. Players, parents and fans were soon chest bumping and high fiving. I am sure, had there been champagne; everyone would have been spraying it as if we had just won game seven of the World Series. I found it particularly satisfying to see the huge grins on the faces of Todd Oliver and Casey Wood. Both of them had played such prominent roles in the Lockhart game and the 2001 season as a whole. If either one of those smiles had been a power source, I am sure it would have lit up Oconee County. I was smiling pretty broadly myself as I thought, “If you could only win one game, the last one should be the one.”