SPECIAL SECTION: Tigers complete championship season
Published 12:00 am Friday, May 27, 2005
Years from now, when the conversation on Demopolis’s back porches and kitchen tables turns to the 2005 Demopolis High baseball team, it’ll turn first to that one capital-M Moment.
The Moment in the bottom of the eighth, in the first extra inning of the deciding game of the state championship series, with the scoreboard deadlocked 9-9. The Moment when senior catcher Seth Basinger got the pitch he wanted, turned on it, and launched a moon shot over the left field fence to bring home the state title in one swing.
Quite a Moment, yes. But if that’s all that conversation turns to, it won’t do the 2005 Demopolis Tigers justice. The championship may have been won in Montgomery’s RiverWalk stadium, at that particular Moment, but it was won by hundreds of practice grounders fielded on dusty infields, countless hours in the batting cage, years spent forging team chemistry and baseball instinct.
Basinger’s home run is, in fact, only one small piece of the many that have combined to make up Demopolis’s championship season. The Wednesday following their climactic victory over Jacksonville High, the Demopolis baseball coaching staff sat down to discuss the many factors that led up to that one Moment in Montgomery.
If there’s one characteristic of the 2005 team that the Demopolis coaching staff returns to again and again as the catalyst for the title run, it’s the team’s togetherness and senior leadership. The Tigers fielded a whopping 10 seniors on this year’s roster, every one of them, the staff says, a high-character player willing to do whatever it takes to help the team succeed.
“This group’s played together, in a lot of cases, since third or fourth grade,” says assistant coach Danny Wasson, whose son, Chris, is one of those seniors. “You could tell, even when they were eight or nine, that this was an unusual group, not only of athletes, but of young men.”
Freddie Lawrence, also an assistant on head coach James Moody’s staff, wholeheartedly agrees.
“It certainly makes a difference when you have guys that have played together for so long and know each other that well,” he says. “It’s the same way with the football team. When people ask what we’re losing, I say ‘character.'”
That character manifested itself in countless ways during the season, Moody says, whether it’s picking each other up after a bad play, keeping the team focused when ahead or behind, or accepting a role that might not be what the player had in mind. Moody pointed out the example of senior William Meador, who willingly filled the designated hitter position despite his desire to play regularly in the field
“We DH’d William and he never said a word,” Moody says. “He took it in stride, was very unselfish about it and did a great job. Those things make a big difference. If he didn’t respond that way, we’d have had a hard time. It’s a tribute to him and to him believing in what we’re trying to do. And then he took the mound and was a big part of the finals for us.”
The team’s readiness to help at whatever position they were needed created some much-welcomed depth, especially on the mound.
“We had 9 different pitchers win a game for us this season,” Moody said. “Sometimes we don’t have more than 4 or 5.”
Another example of the team’s unity has been the players’ willingness to put everything on the line for the team, even after suffering an injury. Senior outfielder G.W. Washington suffered a knee cartilage injury during the season and was told he would require surgery when the regular season ended. But Washington worked with the team trainer
“an hour and a half a day,” Moody says, to ensure he could compete with the team during the playoffs.
“Everybody knows what he did for us,” Moody says. “It’s just unselfish.”
That kind of senior leadership can inspire the rest of the team, as shown by junior third baseman Hunter Hawley, coming off a rough season of DHS football that had left him recovering from several injuries.
“His ACL, his MCL, his patella tendon…he hurt them playing football and we didn’t know how much we’d be able to get from him,” Moody said. “He ended up hitting .327 and had a great state tournament. And early in the year he didn’t even start.”
Moody says teams just don’t become that tight-knit very often, and for that he can thank his remarkable 2005 senior class.
“My wide told me, you might win another state championship some day, but you’ll never have a group of seniors, top-to-bottom, like this again,” he says. “And I think that’s true.”
Another factor that set the 2005 team apart from its predecessors was its collective intelligence, both off the field and on.
“Something that certainly needs to be addressed is that all 10 seniors are going to school on either an athletic or academic scholarship,” Moody says. “All 10. That’s crazy. That just doesn’t happen.”
Wasson says one of his fondest memories of the group is a good example of how they have managed to stay both mentally and physically fit.
