Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Looking to spring as fall dawns and baseball dies

ROME, Ga., Aug. 27 - Here it comes. The feeling of emptiness. The loneliness. The sense of loss.

It must be fall. Baseball must be ending.

Yes, there is another month in the major league season. Yes, the World Series is still weeks away. But sitting here on a beautiful late summer evening during the Rome Braves' final homestand of the year, one can sense the end is near.

Summer is over. And with it the national game will pass into its winter slumber. Leaving us, as Bart Giamatti once wrote, when we need it most.

That the Braves won tonight, 6-1 over the beautifully-named Augusta GreenJackets, is of little consequence. The big dance is almost over. And my date is leaving with another suitor --- that crazy old man called Autumn.

Actually, the thought of fall is appealing this year. The heat has been unbearable this summer. Gas prices are going through the roof. What better excuse than thoughts of the approaching winter chill to keep folks at home and not burning fuel and rubber on the highway.

Plus it's time to head to the gridiron. Are you ready for some football?

The NCAA season gets underway this Thursday night. The Ol' Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier, makes his debut as the South Carolina Gamecocks' general on ESPN. Major college teams see action on Saturday. The NFL kickoff is only a couple of weeks away.

There is solace in that. Especially here on Rocky Top.

And yet it isn't the same. The manic concentration of action that is football leaves no time to talk to one's neighbor during the contest. No chance to watch the right fielder move into position just as the pitcher throws home. No score to keep from your seat. It's all there in neon in front of you.

So while one looks with anticipation toward the thoughts of lazy Saturday fall afternoons watching four or five football games in succession on TV (even Kentucky v. Vanderbilt is an attractive thought at this point, if for no other reason than to thank God you were born in Knoxville), my thoughts turn already to spring. To rebirth. To the time when the earth awakens from its slumber.

It is this promise of spring that will get you through --- after the National Championship is played and the Super Bowl is over and March Madness is but a blip on the radar screen.

Like the April rains, baseball will return again to feed the soul. As much as one hates to see it go, were it with us year round, it would lose its special place in fans' hearts.

The anticipation is half the fun.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Get 'em while you can

KODAK, Tenn., Aug. 14 - What a difference a day makes.

After a listless 4-2 loss to the Carolina Mudcats on a rain soaked Saturday night at Smokies Park, the Tennessee Smokies exploded tonight to beat the Southern League North-leading 'Cats tonight, 12-1, in front of an "I doubt there's actually this many here" Sunday afternoon crowd of 3,063.

The Smokies seemed listless last night, almost as if they had wished the umps had called the game during the 94 minute rain delay. Not so tonight.

Tennessee scored eight in the fourth thanks in part to a Chris Carter grand slam. It never was a contest.

Starting pitcher Adam Bass pitched seven solid innings, surrendering six hits and one run. He's a big presence on the mound, standing near 6-ft., 6-in. tall. He looks almost like Marshal Dillon on the mound - tall, tough and no nonsense. It would not be surprising at all to learn he hails from Texas.

The crowd, soon bored by the offensive juggernaut, was pleasantly distracted by the endless parade of promotions on which minor league baseball seems to thrive.

You'd think the game is enough to keep the fans happy. But apparently it isn't. Folks catching bean bags thrown by their children or kids circling around a bat until dizzy are harmless. After awhile, though, it gets old. Just play a few bars on the organ and be done with it.

It is hard to complain though. The Smokies (22-27) beat their archrival Mudcats (30-17) to take the series. It is doubtful given how late it is in the season that Tennessee will contend for another Southern League title. So you might as well take them where you can.

Tonight, on a picture perfect late summer Sunday afternoon, it was enough.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Here's to you, Coach Majors

It still hurts.

Every August, as another UT football season rolls around, one can't help but get excited. You check the schedule. Start analyzing possibilities. Crunching predictions. Hoping. Waiting.

But, for me, the promise of fall and of Saturday afternoons watching orange-clad warriors take to the gridiron is also tinged with sadness. Because John Majors isn't here. Because he isn't a part of it.

I will never forget that Friday morning in November 1992 when the news became official. Majors was being forced out. Assistant coach Phil Fulmer was all but certain to be his replacement.

