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Cal Bailey

Former West Virginia State baseball coach Cal Bailey, who died Sunday at age 77, is remembered for both his coaching ability and unforgettable personality.

I ran into Calvin Bailey a lot in my days at the Gazette and the Gazette-Mail. Most of the time, it came when I was out covering a high school game.

It could have been virtually any ballfield in the Kanawha Valley – Hurricane, Sissonville, Nitro, George Washington. Whether it was during his 37-year tenure as baseball coach at West Virginia State, or even after his retirement in 2014, Bailey was always around to check out the talent, especially if it promised a good pitching duel.

And no matter where our paths crossed, we always had a nice chat. I’m going to miss those conversations with Cal.

Bailey died Sunday at the age of 77, leaving behind a mountain of accomplishments on the baseball diamond, not the least of which was 19 conference championships and more than 1,000 victories in those 37 seasons. He also tutored 36 players who eventually went pro, three of them reaching the major leagues, along with 16 All-America honorees.

More than 100 of his former players have gone on to become coaches themselves, and that tree includes five coaches who led Kanawha Valley schools to state baseball championships — Steve Hensley (Winfield), John Priddy (Sissonville), Steve Pritchard (Nitro, Sissonville), Jimmy Tribble (Buffalo, Winfield) and Rick Whitman (St. Albans).

I’ll always be indebted to Cal for helping me learn a little more about the game, too, in a rather unconventional manner. And it had nothing to do with watching him drag the infield on his tractor, a postgame ritual that was basically a rite of spring in Institute.

After I’d known him for a few years and covered his Yellow Jackets a few times, Bailey surprised me one day when he said I should watch a game from his dugout sometime “to see what goes on.’’

“Really?’’ I asked, somewhat shocked at the offer.

“I think it would make for a good story,’’ he said.

Well, I sure wasn’t going to let that opportunity pass me by. So in April of 2001, I got to sit in State’s dugout for the first game of a West Virginia Conference doubleheader against Davis & Elkins. What an experience it was.

Here are few excerpts from what I wrote after that day:

Even before the first pitch is thrown, the wheels are turning in Cal Bailey’s head.

As Shawn Cullen D&E’s leadoff hitter, digs into the batter’s box, Bailey waves his outfielders in and to their right. He also nudges assistant coach Sean Loyd, pointing out that the wind has changed direction.

It will be a busy day in the West Virginia State dugout. Before the first inning is over, Bailey notices the following:

n D&E’s Kip Cottrill rolls his hand over as he swings. State’s pitchers adjust, and Cottrill finishes the doubleheader 0-for-7 with two strikeouts.

n Tom Pearce, State’s designated hitter and cleanup man, gets in his own way when he squats too low in his stance. “When you crouch down like that too much, you jam yourself,’’ Bailey tells Pearce. In his next two at bats, Pearce rips a single and a double.

Later in the game, shortstop Brian Archer approaches Bailey on the bench to ask about a chopper he fielded that went for an infield single.

“Could I have done anything different on that ball in the hole?’’ Archer asked.

“If you backhand it,’’ Bailey said, “then you’re moving forward instead of to your right.’’

That’s how Bailey spends the next four hours. Consoling and cajoling his players. Commending and condemning. And all the while, teaching.

From his perch in the home dugout down the first-base line, Bailey sees a different game than most anyone else. And that enables him to coach the way he has.

“His strength is that he’s able to predict things,’’ Loyd said. “He reads opposing players real well — their strengths and weaknesses. It give us an advantage on how to prepare for them on the spot. It’s a quick fix. He’s seen so many players that he can categorize them fast. Just spur of the moment stuff. That’s where he’s at his best.’’

•••

But Bailey was more than just a coach. He was also a deep thinker. I never really saw that side of him until two years ago at the state baseball tournament.

I’d covered the first game of the Class AAA night session at Appalachian Power Park and wrote my story in one of the luxury suites the SSAC had set aside for overflow media. When I finished, I walked outside the suite’s main room to the outside seating area to watch a few innings of St. Albans and Wheeling Park.

Sitting by himself in the adjoining box seats was Bailey, who waved me over. I sat down and talked baseball with him for about an hour. I recall asking him if he believed in the toll of stress pitches, which he wholeheartedly did, and gave me a detailed answer.

But then he threw me a curve, and started waxing eloquently about topics far removed from baseball. For instance, he started quoting the works of one Henry David Thoreau, the noted 19th century essayist and poet. I sat there, basically, dumbfounded.

I’m used to talking with coaches about pitch location and bat speed, not philosophies and transcendentalism. I was way out of my league.

Years ago, Loyd was talking about how Bailey’s abilities and interests transcend the sport of baseball.

“If he was a basketball coach, he’d be a great coach. If he was a football coach, he’d be a great coach. If he was corporate, he’d be a great corporate guy, a great leader. If we started soccer [at State] right now, he’d be a great soccer coach.

“He would learn what he needed to know. If he has a weakness or a fallacy, he’ll work his ass off to get better.’’

One of the last times I saw Cal was at the Victory Awards Dinner at the Embassy Suites in May of 2018. He had just been inducted into the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and though he didn’t like to talk much about himself, was almost glowing with pride that night. Much of that was because several of his former players showed up for the ceremony.

Those players had banded together to give him a special gift, a portrait of Bailey comprised entirely of bits of baseball cards by the renowned cut card artist Tim Carroll of Conway, South Carolina.

“You pull it up real close,’’ Bailey said, “and you can see the baseball cards. It’s fascinating.’’

Relationships always meant a lot to Cal. Following his retirement, Bailey had spent a lot of his time toiling on his 130-acre farm. In 2014, he told TopCoachPodcast.com that farming reminded him of his former job.

“It’s a lot like coaching, actually,’’ Bailey said. “You’re still taking care of the field and I’ve got cattle, which basically is like having ballplayers, because you’re totally responsible for them.’’

Contact Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickRyanWV.