Coach, friends, players reflect on memory-making run
By Trey Williams
Coaching Little League Baseball for 19 years fashioned a fitting farewell for Marvin Harris.
Harris’ 2015 Spa Glow team wasn’t his best, but saved its best for last. And its unlikely march to the city tournament semifinals provided a proper sendoff for a man who enjoyed victories and cherished friendships with players and coaches.
Spa Glow advanced to the semis with an epic 10-inning, 13-12 victory that lasted two days thanks, in part, to a thunderstorm. With friends and former players’ attendance making anything more gravy, Harris watched his spirited squad erase a four-run deficit in the eighth inning en route to the heartwarming win.
His pitching-depleted upstarts faded fast in the semifinals, but the cake was already iced for Harris’ career.
“I’d never had a game go 10 innings,” Harris said. “It was one of the craziest games I’ve been involved in. I was proud of them for that tournament run.”
It’s been quite a run for Harris since 1997 when he began a five-year stint assisting Tom Matson, who he met working at the Parks and Rec after moving to Johnson City when he exited the Air Force at 23.
“Tom asked me back in ’98 and I went through the draft and tryouts and got to know all the other coaches,” Harris said, “and I was hooked from that point on.”
Henry Joy was still managing when Harris began coaching in the Johnson City National League. He’d begun there in 1954. Another manager, Doc Whitmore, had been there since ‘71.
Joy coached through Opening Day of 2000 before retiring due to illness.
“That was the year of the league’s 50th anniversary,” Harris said. “Those few years I got to spend around him were fun. Him and Doc would go at it. It was so funny listening to those two. You can’t print what they’d say to each other sometimes.”
Harris chuckled recalling how often the competitive Whitmore would suggestively ask his batters if a pitched ball had hit them. In fact, Harris began saying it in recent years as a tribute to Whitmore, who died in 2013.
“It might miss them by a foot and Doc would ask, ‘Did that hit you?’” Harris said. “Gosh, I could go on forever about Doc. He was colorful. He was the best with the kids you’ve ever seen. I didn’t go down there and coach a single game without missing him and thinking about him.
“And of course, Charlie Campbell – he is still around as president – was another great one.”
Harris also noted fixtures such as Charlie Powell, Randall Riddle and Gary Tinn.
“Gary Tinn was so good,” Harris said. “I still remember the first time one of my teams beat a Gary Tinn-coached team. It actually came in ’04 and I had to walk out and calm down my pitcher because he was about to hyperventilate because we were up a run on Dental Arts in the sixth inning. It was Alden Collins.
“We hadn’t beaten them in my previous two years and I don’t think they’d beaten them for a couple of years prior to that. I don’t think any of our kids had beaten that Dental Arts team, because they had won the league like five out of six years. The only time they didn’t win it was Doc’s undefeated season.”
After Whitmore’s undefeated season in 2001, which included a 4-0 dash through the city tournament, he selected Harris and Powell to help him coach the All-Star team. It advanced to the state tournament and reached the winners’ bracket final, where Britani Fisher hit a solo home run to tie the score in the sixth.
“We trailed 2-1 in the sixth inning and there was two outs and Britani Fisher came up and hit a solo homer to tie that game when we were down to our last out,” Harris said. “We ended up losing 3-2 in nine innings. That’s the closest I personally ever got on the coaching staff of a team that could’ve went to Florida (for the regional).”
Fisher went on to play softball at Science Hill and Walters State. Other Girls of Summer recorded state tournament victories for Harris-coached teams – Ari Ramsaran and Megan Maupin, who’ll be a senior next season on Science Hill’s softball team.
“Megan didn’t throw hard,” Harris said, “but she had, like, six different pitches … and she had them off balance.”
Ramsaran, who played shortstop on University High’s 2014 state tournament softball team and this year’s sectional team, recorded a big win on the mound in the 2011 postseason. Paul Overbay assisted Harris for seven of the years his sons Hank and Tate played, and remembers how pleased Harris was with Ramsaran’s gem.
“Me and Rob Martindale helped Marvin coach All-Stars when Tate was 12,” Overbay said. “Colonial Heights had a really good team and they just buzzed through the tournament. And then we actually beat them. They beat us the next night. … But she totally shut them down and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Marvin any happier than after that game.”
Overbay admired Harris’ compassion for players, especially when a 9-year-old would strike out or make an error. He watched his oldest son Hank’s games for two years before he began assisting Harris.
“When they did strike out or do something wrong when they were little he always brought them over and said something positive to them,” Overbay said. “When he asked me to help him I was glad to because of that. You could tell he cared about them.”
Overbay enjoyed going to Harris’ Jonesborough home following tryouts to prepare for the draft. Harris and his wife Christy often grilled out, which enhanced the war room.
“We would sit around and look at the kids we wanted to draft,” Overbay said. “I miss doing that. It was fun … and it was serious, too.”
Harris met Christy at the Little League field. Oddly enough, her nephews, Andrew and Daniel Sweeney, were instrumental in one of Harris’ most disappointing losses. Harris’ Lenoir Empire Furniture was playing in the city tournament championship in 2006, and Andrew was pitching for the opposition.
“Andrew beat me,” Harris said. “And Daniel, who was 10 at the time, made two diving catches in right field in the first two innings that knocked rallies out for us. So they really did me in that game. You had the whole family pulling for them except my wife, pretty much.
“I was proud of them but, you know, it hurt to lose. The run to get that championship game was one of the best runs I have seen.”