Trouble had been brewing all season. Still, it was a shock.

Johnny Majors was the only UT coach I had ever known. I had gotten used to his presence on the Volunteer sideline. He was a coach from the old school - suit, tie, pissed off look on his face during games. He was what an SEC coach, hell, what a football coach, should look like, dammit.

Majors had been a star at Tennessee in the 1950s. A tailback who could punt the daylights out of the ball. An All-American and a runner-up for a Heisman Trophy that should have been his. And the best part was he was maybe 155 pounds soaking wet.

He coached at Iowa State, turning around a down-and-out program. He took the Cyclones to two bowl appearances during his tenure, a major accomplishment at the time.

From there it was on to Pittsburgh, where Majors inherited a team that had been victorious only twice the previous year. With incredible recruiting, Pitt and Majors (and a fella named Tony Dorsett) won a national championship in 1976.

Meanwhile, down on Rocky Top, things were rocky indeed. Bill Battle had resigned after six seasons, saying someone needed to rally the Tennessee fans and he could no longer do it.

Majors agreed to return. The band played "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" his first game back against California. It felt right. The favorite son was home.

Flash forward 16 years. As the 1992 season dawned, Majors lost his close friend and confidant, team trainer Tim Kerin. He was a man Majors described in a 2003 interview as his eyes and ears. He was the one who watched out for the coach's interest. Made sure all was well in the Big Orange family.

But Kerin was dead. Majors himself was recovering from heart surgery. One wonders whether things would have been different had Kerin lived.

Fulmer won unexpected victories over Florida and Georgia as interim coach that year. Majors returned to work before the Cincinnati game, 26 days after his surgery, coaching the team from the press box. He was back on the sideline for a win against LSU.

Then all hell broke loose.

The Vols lost to Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina. Rumors of complaints, back stabbing and angry boosters filled the airwaves around Knoxville.

The week of the Memphis game, coach Majors called a press conference. He had been forced to resign.

He won 116 games in 16 years and had a winning percentage of .639. And yet, he was out.

"Having spent 23 years of my life at UT - as a player, student assistant coach, assistant coach and head coach - I truly appreciate the support I have received from thousands of the most loyal fans during the good years as well as in some leaner periods," he said that day in Memphis, his wife, Mary Lynn, and old pal Larry Lacewell at his side.

Then his thoughts turned to his dad.

"Since the early days of watching my dad, the late Shirley Majors, coach, I developed a very competitive spirit concerning football. I played hard, I coached hard, and I demanded a lot of myself and those who surrounded me. Sometimes in the heat of battle, I've occasionally said things that, upon reflection, I wish I hadn't. But that's been my style, and it has brought me more success than failure."

He was gone after the Vanderbilt game. Back to Pitt to coach for another few years before retiring. He is now a special assistant to the Pitt athletic director.

One can argue that Majors' time had come and gone. That the program has since been raised to another level. But it makes me sick to think that John Majors is sitting up in Pennsylvania somewhere instead of here in Big Orange Country.

When I interviewed him for a story on Tim Kerin in 2003, Majors treated me, a reporter from a community newspaper, as kindly as if I were from Sports Illustrated. He was a true gentleman. I was soon fascinated by his stories of both Tim Kerin and of long ago football Saturdays. Talking to him, one of my childhood heroes, was a thrill.

So here's to you, Coach Majors. You're still missed here on Rocky Top.

It just ain't the same without you.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The greatest job in the world

I hate Mondays.

What a pointless day. You aren't recovered from the weekend. You aren't prepared to start the new week. And yet, there it is. Mondays wait for no one.

Then when it rains it makes it worse. Rainy days and Mondays. What a terrible combination. Paul Williams and Hal David had it right. They sure do get you down.

Still, it is hard to be too glum when you've got the greatest job in the world. Which I do.

I get paid. To write. To scribble notes down on paper and then turn the whole hairy thing into a story.

And you know what the scary part is? PEOPLE ACTUALLY READ IT!!!

Sometimes they even comment on it. I usually turn my head to and fro. "Can't be talking to me," I say to myself. "Larry McMurtry must be standing beside me."

I never thought I would be working for the community paper. I used to have these crazy dreams.

