It all came down to one game: Science Hill versus Dobyns-Bennett for the Big Ten Conference baseball championship.
The year was 1982, and I was a senior in high school. My dream was to play varsity baseball for the Indians, and pitch in big games. And when the Hilltoppers ? coming off a Class AAA state runner-up finish in 1981 ? forced a third and deciding game for the Big Ten title, it was my chance.
D-B won the first game of the best-of-three series, 10-2, on Friday, April 23, at J. Fred Johnson Stadium in Kingsport. Rusty Bishop got the win on the mound and had two hits while Mike “Hoss” Williams also chipped in with two hits.
However, Science Hill was no ordinary high school baseball team. They had a terrific coach in Charlie Bailey, a true baseball guy, and a stacked lineup with speedy shortstop Tony Shade hitting leadoff.
Shade was followed by a trio of Division I signees. East Tennessee State University had already signed right fielder Mark Hunter (batting second), first baseman Jackie Cook (cleanup) and center fielder Billy Patton (fifth).
Between those guys was another pretty good player ? actually Jeff Forney turned out to be the Hilltoppers’ best. Forney was drafted three times by Major League Baseball teams: Pittsburgh in the 23rd round of 1984, Detroit in the sixth round of the secondary phase in 1984, and eventually by Cincinnati in the first round (19th overall) in 1985.
Forney spent six years in the minors with the Reds’ organization, making it as high as Class AA before eventually becoming the strength and conditioning coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. These days he is president of Triple Threat Elite Performance Center in Mesa, Ariz., and founder of Baseball Player University, a televised instructional show.
When the Big Ten series shifted to Cardinal Park, Science Hill built a 5-0 lead in game two before D-B rallied to within 5-3. In the top of the seventh inning, I was sent into the game as a pinch-runner with the bases loaded and catcher Chris DeGreen at the plate.
DeGreen drove a ball off the top of the left-center field fence. I was on first base, and didn’t tag up as the ball headed toward the gap. Therefore, when the ball bounced off the wall, I was right on the heels of teammate DeWayne Southerland, and we crossed the plate one right after the other.
It could have been the game-winning run, but the Hilltoppers rallied for two runs in the bottom of the seventh ? one on Shade’s RBI triple, and one on Hunter’s walk-off RBI single.
I was disappointed, but also excited about the chance to pitch. D-B coach Dave Hoover had saved me for the deciding game, hoping Science Hill would struggle with my assortment of off-speed pitches.
Going against a stacked lineup with a mediocre fastball ? teammate Frank Southers joked that I threw a “hanging fastball” ? it was clear DeGreen wasn’t going to be signaling with one finger down very often. Instead I would rely on my cutter, the same pitch Mariano Rivera used to become arguably the best closer in baseball history. If you throw it right, it doesn’t need great velocity.
I didn’t make the varsity until my senior year, so I didn’t have any history with Science Hill’s lineup. Ignorance was bliss. I was making my fifth career start, and had a record of 2-0.
With the title on the line, I set the Hilltoppers down in order in the top of the first inning. Unfortunately, trouble was waiting.
Home plate umpire Joel Pierce tried to short me two warmup pitches ? six instead of the required eight ? prior to the top of the second inning (we were the “home team” despite playing at Cardinal Park). DeGreen called Hoover to the plate and Hoover showed Pierce the rulebook, which stated a pitcher gets eight warmup tosses. Times-News Sports Editor Bill Lane wrote about the incident in his game story.
Other things would build up during the course of the game, and Hoover would eventually be ejected.
Maybe I could blame the warmup fiasco as a distraction for my first time facing Cook. He sized up a hanging breaking pitch and drove it way over the left field fence. It was going up as it went out, and probably reached the dock of the post office, a true mammoth blast.
Science Hill pushed across another run thanks to an error, and took a 2-0 lead. We rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the second inning.
Then Forney came up in the third inning, and did his Cook impression. He drove a solo home run over the left field fence. It wasn’t nearly as impressive as Cook’s shot. Sorry, Jeff.
The homers by Forney and Cook were the only ones I surrendered in my high school career. And oddly enough, it was the only game I did not record a walk or a strikeout.
In the fourth inning I ran into some trouble with baserunners, and Hoover removed me from the game. I pitched 3 2/3 innings, allowing six hits and three runs, two earned.
Later that day, my dad would tell me Hoover pulled me too soon. Perhaps dad was right as relievers David Snodgrass and John Blessing were touched for four runs in the top of the fifth inning as the Hilltoppers pretty much put the game away.
Science Hill eventually won, 7-3, and it was the only loss of my high school career. I finished the season 3-1.
In retrospect, I can say it took a pretty good team to beat me.
In an interesting note, I actually played the game in front of people I would eventually work with for decades. Lane became a good friend of mine through the newspaper business, and the writer for the Press-Chronicle at the time was Kelly Hodge ? who became my boss for over 25 years. And taking pictures for the game was Alan Broyles, who has been a co-worker of mine ? and now a photography mentor ? for over a quarter century.
Cook finished the game 4 for 4 with two RBIs and two runs scored. Forney had two hits and two runs scored with an RBI. Lower in the order, Jimmy Williams put together a 3-for-3 performance with an RBI.
Science Hill went on to win the district tournament that season, but couldn’t duplicate its run to the state finals. Knox Farragut, now a household name among baseball state champions, won its first-ever Class AAA title that season. Forney said the Hilltoppers had some talent, but were good in 1981 and 1982 because of their coach.
“I think it was Coach Bailey,” said Forney on Saturday from his office in Arizona. “He was just an outstanding coach. He really forced us to play fundamentally sound. We worked on the fundamentals. It was all about doing the little things.
“We had some talent, but it was a bunch of renegades. He taught us discipline, structure and organization. It was definitely him, and we had a good camaraderie because we played together from Little League all the way up. We really enjoyed each other.”
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