Cook: The Team of the Year lost, but still won

Sure, they lost.

Every regular season game.

By a little.

And by a lot.

photo David Cook

View other columns by David Cook

You blame them? This spring, when the newly resurrected Howard School baseball team began its 2017 season, some guys had never played before. Coach told one guy to grab a bat, and he looked up.

"I thought he was talking about an animal," laughed sophomore Terrance Beamon.

Plus, Howard's team had been dormant for years.

So sure. They lost.

But don't you see?

Howard didn't lose.

"We won," said third baseman Torry McComb.

Beyond the scoreboard, there was another game being played. Transformation was battling stagnation. Hope versus despair. A Big Something against a Lot of Nothing.

Judge them by that game, and Jon Johnson is the Coach of the Year, and this Howard crew of 12 guys is the Team of the Year.

"We won in our mind and in our heart," said Beamon. "We won the whole season."

Howard won because the 31-year-old Johnson, assistant coach Hugh Crawford and a dozen or so young men worked all winter to beautify the gopher-holed garbage patch of a field. Through rain, sleet, 14-hour days. Moving beer bottles, tires, rocks as big as tires, ground as hard as rocks.

"Shovel in one hand," said McComb, "bat in the other."

I know of no other team in the city that's built its own field. Every player on that team should carry before-and-after pictures of that field to every job interview and college application. Think businesses won't drool over such proactive leadership? Such no-quit work ethic and vision?

"Lead by example," said senior Antonio Daniels.

Howard also won because of you, Chattanooga. You gave. And gave. And gave. Time, money, love, equipment, support. This winter, the team was in debt $500. Now?

They received an estimated $80,000 in donations.

This whole team says - shouts, yells - thank you.

"I love you," said Beamon.

One woman brought cold Powerades and snacks to every game. During practice, the team would look up and see strangers sitting in their cars, or leaning against the fence, just watching. It was the Southside version of "Field of Dreams."

"Like paparazzi," said McComb.

Howard won because they never quit. Deonte McCroskey? Opening of the season, he could barely catch. Now he's the starting first baseman. Beamon didn't know a bat from a bird. Now the rising junior is a starting outfielder and team leader.

"One of the most consistent and conscientious players we've had all year," said Johnson.

There were some SportsCenter moments: five-pitch innings and warning track catches and even an infield trick play. ("It's classified," smiled Johnson.) There was no hang-dog. They lost, then went back to practice. They laughed, closing Golden Corral down, roaring over dessert while Johnson and Crawford tried to freestyle rap. (Key word: tried.)

Players would ice-bucket coaches. Players called it a "family," not a team. They didn't come to practice on time; they came early.

Howard won because baseball saves lives, and we should all take notes: a loving mentor + something positive = transformed teenagers.

"Without this, I'd be lost," said McCroskey.

"It gives you something to stay out of trouble for," said Daniels.

Most of all, Howard won because one man believed they could.

Last summer, Johnson, who was just named Causeway's Changemaker of the Year, stood on the sad chain-link fence and looked out at an even sadder field. But instead of nothing, he saw something. A beautiful something.

Then he convinced a group of young men to see it, too.

"He had faith in me when I didn't have faith in myself," said sophomore Aaron Williams.

Once, at practice, the guys were stepping out of the box, afraid of getting plunked. So Johnson put on a helmet, grabbed a bat and told the pitcher: hit me. Over and over. Pitch after pitch. He got hit. And didn't bail.


"Because if you haven't seen it, you can't duplicate it," said Johnson.

That is the Howard story in 10 words.

"Anything is possible. That is what we have in our head because we did this," said Daniels.

Two weeks ago, Howard was playing Brainerd in the opening round of the District 6-AA tourney. The old rivals went back and forth, with Howard leading 14-12 in the seventh. With the bases loaded and two outs, a Brainerd batter lined a shot down the third base line.

McComb - with his "shovel in one hand, bat in the other" mantra - scooped it up, and ran to third, giving Howard its first win of the season. The place went nuts.

"He did more than run to it," said Johnson.

"He danced to it," said Beamon. "Sauntered."

Of course he did.

There was a lot of winning to celebrate.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfree or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.