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David Cook

Read Part One: The resurrection of Howard baseball

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Two weeks ago, Jon Johnson was in a pickle. The Howard School coach and his team of no-quit young men were trying to make playable a rocky, weedy baseball field that hadn't seen innings since the Bush administration. He had $800 but needed 10 times as much. Their first home game was right around the corner.

And they didn't even have a mower. Or a pitching mound. Or gloves.

Well, Chattanooga, they sure do now.

"It's a miracle," Johnson said.

Two Sundays ago, within hours of reading about the Howard team, so many of you responded. Phone calls. Emails. New and used gear. Sweat labor. Strangers began showing up at practice, bringing shovels and rakes, ready to work. One reader emailed the MLB commissioner.

But most of all?

You sent money.

"We've raised $45,000 within two weeks," Johnson said. "Do you believe that?"

One Chattem executive donated $3,000 to sod the entire infield. Another man showed up with a check tucked inside a sealed envelope. When Johnson opened it later that night, he gasped.

"A $10,000 check," he said.

Johnson's fundraising at generosity.com —"Build a Future, Build a Field" — has ballooned from $800 to nearly $19,000, thanks to more than 100 donors. As Yogi Berra might say, the future at Howard ain't what it used to be.

"Everything's new," said senior Cameron Thomas.

New gloves. Cleats. Practice gear. Bat bags. Cameron's hands once were caked in blisters from batting without gloves. Now they aren't. There are plans for a new dugout. An area Lowe's partnered with Master Halco to donate $15,000 for taller, elegant, maroon-and-gold fencing. Big yellow foul ball poles. New relationships.

"Every day, someone new shows up to practice," Cameron said.

Johnson, who teaches Spanish, has been up till the wee hours answering emails, writing text drafts and then sending them once the sun rises, which is also the time he drives out to Soddy-Daisy to pick up another load of dirt — it takes nine tons — for the new pitching mound. (And did I mention he's got a 10-week-old?)

"Running on adrenaline," he said.

I talked with Johnson last week. He started listing names of folks to thank.

Fifty-eight minutes later, he was still listing names.

"I'm afraid I'm leaving somebody out," he said.

Local businesses — from Ace Hardware to RiverCity Athletics to Chattanooga Topsoil to The Athletic Shop to BSN Sports to Baseball Warehouse — gave so, so much. Local high school coaches pledged the $215 to sponsor cleat-to-cap some of these Howard players. Carson-Newman University coaches brought down gear. One local team invited Howard to play at their place, then promised to give Johnson the concessions and gate money. Another coach gave Johnson a mower. Another, practice pants. A pitching screen. Ten dozen baseballs.

Scott Harden, the baseball coach at Ridgeland High, arranged for a Walker County bus to shuttle the Howard team to his facility for a Howard-Ridgeland workout. Took BP together. A local family dropped by some gloves.

They ate burgers and dogs together, the all-white Ridgeland team with the all black-and-brown Howard team. Joking, eating, shagging fly balls.

At the end, a player from Ridgeland walked up to Johnson.

Coach, I've got an extra batting cage in my backyard, he said. Would like to give it to your team.

"He drove down from his house in Ridgeland to drop it off that very night," Johnson said.

Bob Hall, who owns Crossroads Cafe, came to drag the field while Johnson's inside teaching. Another man donated $2,500 for Johnson to award as a leadership gift for a senior going to college.

Robyn Carlton, who runs the Lookout Mountain Conservancy, believed in Johnson before anyone, looking him in the eye with a $1,000 check, and showing up to work frigid Saturdays. Susan and Chris Maclellan and Janye and Bryan Preston did, too, making some of the earliest donations.

Brent Starnes, a probation officer, showed up with rakes, tamps and shovels — writing "Howard Baseball" in black sharpie — and working alongside Johnson's guys. Starnes even brought his own kids, working weekends, 12-hour days.

"People want to believe in the inner city. People want to believe in the students at Howard," Johnson said.

None of you donated because of baseball. You donated because of these guys. Their worth. Their potential. Their sweet-spot future.

That afternoon at Ridgeland, Cameron heard some of those guys talking: Some of these Howard guys can play. Really play.

"That made me realize: I'm just as good as anybody," he said.

That is the finest gift of all.

Howard's first game on their new field is March 13 — rescheduled from the 14th — at 5 p.m.

Let's go root for the home team.

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

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