I'm in my 50th year writing about sports at all levels – youth recreation ball, Little League ball, junior high athletics, high schools, small colleges, big colleges and major-college conference powerhouses from the four corners of America and points in between.
I’ve seen the good and bad of sports, like the often odd behavior from a guy like Chuck Webb, the former All-World running back at Tennessee, who had a temperamental streak in him.
In the 1990 Cotton Bowl against Arkansas, Webb rushed for 250 yards and two touchdowns – including a 79-yarder that was the third-longest in Cotton Bowl history – and didn’t want to stick around for postgame interviews despite being selected as the game's Most Valuable Offensive Player.
Webb got dressed and tried to slip out the back door of the locker room, but was literally collared by UT sports information director Bud Ford and ushered back to the interview room.
I was around when the son of a Lookouts owner tried to embarrass the late Charlie Finley, the flamboyant owner of the Oakland A’s, with public remarks after Finley decided he would not keep the A’s in Chattanooga an extra day following the rainout of an exhibition game at old Engel Stadium.
Finley verbally humiliated the owner’s son in a telephone interview. Lesson for the son: Don’t try to punk a guy like Finley. That’s a terrible, foolish idea.
Athletes – and sometimes fanatical fans – can be angry, acrid, hot-headed jerks that fly off the handle or boil over with rage after a poor performance.
Many years ago I watched basketball fans of Howard High School erupt after a close Tigers loss in a tournament game in Knoxville and damage life-size All-America pictures inside and a few cars outside Stokely Center.
There are, luckily, more athletes than the angry ones that can come to grips with their emotions following a bad game, regardless of the sport.
Cincinnati Reds reliever Rob Dibble, who had a short-fuse and reputation for “having” sports writers for dinner after poor-performance games, was as pleasant a guy to interview as I’ve ever encountered after a minor-league appearance at Engel Stadium while trying to play his way back to The Show.
Embarking on a failed attempt at professional baseball didn’t keep Michael Jordan, at one time the greatest basketball player on the planet, from treating small-town media with respect – something Bobby Knight had tremendous difficulty doing and I know that from personal experience at Madison Square Garden in New York.
On Sunday morning, I checked my e-mail – as I do every morning – and was captivated by a missive from a local high school baseball player.
In my half-century sports-writing career, I’m not sure I ever received a note – it’s possible, of course, because that many years can play tricks with one’s mind – like the sent by a baseball-playing teenager.
And this particular e-mail stemmed not because of on-field success, but from hard-to-swallow failure the day before.
Chae Butler, widely regarded as Tyner Academy’s best baseball player, rose from the ashes of a Saturday debacle against McCallie to share his experience of learning from adversity.
Butler, while not a young Bob Gibson by any means, is a pretty darn good high-school pitcher. He’s recorded two no-hitters this season, although one became a bit controversial this past week.
On Saturday, Butler clearly did not perform at his best and Tyner’s team as was overwhelmed by McCallie, 11-4, in the Wildcat Classic game at Hixson High School with a collective sub-par effort. Coach Rob Flowers let the Rams know he wasn’t a happy camper in the aftermath of what could only be described as a train wreck.
Butler was rocked for six runs in the first inning, an uprising that included a three-run homer by the Blue Tornado’s Ethan Cady, a shot that banged off the scoreboard so hard the sound could probably be heard a few miles down the road in all the hustle-bustle at Northgate Mall.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 180-pound Butler walked the first batter and watched as the No. 2 hitter reached on an error to start the uprising – five runs were unearned runs.
Butler needed 36 pitches to get the game’s first three outs.
In four innings, Butler was hammered for eight runs – three earned. He struck out six and walked four. Three errors behind him didn’t help matters, but he never once showed displeasure with teammates.
Butler, as the e-mail shows, lives by a silver lining philosophy.
“Thanks for covering Tyner baseball,” he wrote, “we really appreciate the coverage you have given us when no other media seems to think our team is worthy. You cannot help but learn from the experience of playing a team of McCallie’s caliber. I will become a much better pitcher because of it.”
See what I mean.
Here’s a teen-ager writing about an experience that a guy like Chuck Webb would have exploded had it happened to him. Hey, Webb tried to duck out the locker room’s back door after punishing Arkansas. Think what he would have done had he been held to minus yardage in a loss.
Yet, Butler, an honors student, had quickly put the nightmare behind him and had a clear view of how he would use it to his benefit down the road.
“He’s a real good kid,” Flowers said in a text response after being told of Butler’s e-mail. “I’m glad others are getting to see the type of gem he really is – as a person and player.”
College coaches are noticing Butler and “several” have offered scholarships, Flowers said. Couple the offers with academic excellence and Butler has numerous options at his disposal when it comes time to choose a college.
Butler came to Tyner with the idea of turning around a downtrodden baseball program. “I decided,” he said in an interview for a story on what the Rams thought about the Jackie Robinson movie that was partially filmed in Chattanooga, “to grab as many of my friends as I could that played middle-school ball and take the challenge.
“We all decided to stick together in our hope of changing the culture and that touched my heart.”
He knew what Robinson went through while breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
“I know Jackie Robinson went through a lot to give us the opportunity to play baseball and I’m blessed that he did that,” Butler said last spring. “If he was still alive, I wish there was a way I could thank him.”
Butler isn’t the only “good kid” on the Tyner roster. He has been, however, the team’s leader from the first day he stepped on campus.
He has been selected All-District 6-AA in all three of his previous three seasons and was the defensive MVP – he plays first and third when not pitching – in 2012. It’s a good bet he’s headed for a fourth selection to the all-district team.
While Flowers will hate to see Butler leave Tyner, he’s appreciative for what he’s done for the program and what lies ahead for the youngster.
“I look forward to seeing him succeed,” Flowers said.
With talent and strong character on his side, the odds are with Chae Butler.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)