“The biggest memory I have, and I guess this is a bit strange, but they were 10 or 11 and we were going to the All-Star finals,” he said. “And the game was the day after the new Harry Potter book came out. So we’ve got this group of boys going to play in a baseball tourney and on the way there they’re all quiet, reading Harry Potter. And that shows that they’re that good as students as well as being that competitive. They’ve stayed together and they’ve won together.”
Wasson says that intelligence has always translated itself onto the field, and played a big role in the championship-deciding game against Jacksonville.
“Two different times during the championship game, we had fly balls with either the bases loaded or runners on second and third. And both times, instead of just the runner on third tagging, the runner on second tagged too, he said. “That brought us an extra run in both cases. It made a huge difference. You’re not going to see many players who are smart enough to know how to react in that situation.”
Another example occurred in the eighth inning of the title game, when senior infielder Bart Pettus fielded a grounder with a runner advancing from first. Pettus couldn’t make the play at first to get the batter, but rather than routinely tossing the ball back to the pitcher, Pettus kept his head up and threw the Jacksonville baserunner out as he tried to sneak his way to third.
“Those are things you can’t teach them,” Wasson says. “They just have great instincts.”
That instinct extends to their base-running, Moody says, an underappreciated skill that can earn the team extra outs over the course of the game–and eventually, extra runs as well.
“This group is the best one I’ve had,” he says, “when it comes to sliding and being able to avoid the tag… They have a great feel and a flow for the game. There are times where I could just look at a kid and not say anything, and he’d know what we needed him to do. We talk about them being academically smart, but they’re athletically smart, too.”
Moody jokes that maybe sometimes, they’re even a little too academically smart.
“Baseball-wise, we do fine,” he says. “Conversation-wise, I can’t even talk to them.”
As great as their instincts might be, the Demopolis players say they still wouldn’t be anywhere near where they are without their coaching staff.
“I don’t think we could have had a better coaching staff,” Basinger says.
The players said that they appreciated, in particular, Moody’s (normally) relaxed coaching style and his dedication to keeping his players encouraged and positive.
“Coach Moody’s usually pretty laid-back,” says senior catcher/pitcher Clarke Kerby. “We could talk to him. It helps keep off some of the pressure.”
“Coach Moody never gave up on us,” says senior outfielder Darrel Kent, “even if we fell behind a little bit.”
For their part, the coaches gave credit to the players for being coach-able and were grateful for the coaching assistance they received during the season from Justin Barnes, a former Demopolis slugger who recently spent time in the Detroit Tiger organization.
“When Justin Barnes came to help us, I think that played a big part, Moody said. “Like it or not, some times they’ll talk to him when sometimes they won’t talk to us. There’s definitely some things they’ll tell him that I won’t hear.”
That comes partially from the age difference between himself and his players, Moody says, but also from the admiration Barnes’s eye-popping career numbers continue to earn amongst current DHS players.
“He’s able to relate to them more on their age level,” Moody says. “They know what he had done while he was here. The kids know that. They respect that. His being around helped us a lot.”
“Something he said [about the team] just killed me,” Moody added. “He said they’re like the Lakers: when the lights come on, they play. When it matters, they play. That’s the way it is.”
Virtually any coach at any level will tell you: No matter how well you prepare, no matter how talented your players, to win a championship you have to have a little luck, too.
For Demopolis, that came in the form of something that at first appeared to be a sizable hindrance rather than a help: an injury to starting catcher Clarke Kerby’s throwing arm.
“We’d gotten back [from a road game] and they were unloading the bus, and Clarke walked around to the front of the bus and tried to grab his bag with his right arm. And he couldn’t pick it up,” Moody says. “I thought to myself ‘What are we doing?’ I told them the next day we were going to have to rest Clarke for a while.”
The upshot of Kerby’s injury was that Basinger, who had been starting at third base, was moved to catcher. According to Lawrence, the move to switch Basinger behind the plate was the one that ultimately brought the team out of some early-season doldrums and sent it on the championship path.
“What people don’t realize is that in sports, a lot of time, injuries can be good for you. Injuries have actually been a blessing for us,” he says. “I think the turning point was when Basinger started catching.”
The coaches emphasized that they don’t mean any disrespect to Kerby. But the position change resulted in an immediate difference in Basinger’s ability to connect with breaking pitches, making Demopolis’s biggest bat even more dangerous.
“He could see the ball better. He was hitting it pretty good before, but when he moved behind the plate he started just killing it,” Moody says. “It’s because he was seeing so many breaking balls. When you’re not catching, the only time you see them is during a game. You don’t see them at practice. So he went from seeing maybe a handful a game to seeing 40 or 50 breaking balls a game at the plate. Any time anyone does that, they’ll pick up the spin a lot better.”
