Charley Lodes led the East Tennessee State baseball program to three NCAA regional appearances in his first four seasons. ETSU returned to the NCAA regional this season for the first time since Lodes' Buccaneers went in 1981.
Charley Lodes wasn’t taking over at a baseball school when he was hired to succeed Joe Shipley at East Tennessee State in 1977.
In fact, future major-league pitcher Atlee Hammaker, a rising sophomore when Lodes got the job, intended to play only basketball after his freshman season. But Lodes, a smooth-talking dreamer who’d previously coached at Temple Junior College in Texas, convinced Hammaker to hang with it, recruited tirelessly with unprecedented resources from new president Arthur Derosier and turned a program that’d been treated like a glorified intramural program into an NCAA regional fixture.
The “Battlin’ Bucs” went to three NCAA regionals in Lodes’ first four seasons (1978, ’80 and ’81), a remarkable feat for a program that had won no more than seven games in any of Shipley’s final five seasons and wouldn’t return to a regional until this year.
Hammaker signed out of Alexandria, Va., with ETSU to play basketball, which he did for Sonny Smith. But he said his official visit came at the expense of the baseball program, and he played his freshman year of baseball, more or less, as a favor to Smith. ETSU only played 21 games Hammaker’s freshman season.
“It wasn’t a heavy schedule, so I did it … because they flew me up on baseball money to visit the school when I’s getting recruited because the basketball program didn’t have any money left,” said Hammaker, who won 59 games in the majors and was an All-Star in 1983. “I had no plans on playing further than that. And Charley Lodes came in my sophomore year and pretty much begged me almost every day after basketball practice while they were working out in the cage. The cage was in the Minidome. So I’d come off the basketball court and he’d always come over and say, ‘I’d love for you to come over and throw a few minutes for me’ and ‘I’ve heard a lot about you’ and all this stuff. So with enough nagging, I went over there and threw on the sideline for him, and that’s when he said, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t quit basketball and play baseball.’”
Of course, most of what Lodes built wasn’t done with tools he inherited. The first recruit Lodes signed was assistant coach John Whited, a no-nonsense complement to Lodes who’d coached at Dobyns-Bennett and stayed with Lodes three seaons before getting the Tennessee job.
“The president wasn’t gonna give John enough money,” Lodes said, “and I told him, ‘We’ve gotta get him.’ I said, ‘He’s well known throughout all of the state of Tennessee at the high school level.’ John was a great baseball man.”
Lodes, who lives in Oklahoma City, said Derosier was nearly as gung-ho as he was about building a nationally renowned program.
“When he hired me he said, ‘Is there any place we can still recruit,’” Lodes said. “He was a baseball person. I said, ‘Yeah, the American Legion World Series is taking place in a city just outside of Boston.’ He said, ‘You know where the damn airport is, don’t you?’ And he gave me two years carte blanche.”
Lodes’ found South Dakota’s finest, control pitcher Jeff Andrews, on that trip to Massachusetts. Andrews went on to pitch in all three regional tournaments, a run capped when the Bucs beat host Clemson 2-1 in 1981 thanks to Andrews outdueling Jimmy Key for the complete-game victory.
It was the second straight season Andrews had pitched in the regional against the Tigers at Clemson. They knocked him out of the game quickly en route to a 22-4 victory in 1980, and their manager, Bill Wilhelm, was alluding to that fact while Andrews warmed up for the rematch a year later.
“I hear their coach, Bill Wilhelm,” Andrews said, “in the dugout in the bottom of the first inning. He looked out and said, ‘We got this guy last year. He can’t pitch with Jimmy. All we’ve gotta do is get a couple of runs.’
“I remember hearing that in the bottom of the first inning when I was taking my warm-ups, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more focused or locked in for a game than I was that afternoon. … And he was right; they did beat my brains in the year before. … But when I was a senior I heard those words, and it was kind of just enough to spur me on just a little bit more. It took away any fear that I had.”
Freshman third baseman Mike Nipper hit his 17th home run of the season off Key to tie the score, 1-1, in the second inning, and speedy second baseman B.J. Hinson led off the third with a triple and scored the winning run on Tony Martin’s single.
The Bucs, who opened the 1981 regional with a 7-6 loss to Mississippi State, followed the upset of Clemson with what most believe was a more impressive victory against Wichita State. The Shockers had future major-league hitters Joe Carter and Phil Stephenson, but ETSU won 5-4 in 13 innings.
