Change is inevitable. You know it. So do I.
But there are times when you wish certain changes wouldn’t come, inescapable though they may be. Alas, it appears that just such a moment has arrived in my beloved hometown of Abbeville.
For the last 33 springs, fans of Abbeville High’s baseball team have seen the same familiar, mustachioed (or sometimes goateed, it varies) face when they glanced in the Panthers’ dugout. Indeed, Coach Mark Smith has been the face of Abbeville baseball. Heck, Smith IS Abbeville baseball, though I’m sure he would deflect such a statement and instead give credit to the players who have been a part of the program the last three decades. (And trust me when I tell you: He’s had some great ones.)
While he can give others the credit if he likes, the fact is undeniable: Mark Smith created the Abbeville baseball “brand” as it exists today. I have written about the garnet block “A” and how it is linked to Abbeville’s football program and, in fact, the town. Well, Smith has made a garnet calligraphy capital “A” just as synonymous with the Panthers’ baseball program. In Abbeville, you know what that calligraphy “A” means, what it stands for: A hard-charging, blue-collar, take-no-prisoners brand of baseball, an ethos that has carried Smith to more than 500 victories and three state championship series appearances.
As I’m sure you likely read in a piece last week from the Index’s David Roberts, Smith has announced the upcoming season will be his last leading the Abbeville baseball program. He will continue to be the offensive coordinator for the Abbeville football team and the athletic director at Wright Middle School.
Frankly I’m having a hard time imagining Abbeville baseball without Mark Smith as its coach. I mean, I was 5 years old when he began coaching the Panthers. Now most of the hair on my head (what’s left of it) is gray. And yet there he remains, guiding AHS into battle one last spring. The Panthers are ranked No. 1 in Class AA headed into the season, which sounds just about right.
I never had the pleasure of playing for Smith at AHS. I spent my high school days being a mediocre basketball player and a horrendous golfer. But I did take his physical education class at Wright Middle for three years, many, many moons ago.
Actually, for reasons unbeknown to me, we had two PE teachers at Wright: Smith and the legendary I.J. Goodwin. What a pair. One had a buzz cut, the other had a Jheri curl and they were both cooler than a polar bear’s toenails. As I remember it, PE class consisted of an inordinate amount of pickup basketball, and Coach Smith would occasionally deign to rise from his chair and come out on the court and beat the hell out of us in hoops. Don’t ever let him score the first basket in a game of “21” because he’ll just hit 19 straight free throws after that and win the game.
As Smith prepares to step away from the baseball program he’s shepherded for the last 33 years, there will doubtless be a debate about which of his teams was the greatest. At the risk of getting yelled at, I will now add my 2 cents to the debate.
It’s simple, actually: The best team Mark Smith ever coached at Abbeville High School was the 1994 squad. That team fell just short of a Class AA title, falling to Bamberg-Ehrhardt in a hotly contested state championship series.
But, my goodness, what a team.
They had Tony Terry, one of the finest athletes I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, gliding around out in the outfield. He ended up getting drafted by the Cincinnati Reds and played in the minor leagues for several seasons. Casey Stone also was in that outfield, though he was just a freshman at the time. He went on to a stellar career at Clemson University for Coach Jack Leggett. Vernon Walton, who went on to star at Wofford College, was at shortstop. They had a slugging first baseman, Mikey Norryce, who later was invited to camp by the Texas Rangers’ organization. And the list goes on. That team really should have won it all. Alas, it was not to be.
And so Smith will make the high school baseball circuit one more time this spring. One more spring of double steals and suicide squeeze plays. One more spring of late nights and bus rides. Another town, another ballpark. One more spring under the lights.
All the best, coach. From the heart.
Chris Trainor is a contributing columnist for the Index-Journal. Contact him at ChrisTrainorSC@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter@ChrisTrainorSC. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.