It wasn’t a coincidence that DHS followed Basinger’s switch with some of the their best baseball of the year the following weekend, going 5-1 at the Alexander City Lake Martin Classic. The Tigers’ performance during that Tournament, going against some of the state’s best teams and most intimidating pitchers on a rain-shortened schedule, was what convinced Wasson that the team had the potential to return to the state finals.
“We beat the Swann kid from [Montgomery Academy]. We beat the Wheeler kid from Childersburg. Because of the weather and the schedule, we faced everyone else’s number-one, played six games in three days, and still won five of them,” he said. “We just stayed out in the hotel, got away from everything and just focused on baseball, and from then on we won 80 percent of our games.”
The Turning Point
Despite Basinger’s renaissance at the plate, with only a week remaining in the regular season Moody was concerned that his team might end its season in disappointment again. The Tigers played an April 16 double-header against Prattville and Enterprise and dropped both games, 5-2 against Prattville and 3-1 to Enterprise in the nightcap.
More troubling than the losses to Moody was the Tigers’ inconsistent, sloppy play. The Tigers committed eight errors total on the day, six alone in the Prattville contest, and had given up a number of unearned runs that played a vital role in the games’ outcomes.
“I would say that was the low point,” Moody says. “We’re a week away from the playoffs and we lose 5-2 and 3-1 in games where he have more errors than we do hits.”
Moody responded with a tongue-lasing he hoped would wake the team from its doldrums.
“We came home and I talked to them on the bus. I told them I was as disappointed as I had ever been in a group. I told them I didn’t think they took it seriously enough. I’ll be honest, I was really worried at that point,” he said. “But from then on we went 13-2… If you ask about defining moments, that’s one for me.”
That’s not to say Moody didn’t–and doesn’t–feel that he might have come on a little too strong.
“I met with them Monday and told them, Listen, I’m still disappointed, but I’m not going to holler at you anymore,” he said. “You’re seniors. You know what you need to do. Now let’s go out and find a way to get done what we need to get done.”
Senior pitcher Devin Goodwin agrees that the fallout from the April 16 double-header set the tone for the rest of the season.
“I think we were all trying as hard as we could, but things just weren’t going our way,” he says. “Coach got frustrated and said some things. He told us later that he’d overreacted, that he realized we were giving 100 percent and that we should go back to having fun. That was a big turning point. After that we started rolling again.”
“That took a lot of the pressure off,” says Kent. “Coach said it doesn’t matter, just go out and play the way we know how to play.”
Re-energized, the Tigers won three of their next four games, including big victories over archrival Thomasville and Hillcrest, a team that had handed DHS a loss in their first meeting. But there was still work to be done.
“One thing people don’t realize,” Moody says, “is that this was the worst defensive team we’ve ever had. But it’s also the best offensive team we ever had.”
The Big Inning
For the most part, Demopolis rolled through the early rounds of the playoffs, posting a 5-0 record in their first five games and sweeping both best-of-three series. The Tigers smoked the homestanding Daleville Warhawks in the playoffs’ third round, posting a five-inning 10-run-rule victory in game two after walloping the Warhawks 9-2 in game one.
But there was one hiccup on the Tigers’ path to the state semifinals. Despite being at home, Demopolis trailed the Opp Bobcats 5-2 entering the bottom of the seventh in game one of their second-round series. A Washington single was followed by a pair of quick outs, leaving the Tigers with only one baserunner and one out to work with.
But that was enough. A two-run Basinger shot was followed by singles from Kerby and Meador and a walk to Hawley. Kent then stepped up and drilled a single up the middle to plate Kerby and Meador and steal an emotional 6-5 win for the Tigers.
But Demopolis had an even more amazing rally in store.
“I don’t think anybody,” says Lawrence, “will forget that night against Thomasville.”
The Tigers has taken game one of the state semifinal series 5-1, but had fallen behind their archrivals to the south 4-2 and had two outs in the bottom of the sixth. That’s when something occurred that, in Moody’s words, was “about as crazy a thing as I’ve seen.”
