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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Frank Permuy has built the program from scratch into a winner, and now a state semifinalist at last.
By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published May 25, 2005
TAMPA - Like it was yesterday, Frank Permuy remembers exactly what the principal told him when he agreed to become Gaither's baseball coach in 1984, not long after the school opened.
"He said we'd get some top-notch players from Chamberlain and Leto," Permuy said. "But we didn't have one player that had ever sat on a high school bench."
He knew then the job wouldn't be easy.
And perhaps that is why Gaither's first trip to the final four, secured with a 17-2 win over Lakeland George Jenkins last week, was particularly gratifying. Nothing was handed to Permuy. Nothing came easily. He literally built this program from the ground up.
The payoff comes tonight at 8 in Sarasota, where the Cowboys play Cape Coral Mariner at Ed Smith Stadium. This is Permuy's ninth trip to the playoffs with Gaither, but the coach is no stranger to the final four.
Permuy, 62, reached it 23 years ago.
In 1982, he led Tampa Catholic to the Class 3A title with a 7-0 win over Punta Gorda Charlotte in his first season as Crusaders coach. The situations, however, can't be compared.
"That (team) was kind of handed to us," Permuy said.
At Gaither, Permuy didn't reach the playoffs until 1990, didn't win his first playoff game until 1995 and didn't reach a region final until 1999.
"We've always either been one pitcher short or something came up," Permuy said. "But we always stuck with it."
Despite Gaither's inability to take the next step for many years, Permuy never lost any sleep. He said he doesn't keep track of trophies or wins, though it's worth noting he passed the 500-career victory mark last season.
"I love to coach," he said.
Players both past and present have a strong affection for Permuy. Senior Ryan Plate said some on the current squad call him "The Godfather." Wharton coach Scott Hoffman, who played for Permuy at Gaither and later was one of his assistants, said he phones his mentor "almost every day, just to talk baseball."
"I credit a lot of my success to him," Hoffman said. "A lot of coaches root for him. He's a nice guy. He'll help you out no matter what you need. He's genuine. He loves to go out there every day and compete, regardless of how it turns out."
This season, things finally fell into place.
A key transfer moved in, a few dominant pitchers emerged and as the season progressed, Gaither (25-5) began looking like a contender. But there were a few scares.
The Cowboys sneaked past Brandon 3-2 in the opening round of the playoffs, then survived against Clermont East Ridge 10-9, but only after almost blowing a 10-2 lead in the final inning. With the final four clincher against George Jenkins came a gigantic sigh of relief.
This week, Permuy has preached to his squad to savor the moment. He knows opportunities such as this don't come around every day.
"I told them they're not going to believe the experience once they get out there," he said.
Winning it all won't be easy.
But the players have every intention of making Permuy's long wait worth it.
"This means a lot since he has been such a great coach over the years," Plate said. "He's a legend."