In 1976, the Clarksville National Majors Pirates, led by coach Freddie Petty became one of few teams in the league’s history to complete a perfect season with a 14-0 regular season record. (The team also defeated the league’s all-staff team in post season play). By most people’s account this was a highly unlikely outcome, but for the man who had been coaching this team for a few years, he knew exactly what he was doing.
Coach Petty knew his team well, but like a battlefield general, he also understood the tendencies of the other coaches, their key players, the field conditions, and the rules of the game. He always had a copy of the league’s rule book in the back pocket of his trousers. Armed with this information and his relentless focus on fundamentals, he developed important strategies and plays that could change the momentum and at times the outcome of a game.
During the 1976 season’s most critical game, the other team had a great pitcher who, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “could throw that speedball by you, make you look like a fool boy.” At the completion of five innings of play the score was 0-0. Instead of combating the ‘speedball’ directly for the last inning of play, coach had every player fake the bunt, while the pitcher was in his windup. This change was just enough that the opposing pitcher started having difficulty maintaining his speed and accuracy. In that inning, the pitcher walked four of our batters allowing the winning run to walk across home plate securing a 1-0 victory.
We were also thoroughly trained to keep our eye on the ball and know its location at all times. The opposing teams did not heed this important ‘where is the ball lesson’ and fell victim to unforced base-running errors, causing them to be easily tagged out by our infielders when leading off or over-running a base. Coach Petty deployed many other clever strategies and plays throughout his coaching career, but winning a baseball championship is not the most important aspect of this story.
No matter the final results of our baseball seasons, Coach Petty demanded that his players exhibit the following values: Total Commitment and Best Effort, Unmatched Sportsmanship, Dedicated Teamwork, and Understanding How to Win or Lose (with humility, grace, honor). These key values were simply non-negotiable.
Early in the 1975 season, an umpire clearly missed a tag at third base (everyone knew it, us, opposing team, fans, etc…) and the call cost us the ballgame. Coach Petty was not disappointed in our play and he did not mention the umpire’s missed call, but he did tell us in no uncertain terms that our sportsmanship was unacceptable (many of us threw our hats or gloves down in protest of the umpire’s missed call). Instead of enjoying the after-game snacks and complaining about the missed call, we ran laps around the field, while our parents waited in the stands. The opposing team knew that they had not won the game cleanly and seemed confused as to why we were running laps, but instead of watching us, they joined us. Instilling these important life-long values in his players established the foundation of his coaching legacy.
Coach Petty’s true legacy can be found in the names of the boys and one girl that signed the team’s Championship baseball. They include: first responders, senior military members, successful businessmen, professionals, and other productive members of society. The following names are inscribed on this ball: Jeff Burton, David Petty, Dan Maddox, Joe Owens, Chris Morin, Tommy Washer, Scott Thomas, Ricky Owens, Randy Hogan, Jamie Tue, Gina “Sam” Dickson, and Mark Poole.
Little league baseball is a great American institution; where everyone is welcome to participate. When signing up our young people for this endeavor, look for a coach that will teach our young people the fundamentals of America’s game, but more importantly look for a coach that will teach them the key fundamental values required for a successful and productive life.
Today, Coach Petty is at home in hospice care as he finishes his race of life. There is no doubt he will leave a strong legacy as a dedicated husband, father and coach. He will be able to look back on his life and claim that he fought the good fight and has finished his work. Our community and nation shine brighter due to his life’s contributions and accomplishments.
Recently, I visited with Coach Petty and during that reunion he presented me with 1976 champion Pirates baseball. He also reminded me that the 1975 team won its last eight games of the season. When combined with perfect season in 1976, that team won 23 games in a row. Looking back on that accomplishment, I believe one could say that, ‘We are the Champions.’
Godspeed Coach Petty.