Basinger connected with a three-run blast to give DHS a sudden 5-4 lead. But the Tigers weren’t done yet by a longshot. Eleven consecutive Tigers proceeded to reach base, nine of whom crossed the plate to give DHS an amazing 14-4 lead before the shellshocked visitors could register the third out. The biggest blow was the inning’s second bases-clearing three-run homer by Basinger.
“We went from down two to up one to up ten,” said Moody. “These kids are connected that way. They feed off of each other. When we’re hot we’re hot, and when we’re not, we’re not.”
The victory was especially sweet considering the rivalry that has sprung up between the two teams. After a long stretch of failure against Thomasville, Moody’s teams have now won 8 of their last 10 against them, a fact that sits very well with DHS manager Albert “CannedGood” Thomas, who says the explosion against Thomasville was the highlight of the season for him.
“They think they’re the only Tigers in the world,” he says.
DHS would need one more stirring comeback before claiming Moody’s first state crown, though. Meador had come on in relief to preserve an 8-7 victory over the Jacksonville Golden Eagles in game one of the state championship series, but Jacksonville won the second game 6-3 to force a winner-take-all game for the title.
Entering the bottom of the sixth, Jacksonville looked like that winner. A big six-run fifth inning had opened up an 8-5 lead for the Golden Eagles, and an RBI single in the top of the sixth had stretched the lead to four.
But as they had against Opp, and as they had against Thomasville, the Tigers’ big bats and rowdy fans refused to let their seniors graduate without that elusive championship.
“We had the best fan support,” says Pettus. “If no one had been there, I think we would have lost. But every time we got down, they were there for us. Every time we left the field, they were standing and cheering. We didn’t want to let them down.”
“We knew this was our last shot,” said Kent. “We just didn’t want to lose.”
They didn’t. Solid work by Washington and senior outfielder Chad Schroeder helped load the bases for a Basinger walk to bring Demopolis within three. Kerby was hit by a pitch to cut it to two. Meador launched a sacrifice fly to cut it to one. And Hawley singled to drive in pinch-runner Chris Wasson and tie the game.
After Pettus’s smart defensive play in the eighth preserved the tie, DHS recorded a pair of quiet outs to begin the bottom of the inning.
But that brought Basinger to the plate.
“I felt like I needed to do something,” the big catcher says. “I’d been kind of quiet.”
The coaches agreed that with Basinger having yet to launch a home run in the series, he might be due. As Basinger worked the count to 3-1, the tension became even more palpable.
“I just did what I’d always been taught,” Basinger says. “He threw me a fastball, and I was sitting on it.”
The next thing anyone knew, the game, the season, these seniors’ brilliant careers–it was all over.
“I just felt an unbelievable amount of joy,” Basinger said of his emotions as he circled the bases. “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like that again.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Lawrence. “It was just unbelievable.”
“I went to my knees,” said Wasson, coaching in his final game after a career that’s spanned more than 25 seasons. “I just couldn’t believe it was over.”
But it was. The ending–players swarming Basinger at home, families crying for joy, the celebration lasting long after the lights had gone out–was what the team had imagined when they went to Montgomery last season. Both teams had plenty of talent and coaching. What was it that made the difference between this year and last?
“I think it was experience,” Wasson says. “The difference the year before, when we played Hokes Bluff, was that they’d been there already. They knew the pressure and they didn’t panic when they fell behind. This year we had that experience. When we were down 9 to 5, they knew somebody would step up and get it done. They didn’t try to get it all back at once.”
Lawrence says it’s as simple as the players understanding, in the back of their minds, they’ll never get another chance at a championship like this one.
“These kids knew,” he says, “that this was it.”
For Moody, the advantage was his team’s refusal to quit hitting, even with two outs and the outlook bleak.
“I didn’t really think we played well at all,” he said. “But going into the finals, we’d scored 73 runs this season with two outs. Any time that you have that capability of treading on water, you have to think, ‘Do we just have that magic one more time?'”
They did. Moody sat back in his office chair Wednesday, twenty-some-odd photographs of previous successful players on his wall, and talked about what separated this team, this group of seniors, from all those that had come before. He said that whenever he’d ask this team to do an odd job or two around the practice field or the school, they might cut up a little. They might do it slowly. They might have more fun doing it than was really necessary. But just as they would when faced with a four-run deficit in a championship game, just as they would when two outs and two strikes were staring them in the face, they always managed to get their work completed.
“It would’ve gotten done, period,” Moody says, and pauses. “There’s something about them. They don’t come along very often.”