I was going to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. Write the definitive work on Richard Nixon. Then Stephen Ambrose beat me to it.

I majored in history anyway. What most found boring, I relished. I memorized dates. Stood fascinated over troop movements and migration patterns.

The first day UT history professor Steve Ash opened his mouth, I knew that was what I wanted to do. He gets paid to teach the Civil War and Tennessee history. In his summers, he writes books. That people read.

I earned my bachelor's degree and decided to get a real job. After a couple of interviews, I decided a real job wasn't for me. So I got a job at the community newspaper.

Two years into that assignment, I again decided to get a real job. Put on a suit and tie. Be here by 8 a.m. "OK, I can deal with it," I said. "I'll be making more money."

I was back at the paper within six months.

I love my job. I truly do. I love my job, my community, my coworkers, even love the people I write about. Or most of them anyway.

I could make more money elsewhere. But how can you put a price tag on happiness???

Shelby Foote once said that a writer's place is at home writing. Writing the truth.

I hope I die in my office chair. Just after I've filed the last story on Friday afternoon deadline.

So, you see, it's hard for me to really have a bad day. Even on a Monday when it's raining.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Gambling at Gettysburg?

Don't it just figure?

To hell with history. To hell with preservation. To hell with hallowed ground. Let's build a casino!

A group called Chance Enterprises, Inc. is planning to build a 40-acre compound near Gettysburg National Military Park that will include hotels, a convention center, a multi-screen movie theater and a slot-machine casino.

Yeah, that's what we want at Gettysburg. "Hey, honey, let's go tour the battlefield and then go play the slots!"

Supporters say that nothing significant happened at the site they are planning to build the casino. Maybe, maybe not.

But who really wants to see flashing neon lights while contemplating on Rebs and Yanks at Little Round Top? Who wants to sit in traffic destined not for the battlefield, but for the gaming area?

It was bad enough when they put that damn tower up.

Our nation's history is disappearing in a sea of strip malls, fast food joints and so-called "urban sprawl." The spot where Gen. Patrick Cleburne was killed during the Battle of Franklin, for example, is now a Pizza Hut.

I'm all for economic development, but this is insane.

The Civil War Preservation Trust is fighting to keep this casino from becoming a reality. For more information on this and other opportunities to save our nation's history, visit

The time has come to take a stand. Or else everything, even the hallowed ground, really will be gone with the wind.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Losing perfection in Music City

NASHVILLE, July 30 - Sometimes your best just isn't enough.

Nashville Sounds starting pitcher Gary Glover was perfect for 4 1/3 innings tonight in a game against the AAA Sacramento River Cats. Glover faced the minimum before allowing a walk to right fielder Matt Watson in the fifth.

No harm done. Designated hitter Shawn Garrett lined to left and shortstop Andrew Beattie flied to center. Still no hits and no runs.

But the Cats unloaded for five runs on five hits in the sixth to dismantle an otherwise stellar effort by Glover as the Sounds lost a heartbreaker, 5-3, at Greer Stadium in front of the season-high crowd of 12,344. So it goes in this grand old game.

Most of the fans were church folks who showed up for John the Baptist Bobblehead Doll night. Sadly, it didn't come with a detachable head and a silver platter.

The Sounds are contemplating building a new stadium downtown in a couple of years. It would be a true shame.

Greer Stadium is cramped and falling apart, but it's hard not to love the place. Anytime your scoreboard is shaped like a guitar, you know you've got something special.

Before the game, we joined Sounds season ticket holder Kurt Pickering in the stadium restaurant, four floors above the field. The restaurant features large glass windows that give diners an impressive view of the field. You can stay there the entire game if you wish, as long as you buy 10 bucks worth of food every hour.

If the Smokies had such a setup in Kodak, I would be there every night. And probably weigh about 300 pounds.

The season high crowd didn't seem to mind much that the Sounds had gone down to defeat. Glover provided enough excitement for five innings to satisfy even the purist of fans.

Most stayed for the Saturday night fireworks. I slipped quietly into the night, headed toward LaVergne and my laptop computer, to file a story.

Along the way, my thoughts turned to perfection and the lack of accomplishing it. And how one bad inning can ruin your evening.

Even if you've just pitched your heart out.