May 31, 2009
Birney Imes - [email protected]
Years ago one of our children had the good fortune to play summer baseball for Joe Dillon. In the 27 years he coached at Propst Park, Dillon became a legend among legends. They''ve since named a field for him. When he coached our son, Dillon was at the helm of a crew of 11-12 year olds called "The Pats," so named for Pat Patterson, the team''s sponsor.
Dillon''s teams were a joy to watch, both on and off the field. His kids were disciplined, focused and well-mannered. And, they won a lot of games.
When the occasion called for it, their coach could be counted on to toss a screwball.
Like the time in a state tournament when his boys were taking a pounding from a larger, more powerful team from Duck Hill. After three innings, Columbus was down 14-1 in a contest that more resembled a home run derby than a baseball game.
Dillon sent in Ed Lott as a relief pitcher. The onslaught continued unabated. The Duck Hill boys hit three more homers. With victory out of the question, Dillon opted for comic relief. He called time out and walked to the mound. He told Lott to wind up as he normally did and then simply roll the ball to the catcher.
The umpire was not amused. "That''s a disgrace to baseball," he yelled at Dillon.
"Our kids really needed a lift," recalls Dillon. "They were out-manned."
"I''ll never forget that as long as I live," Lott told his former coach years later.
Dillon, a West Virginia native, came to Columbus in 1965 to work at the new General Tire (now Omnova) plant. After 43 years at the Yorkville Road facility, he retired; he now owns a nursery and landscape business in the community of Malloy, about 4 miles across the Alabama line on the road to Vernon.
With the ruckus in New Hope over baseball coach Stacy Hester as the week''s hot issue, I thought a conversation with Dillon might be in order. Friday afternoon I gave him a call; right away we were on the subject of baseball.
"Discipline was the No. 1 thing for us," said Dillon. "We wanted to teach them not only the fundamentals of baseball, but to be responsible and accountable."
Dillon said he demanded his boys look at him when he was talking to them. He assigned his them all off-the-field tasks. Some gathered and carried the equipment; others tended the practice field. Dillon''s teams played or practiced five days a week during the season.
"We never allowed my boys to yell at the other team," Dillon said. "It was very important to teach them how to conduct themselves properly."
And that went for parents and coaches, too. Dillon tells of walking to the stands to confront an unruly father. "I didn''t let parents act like goofballs. I expected them to behave the same way as their kids."
That said, Dillon says he''s yelled at his players, but he''s never cursed or called them stupid. "Never embarrass a kid," he says. "Don''t make the youngster feel belittled. If he''s doing his best, you try to stretch him a little bit. Let them know you think he can do a little better."
Dillon acknowledges that Hester has a tough job.
"It''s a lot easier to mold them at 11 and 12 than it is at 16."
Reportedly, the Lowndes County School Board at its June 12 meeting is going to vote 5-0 for non-renewal of Hester''s contract.
While he''s quick to say he doesn''t know the full story, Dillon speculates that disgruntled parents are at the root of the controversy.
"If this has been going on, why hasn''t he (Hester) been called in?" Dillon asked. "He seems receptive to correction.
"I don''t know if he''s out of control," he continued. "He could be, but I wouldn''t take someone else''s word without seeing it myself. He might need some anger management; I don''t know."
Yet, Dillon is sympathetic. "When you are living in the public eye like this, it''s like you''re living in a glass house," he said. "For them to say they''re not going to renew is a death penalty."
That his players are coming back to defend him is a good sign, said Dillon.
The Dispatch has received an avalanche of letters and on-line comment in support of Hester. Many of the comments are cult-like in their vehemence.
Terms like "old-school" get tossed around when describing Hester''s coaching methods. "Old school" is synonymous with hard work, discipline and good sportsmanship, off and on the field.
Calling a player "stupid" or criticizing a specific player''s play in the media, as Hester has done, is not "old school."
Coach Hester, demand hard work and devotion to game, but just as important use your example to instill in kids a sense of fairness, decency and good sportsmanship. Those things will serve them far longer than knowing how to pivot on a double play or hit a squeeze bunt.
"The people of the (school) board have to stand up and do what''s right," said Dillon, finally.
We can only hope the board will handle it the same way we want our kids coached, with fairness, decency and good sportsmanship.
Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.