It included Chad Pritchard hitting a walk-off home run to upset the tournament favorite and Hank Overbay stealing the show after a pitching duel between Bolton Block’s Codie Campbell and Maclain Grable had led to extra innings.
Overbay walked the bases loaded in the top of the seventh, but then struck out the ensuing three batters without allowing a run. Escaping bases-loaded no-out jams without allowing a run is probably rarer than 300-foot home runs in Little League Baseball.
And for good measure, Overbay drove in the winning run with a triple in the bottom of the seventh.
“It was a great performance,” Harris said. “And then we lost to Andrew and Daniel. I joke all the time that I haven’t bought them a Christmas present since.”
Of course, the Overbays felt like family, too.
“They don’t come no better than (Paul),” Harris said. “Hank came to my last game.”
The Grables were also extended family. Clark Grable’s sons Maclain, Ben and Will played for Harris, and Clark was an assistant two seasons.
Marvin and Christy named their Siberian Husky after one of his former players, Kane Honeycutt. Marvin said Honeycutt’s grandparents, Bill and Rhonda, had slipped a $200 check in Christy’s purse to help ensure that they got the dog.
Another close friend that’ll be missed in the dugout is John Coffman, who was Harris’ assistant 14 seasons.
“John Coffman never knew how good of a coach he was,” Harris said. “Best defensive coach I ever coached with . He’s also stepping down. I knew him through refereeing football when Lonnie Lowe was the director of the Boys Club. … John and I began watching Florida football games together, because we didn’t have a lot of allies around here.”
Harris produces detailed highlights from games last week or the late ‘90s with equal aplomb.
Harris can essentially offer play-by-play of this year’s 10-inning triumph. Alex Salts delivered a two-run ground-rule double during the do-or-die four-run eighth, which Keaton Rogers capped by scoring Salts with a two-out single. Rogers also drove in Brent Bell with the game-winning run in the 10th after Salts had led off the frame with a single and tied the score on Ricardo Alberto’s double.
Alberto’s older brother Javier, a rising freshman soccer player at East Tennessee State, also played for Harris.
“Javy was probably the most athletically gifted kid that ever played for me,” said Harris, recalling many of the home runs Alberto hit as a 12-year-old. “He must’ve hit 18 or 19. He hit a couple off that house over there in Erwin. He used to wear out those apartments past right field at our field (in Keystone).
“But he was a soccer player and after Little League I don’t think he ever played baseball again. But man, I would’ve loved to have seen what he could do, because he was very, very gifted.”
When he was 12 Alberto made a diving grab in the winner’s bracket final of the district tournament in what turned out to be a 3-2 extra-inning loss to Johnson City American.
“Dr. (Bo) Westmoreland, the dentist, was coaching the American League and he still talks about a play when the bases were loaded in the first inning with one out,” Harris said. “There was a screamer hit up the middle and Javy was playing second. He made a diving play and turned a double play.”
“They had a great team,” said Harris, who was proud of how his team bounced back to beat Johnson City Major and claim the district’s second state tournament berth that year. “And we won a game in the state tournament that year and I don’t think the American League did.”
Harris’ Lenoir Empire Furniture won regular-season titles in 2004 and ’07 and a city tournament championship in ‘04.
“John Hilliard, who played at Unicoi County, was on the ’04 team,” Harris said. “My other two 12s were Tyler Pritchard and Alden Collins. Chad Pritchard was 12 in ’07. … The ’04 team had to win every game because Bolton Block was right on our tail. Bolton had Peter Blosser that played at Science Hill. They lost three games and we lost two. Both of my losses were to them.”
Harris managed the 12-year-old All-Star team in 2007.
“We lost our first game 1-0 even though Hunter Tester threw a no-hitter,” he said.
One of the many All-Star teams he coached on was in 2005, when future Austin Peay football player Ben Campbell delivered a game-winning hit against Johnson City Major. Campbell also played on Harris’ 2004 championship team.
“I remember him getting very excited,” Campbell said, “and running with me to home plate as we won the city championship. … He pushed me to do my very best. I am so thankful for him being a positive model for me and everyone else he encountered, and he was also a very good friend who would support me in my high school sports, as well as checking up on me while I played in college.”
Harris also made a lasting impression on Javier Alberto.
“He’s by far one of the best coaches that I’ve ever had in any sport,” Alberto said. “He has just always been there when we needed rides or helping us get better in every aspect of the game. He’s just a great guy in general and it’s pretty sad that he’s done coaching.”
Harris is only 43, but he’d be shocked by a comeback. He wants increased time with family and plans to do more umpiring.
“Clark Grable asked me, ‘This isn’t a Brett Favre retirement is it,’” Harris said. “I’ll never say never, but I don’t see it happening. … I can’t imagine being down there 40 or 50 years like Doc and Mister Joy were.”
Harris’ career seemed to be coming full circle when he ran in to former player AJ Babel this year. Babel had his wife and baby daughter with him.
It’s time to move on, though spending summers with those in the twilight of childhood never got old.
“The most fun I ever had playing baseball was in Little League (in Florida),” Harris said. “And it’s special to coach. You draft them … and you watch them go from a 9-year-old outfielder who maybe plays two innings and bats once to the 12-year-old stud on the mound who’s No. 3 in the batting order.
“It’s special to get to share all of that with them. And even after they leave and you bump into them, they come over and act like they’re excited to see you. But gosh, you’re just as excited to see them. I’ll miss being part of the kids’ lives and getting attached to them.”