The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

July 28, 2013

Sluggers honor coach at reunion

By Bruce Campbell, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Friday and Saturday night members of the old Enid Sluggers traveling youth baseball teams were 12 years old again.

Gary Fleming, who coached two groups involving his sons Cody (1990-95) and Tyler (1996-2000) was back hitting infield before a softball game between the two groups at David Allen Memorial Ballpark.

It was  time to recall memories, but more important to say thank you for Fleming, one of many youth coaches who would left his imprint on his players beyond the field.

“You’re talking about a legend,’’ said Nick Nulph, who played on the first group. “He was like a second father to me. He’s given me so many principles in life that I will pass down to my kids and grandchildren.’’

Kurt Elliott, who played for the second group, would be one of four Sluggers (along with Trent Hulse, Tyler Fleming and Schyler Burns) that went on to play for Enid’s 2005 American Legion World Series championship team.

“The foundation of all of our baseball careers started with the Sluggers,’’ he said. “He taught us the right way to hit, pitch and field that was the stepping stone to all the future successes we would have.’’

The 23 to 24 players who attended the weekend reunion presented Fleming with a book Friday night at a function Pheasant Run Golf Club.

In it, was a page from each player telling their old coach what he meant to them and the influence he had on their lives.

“That’s my most cherished possession now,’’ Fleming said. “It means so much to me ... it was all worth it when I was doing it, but when you have guys come back like this, it makes it that much more enjoyable.’’

Life with the Sluggers, Elliott said, was pure Americana. The boys would be spending every summer weekend playing baseball. They would play football in the fall and basketball in the winter.

“It really personifies what my youth was all about,’’ Elliott said. “It means a lot to see them and say thank you for all they have done.’’

Elliott said his favorite memories were of the camaraderie. The team was highly competitive, but winning wasn’t the only thing.

“There’s just too many stories just to pick one out,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. He taught us not only to become better players, but better men.’’

Tyler Fleming said he was “very excited’’ to see all of his old friends.

“It was just an exciting time in our lives,’’ said the younger Fleming. “My dad had a great influence on my life and baseball career. He molded me into the man I am.’’

Elliott, who is a financial adviser with Edward Jones in Oklahoma City, noted all the players were doing well in life and business.

“I’m very pleased to see how well they are doing,’’ Fleming said. “It makes me happy to see that what they learned playing baseball they translated into what it takes to be successful in life.’’

Fleming coached two players (Tyler Fleming and Drake Smith) who were All-Staters. He estimated he had eight to 10 all-conference players and numerous players who went on to play in college.

“Most of these kids had some of their school paid for,’’ Fleming said.

Fleming emphasized it was a team effort coaching-wise. He was assisted by  Danny Wingate and Bill Arnold in the first group and Phil Elliott, Kevin Burns and Keith Lea the second.

Burns found he had many things in common with coach Fleming — both had sons the same age (Schyler and Tyler), both played collegiate baseball (Burns had two years in the White Sox organization) and both share the fundmental-first philosophy.

“It was very enjoyable,’’ Burns said. “He taught the boys a lot and treated them equally. He never showed favoritism. He was very knowledgeable.’’

Lea’s best memories were those of a family atmosphere. His son, Tyler, played five years for Fleming.

“We had good athletes, but it wasn’t a cherry-picked team,’’ Lea said. “We took who we thought we would fit in ... that included the parents and grandparents. The parents knew their place. They let us do our job and everyone had a good time.’’

No one family might have spent more time at a ballpark than the Flemings. Gary Fleming’s wife, Judy and mother-in-law Ruby West were the team’s No. 1 fans.

“Judy didn’t know she was going to be a baseball mom when she married me, but she was,’’ Gary Fleming said.

Judy Fleming enjoyed “seeing all those kids growing into wonderful young men.’’ She was emotional about the book and reunion.

“It doesn’t matter how many years it’s been, we’re like a family,’’ she said. “I’m so grateful the boys organized this. It will be a highlight for us in our old age.’’

Ruby West hasn’t changed over time. She joked it was a tie between her and Judy who saw the most games. They traveled everywhere with them.

“I thought I wouldn’t recognize any of them, but I knew every one of them after I looked at them,’’ West said. “It’s been so much fun ....

“It’s so special seeing them after all these years because they have turned out to be really good young men. I think Gary having coached them in their younger years had something to do with that. The book they gave Gary they put a lot of time, patience and love in it. It’s a great group and I love them all.’’

Larry Smith, the father of Drake Smith, said Fleming meant a lot to baseball in Enid.

“He was a mentor to my son and to the rest of them,’’ he said. “He not only taught them baseball, but the values of life. He put baseball in the right perspective. Winning was important, but it wasn’t the most important thing. That was giving these young men values in life.’’

Fleming didn’t want his legacy to be set strictly on a won-loss record.

“We felt if we did things right, we would win our share of games,’’ he said. “We did the right thing most of the time. If we lost, we didn’t get too upset. What I was looking for was us competing hard and doing everything we could to make it a game. If we did those, I was pleased.’’

He could be pleased Saturday night.

“We were lucky to have him,’’ Nulph said.