Jun. 26—It’s an awkward situation, really.
For peers, but also coaches charged with competing at a high school level with at least a twinkle in their eye for ending a season at the state baseball tournament.
Finding a useful spot for kids who can’t catch a thrown ball.
“Uh, well, we’ll work on it Joey” (no, don’t use the name Joey for a clue. It’s a random name that came to mind).
“Take a cut now.” (Swings and misses by a foot).
“OK, uh, well, go play in the batting cages for a bit and try not to get assaulted by the pitching machine.”
Coach nervously looks at the 10-12 with hope and skill and says “Um, let’s go try to win. Who is pitching eligible from yesterday’s game?”
It’s been that way over several baseball administrations at Muskogee. Some kids even came out without gloves.
That’s a situation you’d expect in the tee-ball league at Hatbox. Maybe 8-under. But only, shall we say, on the teams made up of kids who at the outset of the season, league officials desperately try to find a willing dad or mom to coach.
The kids on those teams, for the most part, get discouraged or find their way to a football practice or basketball court, either before or after Coach Dad or Coach Mom gets discouraged.
The others? Select teams, select tournament squads, made up of free agent aqauisitions, whose folks dig deep for fees, and who by the time they hit middle school and are really, really good, they start shopping schools.
It’s somewhat why Oktaha, coached by an ex-Rougher himself in Kevin Rodden, is a 2A powerhouse. But don’t throw stones at Rodden. Any baseball guy through and through would love the full-time two-season, no football distraction baseball program that Oktaha is — a team in a school that in sheer numbers would be 2A if they played football, but instead forgoes it. And then with the fall under their belt, they go into the spring and compete even with the best of 6A and 5A.
So about that oft-used excuse that Muskogee is incapable of competing in 6A, pfffft. It’s all about what’s in the numbers. A couple years ago, Muskogee couldn’t beat mid-level 3A and B teams, given the opportunity.
But numbers do help. Fort Gibson and Hilldale have enough for JV teams in 4A. You can bet that the 6A programs with 40-60 kids Muskogee must compete with until they decline to 5A enrollment levels have one, and sometimes two underclass teams, and every one of them can catch a ball too.
One problem with gambling that eh, you can beat them with 12, or 10, or even nine — Haskell played an entire season with nine this year — is that those few better be pitching-rich.
For sure, at least in its basic elements, mastering baseball has obstacles that football and basketball don’t. You can take a 6-year-old, teach him to tackle, and he can thrive in a league without ever touching a ball simply by putting those with the ball on their butts. Basketball needs you to develop some kind of shot, but when you have pros who can’t hit free throws, it’s OK to mimic a Dennis Rodman type who plays defense with wreckless abandon, and you can make it.
In baseball, you must be able to catch, throw, or hit a thrown object and hope you can be the designated hitter.
Now, John Singler, who knows this all too well, is the head honcho instead of just a staff member in the Muskogee baseball program, where he’s served as an assistant for six years. He’s seen this scenario up close. Now, it’s his situation to fix.
Singler, the first ex-Rougher to have the job since Athletic Hall of Fame member Bob Branan a little over three decades ago, has seen some good times. He was part of the 2009 team that made state, partly on the back of a major-leaguer who, while making it through the select-team waters and electing to not transfer to surrounding cities at least in the early going, did eventually part, going to Broken Arrow.
Archie Bradley’s last year at MHS was Mack Chambers’ last year. You might recall Chambers as the guy who wanted to be full-time baseball coach but when he didn’t connect too well with football’s callings, was diverted to fastpitch softball in the fall, yet ended up winning with that outfit too, getting Muskogee to state.
Chambers left for Keys. He’s now at Seminole Junior College. The next guy after him did a U-turn before he got comfortable in the baseball office seat and headed back south of the Red River, never to coach a game. The next guy came out of Arkansas and went out of coaching from here.
Jeremy Griffin? He is the last coach with a winning record, but he and his family lived just south of Tulsa. Got practical with that process after two seasons and went to Bixby as an assistant on the tail end of a regional finals berth.
