WAXAHACHIE — Fourteen senior jerseys lined the stage as Pastor Bruce Zimmerman delivered the invocation that, among other things, asked the Lord to watch over each of the more than 250 gathered and their love for “this sport of baseball.”
Three ballrooms inside the Waxahachie Civic Center were filled nearly to capacity Wednesday evening for the annual RBI Club 1st Pitch Dinner, which serves as the official season-kickoff event hosted by the baseball booster club.
Among the three highlighted speakers, which included former Waxahachie coach Gene Burton, current skipper Tracy Wood and Indian senior Tyler Navarro, two common themes emerged. Although each representing a different era of Indian baseball, all three agreed that the excitement surrounding the winning tradition of the program is vital to recognize, uphold and continue.
“Baseball comes and goes and time flies. It seems like just yesterday we hitting fungo or taking extra cuts or turning two. It seems like just yesterday but 37 years have passed,” Burton said. “I expect you guys to have a great season and want you all to do well. I look at the box scores every Wednesday and every Saturday to see how you did and keep up with you because I still have a lot of connections here.”
Burton led the Indians for one season before moving on to a career in education administration. Before his coaching days began, the now-retired Rockwall ISD Superintendent led the storied TCU Horned Frog baseball program in home runs in three straight seasons, which included all-conference honors in 1976. He is also in the Horned Frogs’ top-five all-time in home runs and total bases.
On Wednesday evening, Burton was the first to speak of the excitement the program brought him.
“I remember the excitement of getting a phone call from Mike Turner and Billy Bates, the superintendent, to give me the job. I remember the excitement of going down to Richards Park. I remember the excitement of our daughter being born and going to the ballpark at two, three and four months old. I remember the excitement of the kids as they drove into the parking lot, slammed their doors and sprinted to the field house because they were so eager to play,” Burton said. “I had to run them out even at 10:30 at night. [...] They just enjoyed playing and what I want to share with you is that you need to enjoy playing with each other.
“I hope you are excited about the season. I hope you are excited about the friendships you are making. There are guys who played together 37 years ago and are still sitting together at this table. You are making lifetime memories. Take it seriously, but have fun.”
Burton then recalled a 1996 speech by former Pepperdine University (1946-60) and Cal-Poly Pomona University (1962-91) head baseball coach, John Scolinos. He explained that the coach with 1,198 career wins said that it does not matter the role of player, rather the value that player can provide his teammates with sheer respect and hard work.
The speech also brought about the question of home plate. No, not quite in the literal sense but, yes, in the literal sense.
First, Burton asked the throng of Indian baseball supporters how wide home plate is at the little league level. As some searched for a measuring tape or pulled out a smartphone, he informed the crowd that it was 17 inches wide.
For each of the next three levels — high school, college and professional — Burton asked, “how wide is home plate?”
The answer, to all three, is 17 inches.
“It is always 17 inches. What I am leaving with you tonight are some things that will always make you a better person. […] You got to work hard. Nothing overcomes working hard. You don’t have to have any school or talent to work hard. Just work hard. Second, have a great attitude and be a team player. Be respectful, which, boy, is something I feel we lack today. Respect the authority of the umpire, even when a bad call goes against us. Or when we get a bad hop, how will we adjust? Respect the game.”
Burton concluded by explaining that a player can win championships, set records and become the star everyone else envies “or you can be the person everyone wants on their team. I challenge you to think about that because it is a great accomplishment for people to want you to be on their team.”
THE MIDDLE RELIEVER
Although the cadence sped as current Indian skipper Tracy Wood took his turn at the lectern, the basic message remained consistent — Wood is excited to continue the tradition of winning ballgames.
“Before starting the 2017 season, I started talking to different people, magazine publications and newspapers and people started asking for opinions and the word that I kept coming up with is ‘excited,’” Wood said. “That is what I keep saying to people when I get to talk about the 2017 season is that we are excited about it. I think we have a great opportunity in front of us. I have been playing and coaching this game for longer than I want to admit, but I don’t recall being more excited than I am for 2017.
"We are blessed to live in a town that supports us and backs us and that loves the game. […] We understand there are high expectations and we embrace it. We talk about how we are not going to run from that. We are going to embrace the standards that we have and our standards are going to be high and are never going to change. They were high before I arrived and they are going to be high when I leave.”
Wood recalled telling Mike Turner after taking the Indians to the 4A State Tournament in 2008 that “we were just trying to hold on and carry on” the already cemented winning culture.
“We understand that. Our seniors understand the tradition and they are proud to be a part of that. This senior group, they understand that tradition,” he explained. “This senior group also has a chance to do something special. Whatever they decide to do, they have a chance to be pretty special.”
Set to begin his 10th season in the Richards Park dugout, he said someone recently asked him if winning matters. As he let out a half-hearted chuckle, Wood admitted that he was there to tell the parents and players that winning does indeed matter.
“We want to win in everything we do. I don’t think you have to separate character from being a champion. I don’t think you have to separate that. What I believe is, and we tell our players all the time and they can probably quote this word for word, we want good people before we want good baseball players,” Wood explained. “What we think we have is both. That is what we want.”
THE SET-UP MAN
His speech was brief, but Tyler Navarro, a senior pitcher and third baseman, issued a challenge to the underclassmen to “compete until the very last out. We also challenge you to treat each other like family and hold each other accountable. To never be satisfied and to always cherish the memories we will have from playing together for this historic program. The last thing is that we challenge you to play your role and when you cross the lines to expect to win and continue this program’s championship tradition.”
THE [COMEDIC] CLOSER
As Wood concluded, he informed the contingency that the official Texas high school baseball magazine did not place Waxahachie in the top 20, 30 or even 40 in the state polls. The publication does not list the Indians anywhere relevant in the region, either.
In fact, the projected standings have the Waxahachie Indians, who begin the season Feb. 23 in the Tyler Lee tournament, finishing fourth in District 10-5A.
“Come see and we’ll see,” Wood stated.
To which KBEC personality and the “Voice of the Indians,” Ken Roberts closed out the program by reminding everyone “Coach Midkiff once told me that you can’t roll those magazines up and take them to the plate anyway.”
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith