Local baseball coach notches 1,000th win. We’ll give you one guess who it is.
One thousand wins.
Think about that. Think about the math. The Georgia High School Association limits varsity baseball teams to 30 regular season games a year. A coach could average 30 wins for 33 seasons and would still be short of 1,000 by 10 wins.
Then consider that Bobby Howard missed almost two complete seasons. He quit three games into the 2015 season after a blow-up with a parent and the principal. He sat out all of 2018 after a planned move to Cartersville didn’t materialize due to complications of having retired from the Georgia public school system.
Of those wins, 819 came at Columbus High during one of the greatest dynasties in the history of Georgia high school sports. Twelve of those 819 wins were celebrated with a state championship trophy. Eight of his losses came in the state championship series.
As Howard and the Blue Devils kept adding to the trophy case, they also added to the facilities. Grand stands that were packed for every Columbus home game. An indoor batting and pitching practice house that some Division I colleges would have coveted. A field that looked like it was manicured by a major league grounds crew. A scoreboard better than some minor league ballparks.
Sure, parents, led by booster club presidents, and corporate benefactors made it all possible. But make no mistake, none of that would have happened without Howard leading the program.
Contrast that to this historic win last week. It came on a Babe Ruth field with cramped cinder block dugouts. Even so (and under the threat of rain), former players spanning four decades of his head coaching career, which began at Kendrick High when Jimmy Carter was president, lined the fence along the third base side as Howard’s Pacelli team took on Webster County.
One of those former players was Timi Moni. He was considered more of a football prospect until he played for Howard at Columbus. He ended up playing pro ball and now is a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies. He made the drive down from Nashville, Tenn.
“Coach Howard is like a second dad to me,” Moni said. “When I came to Columbus, he embraced me and showed me the way, man. I just felt like I needed to be here to see his 1,000th win. I think it’s a really big deal. Coach is still healthy and walking around, raising the next crop.”
Somewhere around the third inning, Howard looked over from his third base coaching box and saw the growing crowd of recognizable faces, some of whom he hasn’t seen in a while.
“Thanks to all you old guys for coming out and supporting this old guy,” Howard said between innings.
Old? Well, depends on whether you believe the calendar or trust your own eyes. He’s 68, but looks at least 10 years younger, especially when the second base umpire makes a questionable call.
“You were calling him out before he even put the tag on him,” Howard barked.
He wasn’t arguing to get a call. That play was over. He argued to make a point. Umpiring 101: Don’t anticipate and make a call before there’s a call to be made. See, principle matters to Howard. It matters more than winning, and it has a lot to do with his success.
Funny, because this whole occasion was about a number that is relatively immaterial to him. Sure, 1,000 wins is nice. He would not deny that, especially getting to share the moment with his daughter Lindsey and son Will.
“I was away from the game for a year,” he said. “I missed it. I didn’t think this would ever happen.”
What matters to him more, though, is all of the preparation to get there. Not just offseason strength and conditioning, or practice, or summer ball but also preparing his mind. He’s a voracious reader. Books on motivation. Books on leadership. Books on history. Business. Anything that can help him improve. He got that hunger for learning from his mother, Julia.
“He wakes up every day trying to be better,” said Jeff Boatner, who grew up watching Howard coach, played for him in the 1980s, and is now his right hand man on the coaching staff.
Oh, and daily Bible reading and prayer. He’s deeply spiritual. He might not seem so saintly when a player fails to run out a fly ball or throws to the wrong base.
Here’s something else few people understand: The day a kid finishes his playing career, he has a friend for life. A fiercely loyal friend.
“The thing is, it’s about relationships more than anything else,” Howard said. “You look over there and see the former players. They’ve got kids. I’ve been to their weddings. That’s what it’s all about. That’s how we get paid.”
He takes no credit for the wins: “I never threw a pitch. I never swung a bat.”
Well, technically, that’s true. But his players continuously improved. They were mentally tough.
“He makes practice hard,” Boatner said, “and the games are easier. When you do that, you’re prepared mentally and physically. You’ve got to be tough mentally so that when adversity sets in, you know how to respond.”
These kids at Pacelli are just beginning to understand him. Like recently, when they complained about having to carry the portable batting practice backstop from the outfield to home plate. Howard had them carry it back and forth across the football field a few times.
“It’s been tough, getting on his schedule, doing what he wants all the time,” said Peyton McLemore, the Pacelli pitcher who recorded the final out Monday. “But that’s why he’s had so many successful baseball players. He demands perfection.”
The Pacelli team knew they were playing for something special. As much as Howard tried to down-play it, they knew the significance of this day. But they didn’t seem to be bothered by the pressure, even after they lost a 2-0 lead and fell behind Webster County 3-2. In typical Bobby Howard fashion, they promptly regained the lead and finished 8-3.
“There was no pressure,” McLemore said. “Coach Howard prepares us so well. Just keep playing our game and we’re going to come out on top if we play the way we can. Not really much pressure.”
Howard’s smart enough to know that sometimes the players tune him out. So he turns to other methods to get his point across. Moni recalled when the Blue Devils played for the state championship against Marist in 2000 — which they won. Howard took the team to see the movie “Gladiator.”
“We didn’t even practice,” Moni said. “We went to the movie theater. It was those little things that he was able to do (to) get you in that mindset.”
Howard entered this season with 985 coaching wins at Kendrick, Columbus, Middle Georgia College for one season and Central-Phenix City. Winning at least 15 games this season was anything but a given. Pacelli won two games last season. The facilities, modest to begin with, have not aged well, especially compared to cross-town rival Brookstone. Calvary Christian now has a formidable program. The competition for private school players has never been greater. But Howard took the job under one condition: that the school would do what’s necessary and feasible to build a program.
It’s not Columbus High. But there are similarities.
“The game is similar. Sometimes on our level the game is not quite as fast, but it’s still baseball, and we’ve made strides,” Howard said. “That’s all we’re trying to do is improve on a daily basis and see what happens.”
Maybe shoot for 1,500 wins?
“I don’t know about that,” he said with a laugh. “But I ain’t planning on retiring.”