Lodes made an unconventional move in starting freshman spot starter Phil Pierce instead of Joe Graves against the powerful Shockers. Lodes thought Graves was too tense.
“He would’ve started the game if he wouldn’t have been so excited about throwing,” Lodes said. “He knew all of the Wichita players, and knew how good they were. And I told him, ‘You’re not starting tonight, Joe. … I’m gonna start a right-handed freshman out there that doesn’t know who they are or anything.’ And Joe said, ‘Whatever.’”
Pierce retired eight straight batters at one point while holding Wichita State scoreless through three innings, but only recorded one out in the fourth. The score was tied, 3-3, through four innings.
“I was a freshman and I’d mostly pitched in relief,” Pierce said. “I didn’t start any big games. Everybody just kind of looked around, not sure if Charley was serious. …
“I mean, I was in awe walking out on the mound, and before I threw my first pitch 45 or 50 radar guns go up. I remember Jeff Andrews said, ‘Just go out there and take it a batter at a time. Every inning you give us is a huge plus.’ Wichita State was the No. 1 hitting team in the country. I know Joe Carter ended up being the better player in the majors, but I couldn’t do anything with Stephenson. I think I threw one low and away and he lined it to the left-center gap. I threw him a changeup and he about took my head off.”
Fellow freshman Jeff Brintle relieved Pierce, and allowed one unearned run in 7 2/3 innings. As fate would have it, Graves worked two scoreless innings of relief for the victory. Singles from Tony Martin, Brian Snyder and Nipper produced the winning run in the 13th.
“I can remember looking at Phil at the beginning of that game thinking, ‘Man, the pressure is on you bad,’” Nipper said. “The worst thing we’d done was watch them take batting practice. Everybody on that team could hit. …
“But Phil was a bulldog type of guy. He’d get after hitters – and he didn’t throw 95 (mph). Charley understood how to manage pitchers. Phil and Brintle were freshmen pitching in the regional against a great-hitting team.”
Having to use Graves in the extra-inning game caught up with the Bucs. Graves started later that day against Mississippi State. The Bucs needed to beat the Bulldogs twice to get to the World Series. Graves gutted it out five innings, but left trailing 5-0. The Bucs were behind 6-0 before scoring two runs in the seventh, and Snyder’s three-run home run – his second of the regional – made it 6-5 in the eighth, but that was it.
The Bulldogs went on to shut out Michigan before losing one-run games to semifinalist South Carolina and national champion Arizona State.
“We were playing our hearts out and really should’ve beaten Mississippi State,” Nipper said. “I honestly think we were a better team than they were. We thought Wichita State was the best team there.
“We knew we were (a Top 20 program). We carried ourselves that way. We didn’t really think there was anybody that could roll over us. Charley demanded that you carry yourself that way.”
Andrews still offers a marveling chuckle when thinking about playing in that first regional in Auburn, Ala., some nine months after basically signing blindly with Lodes.
“I think I was his first recruit and we just kind of went in it kind of blind,” said Andrews, a minor-league pitching coach with the Texas Rangers. “I traveled all the way from South Dakota down to Johnson City and he traveled from Tyler, Texas over to Johnson City, and we just kind of started playing. … We started with gray flannel uniforms and all of the things that were left over.
“And then Coach Whited came in the fall of that year, and those two guys together were just tremendous coaches of baseball and coaches of men. Their stay there when they were together was phenomenal. They just took a bunch of rag-tag guys and made them into really good baseball players. I’m sure we weren’t the first on anybody’s list.”
Lodes says more of his recruits should’ve been higher on others’ radars. He recruited speed and arms, and figured out where to play them later. Snyder, a right-fielder drafted in the sixth round by the Giants in 1981, began as a pitcher, and ended up throwing multiple players out at first base on would-be hits to right field.
Wayne Dannenberg was another pitcher-turned-right fielder who was drafted by Phildelphia in the third round in ’83. Others drafted during the Lodes era were Nipper, pitcher Greg Bartley, Hinson, Andrews, third baseman Gary Robinette, shortstop David Cardwell, Hammaker, pitcher Kerry Burchett and catcher Tim Bailey.