At this point, back in that day, this spot for scribbling contained an appeal to hire a local guy, with local investment. MHS did, and Nathan Frisby tried, and worked some magic one year with an improbable trip to Enid and a state berth for a 20-loss team. Soon the one-time Chambers assistant would bolt for Tahlequah, win there, then wind up at his alma mater of Hilldale.
The pickings were thin when the call went out to Johnny Hutchens, who had the backing of Tulsa Drillers coach Scott Hennessey as well as longtime and now retired area baseball coach Randy Smith, who was his coach at Fort Gibson.
Hutchens, who owned his own power wash business and had to get emergency certification to teach computer classes — was involved in Hatbox, a big reason they sent him to get certified.
But guess what? Much of his development within the Rays franchise of baseball and softball are bound for border towns. Some were from those zones to begin with. Others, like his daughter — one of the best junior high softball players in her grade who also happens to catch for baseball teams and don’t laugh,could have been a more-than-legit high school baseball player in green — still may excel, but will do so in Wagoner maroon.
It was a start, but it didn’t go far enough. You see that pattern of migration though? Bolting a 6A program to go down levels. All of them.
Dan Russell, a former Muskogee standout whose playing days preceded Singler’s by about a decade, tried to see if lightning would strike twice in the same place by applying for the coaching job as a lay coach, like Hutchens did.
But when Russell heard Singler got the job, he did what needs to happen a lot over the next 2-3 weeks: Investment by people who bleed green.
When asked Thursday, athletic director Jason Parker said while the preference was for a staff of certified teachers — Singler must build from scratch outside of the junior-high level — the AD acknowledged the door was open for lay coaches.
Russell, who sells insurance in Broken Arrow but lives here, suggested Thursday in a chat with Yours Truly he might just consider that. The one thing Russell wants, more than any particalar position, is to “get this sucker going again.”
He’d already reached out to Singler, who was more than open to it.
There’s plenty of intangibles in the new mix, given that the new skipper is also married to an ex-Rougher, and should have plenty of potential Rougher connections, both in the ex-player mode and in the pipelines to other help such as funding. And, he has a firm awareness on what must be done.
To avoid that awkward question of “have you ever played baseball” to a kid coming to try out while fearing a “not since my tee-ball years” answer, some of Singler’s coaching network are going to have to drop deep into the Hatbox circuit and go shop for kids at the basketball courts or Indian Nation Football, or heck, maybe even at the library or swimming pool.
Then teach, and teach, and teach some more.
You can teach a high school kid from scratch, but competing against depth-rich baseball factories with kids playing spring, summer and sometimes fall? Hey let’s start first with a JV schedule for those guys. Which means, you have to have more than the current high school-age roster of 14. In the meantime, for those at the top of the player chain, there has to be a commitment to work, and also drama-free parents or guardians. And maybe, just maybe, a top-shelf pitching arm that falls from the sky into your dugout and onto one of the guys.
But back to the program kids, the average Joes as they are so often referred to in whatever the sport. Make them love the color green, and make them feel it personally when someone tells them no one is tougher than a Rougher. He may have to prove it the hard way at times, like when he misses a catch and gets smacked in the cheek. So be it.
And that love has got to hold through middle school.
So, all you ex-Roughers like Russell who want to make a difference in this school’s baseball program, get on Facebook and message Singler. He’s already got a list, but ask anyway. Even if you don’t see yourself as a coach, even in the little leagues, sign up for the booster program. Offer some cash.
Then, be patient. Let Hilldale, and Oktaha, and Fort Gibson, and even an improving Wagoner team be good. Just help make enough room for another good team alongside them.
How about it Rougher Nation? How tough are you, really? And all you potential Hatbox volunteers, are you in for the long haul of patience more than you have some self-focused notion of a Joe Torre fantasy?
I said five years ago this was a 10-year reclamation project because of what Hatbox has done to the casually interested youngster who used baseball in search of his niche in life or maybe never had the family to get him there to test it. Two coaches later and we’re still at square one.
So it’s an opportunity to help make difference in your community, folks. If you’ve read this far, you can’t gripe about never having any opportunities. When I reached out to Singler asking what he was doing Friday, his answers filled my checklist boxes. He’s on the task, eyes wide open.
Yet it’s early, and the finish line isn’t in sight.
The window of opportunity is narrow, but give me a wager on him slipping through.