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Lessons in the infield

Through 500 victories, Larry Beets has molded men on his diamond, a place he says is magic.

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published February 25, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Lance Aram Rothstein]
Larry Beets and his team celebrate after beating River Ridge-his 500th win.

He wears a gray T-shirt and blue shorts as he pushes the lawnmower across his infield, his familiar Oakley sunglasses wrapped around his face. The bright sky lights up his white moustache.

It's 2 p.m., and he has already painted two sets of bases - one for warm-ups, and the other for the game - that are drying on top of empty buckets.

Soon, he will rake and water the dirt in his infield, raise the flag beyond the centerfield wall, make sure the white foul lines from home plate to the corners of the blue cinder block wall that wraps around his field are straight.

He will hit fungoes to his outfielders, and throw hundreds of batting practice pitches to his hitters until his 56-year-old arm is ready to fall off. He will meet with his team and deliver his philosophy, which, like his daily routine, hasn't changed in 29 years of coaching.

He will tell them to remember that winners listen, ask questions, strive on challenges, attract winners.

Losers? Well, they lose.

His work done for the moment, he retreats to his office, pulls his dinner out of a cooler and eats it standing up.

Larry Beets is saving the world one peanut butter and jelly sandwich at a time.

Field of inspiration

The baseball field at Ridgewood High School is Beets' church and his confessional. When Erik Bua came home this week looking for inspiration, the coach took him to the outfield grass.

They talked about the recent death of Bua's grandfather. About how to get the former Ram standout back to his old form. They listened to the birds and the wind and watched the trees just past the blue outfield wall sway, and took it all in.

And then all was well. Bua went back to college, and won his game the next day.

"It's magic," says Beets, and he believes this to be true.

He believes that on this field, great things can happen. That's why he spends hours tending to it, trying to stop the outfield from browning during a frost, putting in new benches in the dugout, always looking for ways to make it better.

"I have to make a place for them," he said, gesturing to some of his players. "The kids have to take pride in it."

Making sacrifices

Mike Rabelo, a former Beets disciple and current catcher for the Detroit Tigers, left spring training in Lakeland on Friday morning to throw out the first pitch in what became the 500th victory of Beets' career.

"I couldn't miss this," he said.

Like most former Ridgewood players, Rabelo speaks of his time with Beets with reverence and a smile.

When he was 14, he was zoned to attend Gulf High School. But he so badly wanted to play for Beets, he transferred schools with two of his teammates and was penalized by sacrificing one year of eligibility.

"That was tough for a kid," he said, but despite being drafted by the Boston Red Sox, enjoying an All-American career at the University of Tampa and making his major league debut last September, "playing for Beets was the best baseball decision I ever made."

It's hard to understand, he says, unless you have been on that field with the coach. Unless you have helped rake and mow and edge. Unless you have heard the man speak.

"Coach, he turns boys into men," Rabelo said. "He takes a 14-, 15-year-old boy who thinks he's just out there playing baseball, and then when your four years are up, and you're off on your own, you realize - that's where I became a man."

Simple solutions

George Beets, an old ironworker back in Knoxville, Tenn., made Larry Beets the man he is today. He taught him about hard work and making the most of your talent. When Larry Beets made his first team at 9 years old, he ran home and told George he was going to be a baseball player.

That was fine with Dad, but if that's what he was going to do, then he had to be committed to it.

That first year, Larry Beets was 14-0, winning every game for Thompson Tire Company. "I was the only one that could throw a strike," he said.

Beets said they had the ugliest uniforms in all of Knoxville, but the best team, winning the city championship.

He pitched for Knoxville South High School, and played in college at Austin Peay. He knew then he would be a coach, and he knew he'd take what George had taught him and give it to others.

It's as simple, he says, as throwing a baseball.

"Play catch with your Dad," he says. "That solves everything."

Lessons of a lifetime

Beets is old school, but with new school sensibilities. His delivery may have changed, but the message never has: HTTSR.

The letters are stitched into the back of every Ridgewood baseball cap. They are hung on the side of the dugout.

Hit The Top Step Running.

He thinks Enos Slaughter said it once, but it doesn't matter who did. The important thing is the meaning: always charge onto the field like this is the big game.

It's Beets' mantra though Rabelo says he will never forget another - Sleep When You're Dead and has been forever.

In fact, the only thing that has changed in 29 years is that Beets no longer eats three Three Musketeers bars every day. He'll throw back a black coffee in the dugout, sweetened with Splenda. And his wife Donna now makes his crunchy JIF peanut butter and sugar-free grape jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread.

Sometimes, she'll surprise him by putting on it soft white bread.

Beets smiles. And then he's off, back to the dugout for that first pitch, ready to win a game, teach his boys another lesson, rake and water his dirt infield afterward, lower the flag and take one last look at his field before heading home, eager to do it all again the next day.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@sptimes.com or 727-869-6261.

[Last modified February 24, 2007, 21:44:04]


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