Catchers, who called all the pitches except for knockdowns during Lodes’ stay, were especially integral to the success. Football player Mike Shifflett was the first backstop. Lodes brought in JUCO catcher Ken “Chief” Swinson, a fearless gamer who Andrews said might’ve best personified the Lodes era. Bailey was signed out of Knoxville, and as a freshman in ’81, he threw out Wichita State’s leadoff batter/base-stealing extraordinaire after Pierce had walked him to start the game.
“Bailey had a cannon,” Nipper said. “He was probably sub-1.7 to second base.”
He could also block a mean plate.
“He was big, about (6-4, 225 pounds),” Pierce said. “So you didn’t worry about anybody charging the mound.”
Actually, Pierce said, Lodes might’ve been the toughest guy in the dugout. Sure, he was a salesman, but he’d walk the walk.
Pierce recalled an Appalachian State football player hitting a home run off him to tie the game and apparently saying something to Lodes as he rounded third base. The next time the bruiser batted, Pierce was instructed to throw at him, and he followed orders.
“I can’t remember if I hit him or not, but he jumped up and took about two steps toward me,” Pierce said. “And by then Charley was already out of the dugout and on the third-base line. Charley would back his players anytime, anywhere. And that dude would’ve broke me in half. …
“One time we were down in New Orleans and Charley was pitching BP and Brian Snyder hit a line-drive that barely nicks the screen and hit Charley in the face. It knocked out his two front teeth, or maybe he was wearing dentures. Whatever it was, Charley picked them up and put them in his pocket. I mean, he’s out there spitting blood everywhere and he’s dipping that Copenhagen and spitting, and he put his teeth in his pocket and kept pitching BP. Now, that was one tough Oklahoma bird.”
The muscular Nipper remembered Lodes taking a good shot while throwing batting practice, too.
“He told me to get back in the box,” Nipper said. “He said, ‘You can’t hurt me.’ I mean, what do you say to that guy? He was a tough guy.”
There wasn’t any retreat in Nipper either, and he and Lodes butted heads.
“I was hardheaded,” Nipper said. “We both were hotheaded. My first year, I thought my name was Dammit Nipper. I think I led the league in home runs and errors. They moved me from shortstop to third base right before we went to regionals and put Chris Hurst on shortstop.”
There was no arguing with Lodes’ results. After losing handily to North Carolina and Memphis State in their first regional in 1978 at Auburn, the Bucs’ first regional victory was a 3-1 win against Georgia Southern in the first round of the losers’ bracket in 1980 at Clemson. Next up was South Carolina, which ended the Bucs’ season with an 8-5 win.
The fact that ETSU won three regional games in two years and went to three regionals in four years still surprises some of those who were part of the program’s dramatic turnaround.
“His vision,” Hammaker said, “was to build what the University of Texas had as a complex for East Tennessee State, which was a huge vision. He had us thinking, ‘My gosh, this school’s getting behind him. They’re gonna do that.’ … He was definitely overboard, no doubt about it. But he had such passion.”
Derosier left in the early ‘80s and it became apparent no new on-campus facility was coming anytime soon. Mooney Field was a humble abode.
Lodes hosted three-game series with teams such as North Carolina with one apiece played in the professional ballpark in Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol. Resources were scaled back.
“Charley took that really hard, how that went,” Nipper said. “And for him to hang in two more years – he stuck it out with us. We were young and playing baseball, but I think it wore on him hard, because he had so many dreams for that program.”
Lodes left after the 1983 season. He coached at Oklahoma City University, where, in ’84, he led it to a regional win against Oklahoma State. The program dropped to NAIA, and had been to the national semifinals twice by the time he left under pressure following the ’88 season.
He kicked up his share of dust, even his allies will say, but Lodes left deep spikemarks during a six-year stint hustling around the Buccaneers diamond.
“After we won the OVC at Western Kentucky that first year, Charley took us to this restaurant and he said, ‘I don’t care what the bill is,’” Andrews said. “And I know he got in trouble from the administration. He said, ‘I don’t care.’ I mean, we had steaks and we had desserts and he treated us.’ He was like, ‘We’re going to the regionals. You guys have earned this. I don’t care if I get in trouble.’
“He was something, boy. I tell you what, he didn’t back off from anybody. He didn’t back off from one single person, and he infused that in us. … The thing that spurred me was just Coach Lodes’ passion and desire and not settling for anything less than putting these ideas in our heads. … And he did change the culture completely there.”