Friday, April 23, 2010

Coach had his field of dreams

When Muskegon's baseball season ends later this spring, Coach Jerry Eaton will walk off the field with memories and stories from a wonderful 26-year career.

Muskegon Chronicle staff writer
May 19, 1994

Muskegon baseball coach Jerry Eaton motivates the Big Reds in many ways.

But forget about the compliments and criticisms. Eaton still chuckles about his most bizarre ploy in the heat of a game long ago.

"We were playing in Grand Rapids, using wooden bats in those days," Eaton recalled. "We just weren't hitting the ball. I noticed a lot of scrap paper in the dugout. So I put it in a pile and lit a fire.

"Smoke was pouring out of the dugout and the fans didn't know what was going on. I told the kids, 'We're going to warm these bats up, so put them all on the pile.' We loosened up and went out and just pounded the ball. That's a true story."

That's Eaton, the motivator.

That's Eaton, the story teller.

That's Eaton, only the third head baseball coach at Muskegon.

When Muskegon's season ends later this spring, Eaton will walk off the field with memories and stories from a 26-year career.

"I've had 26 years of having fun," Eaton said this week from his Beach Street home. "I've had tremendous kids to work with. I can't ever remember a year not looking forward to practice."

A talented player
Baseball has always been Eaton's favorite sport, especially the pitching aspect.

He fell in love with the game while growing up near Pere Marquette Park. Neighbors could trace thumping sounds to Eaton, who pitched baseballs into a blanket near the side of his house.

"When I was 10 years old, I got a book from my grandfather called 'How To Pitch' by Bob Feller." said Eaton, who was inducted into the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1993. "It was my Bible."

Eaton became a Bob Feller-type pitcher. The 1953 Muskegon graduate never lost a decision as a pitcher for the Big Reds.

He'd fire blazing fastballs past hitters, while helping the Big Reds snap Kalamazoo Central's 49 game win streak en route to the 1951 state championship.

"I could throw hard," said Eaton, who delivered fastballs in the high 80s. "I was a thrower at that time. I'd just aim it down the middle of the plate."

Eaton exited professional baseball after two years in the Detroit organization. He married his wife Nancy in 1957 and headed for Western Michigan University for his teaching degree.

And then it was off to Bunker Junior High School, where he taught many subjects in 29 years and coached many sports. He still chuckles about his two-year stint in charge of the golf team.

"I had two girls on the team who could beat me," Eaton said. "They called me the advisor, not coach. That was my idea."

Just call him 'Coach'
In baseball, Eaton is 'Coach.'

The title comes from years of service and dedication.

He's taught hundreds of kids how to catch, throw, and hit a baseball. How to get to practice on time. And how to look and act professional on the field.

Haircuts are mandatory, too. Players always wear a cap at practice. Wearing shorts is a rare treat. Miss practice or arrive late and you pay the consequences under the competitive Eaton, who followed Harry Potter and Ray Ritter as Muskegon' baseball coaches.

Mike Taylor, Muskegon's junior varsity coach. played for Eaton in the early 1980s. He knows quite a bit about 'Coach.'

"He's a disciplinarian, very much so," said Taylor, who has been assisting Eaton for the past seven years. "He stressed to give 110 percent. He only asked that we improve."

One time, a player stole Eaton's master key to the high school at practice. The team ran for about an hour until the guilty player confessed.

"No, we weren't upset," Taylor said. "Everybody respected him. High school baseball is going to miss him."

Taylor still laughs at Eaton's many superstitions. 'Coach' takes the same routes to the field, uses the same scorebook pencil, eats at the same restaurant at the same time and is reluctant to change his socks. "He won't change his routine," Taylor said.

Eaton often lets Taylor coach third base in a move to generate good luck and runs.

Eaton has compiled a 382-213 record, including nine county baseball championships and no district titles. His best team finished 21-2 in the early 1970s, suffering a pre-district qualifying loss to Grand Rapids Creston.

"A kid hit a home run and we lost by a run," said Eaton, who missed his only game this year when his grandson was seriously ill with pneumonia. "I'll never forget that as long as I live. I didn't sleep for a week. The district has been my nemesis."

Leaving a mark
Eaton, like many coaches, has been a father figure to some players.

His toughest job isn't teaching baseball fundamentals. It's other tasks, like informing two players about their fathers' deaths.

That was sad," Eaton said.

Another sad time occurred when high school teammate Kurt Knudson died of leukemia. The family gave the pallbearers, including Earl Morrall and Eaton, identification bracelets. Morrall and Eaton still war those bracelets.

Eaton has sent dozens of players on to college baseball. Many former players still call and write him.

"I got a call about two years ago from a player whose daughter was on a softball team," Eaton said. "He wanted to know how to get his daughter more playing time.

"What did I tell him? 'Be polite. And ask (the coach) what can I do to make my daughter a better softball player?' That's the best way to handle it."

"I know he left a mark on a lot of these people," said Nancy, his wife of 36 years. "I think the dedication Jerry showed all these years has paid off."

Eaton has no set plans for retirement. He'll do some traveling with Nancy, spend quality time with his grandchildren and likely tell plenty of baseball stories.

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