It's April 8, 1974, and traffic is horrendous as we exit the freeway in downtown Atlanta, back in the day when the blue dome atop the Hyatt was the most visible landmark.
The Atlanta cops are overwhelmed. We’re in the wrong lane to turn right, to head down toward Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, so we’re forced into a lap around the capitol building.
Finally we’re in the proper lane, but not for another cop, who steers us toward still another lap.
Allan Morris, the sports editor of The News-Free Press is riding shotgun, and by this point is lobbing profanities out the window. Jimmy Duke, the Baylor basketball coach, and I are in the backseat, alternately laughing and fearing imminent arrest.
Calmly, patiently, with humor, Ray Deering navigates the traffic. Pretty good metaphor for the way Ray navigated life, navigated his career as an educator and leader.
A few hours later, Hank Aaron would hit his 715th home run, to break Babe Ruth’s record. Forty years as a sportswriter, that remains one of the great moments I was blessed to cover.
Nearly 18 years as a sportswriter in Chattanooga, Ray Deering remains one of the great people I was blessed to know.
After I moved from Chattanooga, the contact was infrequent. With Ray, it’s like that regretful, default mode many of us take after hearing of an old friend’s death. “I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but I kept up with him on Facebook.” When Joe Scruggs and others recently started a Chattanooga baseball history page, Ray was among that friend group, and that brightened me up to see him appear. Barely more than a week ago, I sent him a birthday message.
“Lot of good memories coming back,” I wrote him.
Ray was a “reformed sportswriter” when he took the job at Baylor, where he influenced so many lives. Upon retirement, he put some WD-40 on those writing skills, removed all the rust and enlightened readers for years with his unique contributions to the paper.
Ray would hang out in the press box at Engel Stadium with us after the Lookouts returned in 1976. We went to dozens of Braves games together. Because the aforementioned Allan Morris didn’t drive, Ray joined several of us as his pre-Uber-era chauffeurs, on-call and ready to deliver Allan to the coaches’ offices at UTC or to Atlanta.
That’s how we happened to be in claustrophobic traffic outside the Georgia capitol, joining 55,000 others with high hopes we’d see history made that night. Or, by that point, with high hopes we’d survive the next half-mile and make it to see the first pitch.
There’s a lot that remains vivid in my mind from that night. It was chilly. A usually wide-open press box was shoulder-to-shoulder. There was an anticipation each time Aaron came to the plate that I’ve felt only a few other times in covering sports, like Michael Phelps on the starting blocks in Beijing, the bugler’s call at my first Kentucky Derby, the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl. I remember his home run, almost in slow motion, teasing us whether it would clear the fence.
And I’ll never forget that pregame traffic, with Allan casting aspersions on everyone from the lowly traffic cop to the mayor of Atlanta.
And there was Ray, hands on the wheel, the epitome of good nature and patience and humor and tolerance, spending time with friends he cherished, piloting them to an experience that would resonate for a lifetime.
(Mark McCarter is an award-winning sports writer, who formerly was with the Chattanooga News-Free Press and the Huntsville Times)