By Trey Williams
Flipping over the fence at the long-gone Mooney Field after sprinting across the outfield only produced some of the grand near misses for Billy Patton.
The speedy, 6-foot-2 Patton started on Science Hill’s state runner-up baseball team in 1981 and started on the Hilltoppers state tournament basketball team in ’82. And something that comes to mind frequently this time of year – he was part of the Johnson City National Little League team that got within a win of the Little League World Series in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1976.
The Nationals, coached by Doc Whitmore and Bill Anderson, had players such as Jackie Cook, Mark Elrod, Jeff Forney, George Akers and Darrell Case.
“I drive my wife crazy talking about that ‘76 team,” he says.
Two Florida newspapers praised his late-inning catch that helped the Nationals defeat Kentucky to reach the Little League Southern Regional championship in St. Petersburg.
The late Jeff Forney was Patton’s teammate with the Nationals and at Science Hill. Forney went on to set a stolen base record at FAU and played a number of years in the Cincinnati Reds organization before coaching with the likes of Notre Dame and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“Billy Patton could flat-out run a baseball down in the outfield like nobody else I’d ever seen,” Forney said in 2007. “If you were going to hit one over Billy’s head in center field at Cardinal Park, you better hit it 440 feet. Billy was tall and lean and he could really go get it.”
Patton, who was clocked at ETSU with 4.45 speed in the 40-yard dash, recalls his dandelions more often than his roses. The ‘81 state baseball championship was decided with a three-game series against Germantown in Memphis, and Patton quickly recalls being responsible for three of Germantown pitcher Tim Nichols’ 12 strikeouts in the ‘Toppers’ lone victory.
“I was 0-for-3 on nine pitches,” Patton says with a laugh.
Patton didn’t mention having three hits and scoring three runs in Science Hill’s previous win against Baylor to reach the state championship.
“I think we all had three hits that game,” he says of the 19-10 victory.
They should have saved a couple of those runs for the following year’s postseason against David Crockett. The ‘82 Hilltoppers’ lineup included Forney, Tony Shade, Mark Hunter and Jackie Cook and had been racing around the basepaths all spring when they ran into Pioneers pitcher Billy Cartwright. He and the 15-13 Pioneers shut out 27-4 Science Hill.
“I’ll never be able to forget that game,” Patton says. “I could’ve taken it if it’d been 13-11 or something. But one to nothing? Man, with the lineup we had, anything but one to nothing.
“I still think about that game. We could’ve gone out there half drunk and scored three runs. … It’s like if we played them 20 times we would’ve beaten them 19.”
Patton was also an excellent defender on a basketball team that had scoring threats in Herbie Bullock, Albert Sams (ETSU basketball) and Jimmy Street, the latter of whom also played baseball with Patton in Little League and high school.
“I would guard the best guard, whether it was their point guard or their shooting guard,” Patton said. “I mean I figured this out quick: I wasn’t in there to shoot. You had Albert and Herbie down there and you had Jimmy Street. And the fourth choice, Tommy Little, would take a shot every now and then. So I figured out quick the best way for me to stay on the court was to play good defense and get a few trash rebounds here and there, and that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t have to score. We had Albert and Herbie and Jimmy.”
Former Dobyns-Bennett coach Charlie Morgan was an assistant at Science Hill when Dennis Greenwell’s ‘Toppers went to the state in ’82.
“Billy was a very good defensive player,” Morgan said. “He was solid, practiced hard every day.”
Science Hill beat George Pitts-coached Bearden in the sectional in Freedom Hall to secure the state tournament berth. Patton had arguably his best game, scoring 17 points, including seven straight to give Science Hill a 44-35 lead in the third quarter.
“I scored mostly on fast breaks because they did a lot of pressing,” Patton said. “And I think I was 7-for-7 from the free throw. The only reason I remember that is I sucked at the free throw line. I don’t think I’d made seven in a row by myself in a gym.”
Science Hill lost a hard-fought game with Memphis Central in Murfreesboro.
“If we’d beaten them I think we would’ve at least made it to the finals,” Patton said.
The defeat was digested soon enough, as Patton moved on to ETSU with Jackie Cook and Mark Hunter to play for Charley Lodes. The Buccaneers were flying high under Lodes, having advanced to multiple NCAA regionals and beaten teams with Joe Carter (Wichita State) and Jimmy Key (Clemson).
Patton fondly recalls playing at Mississippi State – “Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark were freshmen,” he said – and Ole Miss as well as a trip to New Orleans early in his freshman season.
Patton chuckled recalling a rather relaxed Lodes giving the freshmen hitting instructions beside the pool at a New Orleans hotel around 2 a.m.
He said Lodes commanded respect and would have loved to have played for him four years. But Lodes’ budget was dramatically reduced, and he resigned following Patton’s freshman year.
“I remember being so excited because we’d be playing like at Sullivan East and Charley would bring his lawn chair and sit behind home plate,” Patton said. “And once he did that I was all in, especially when he told us we were going to play in Hawaii. Once they took the money it was pretty much over with. …
“But he had it going out there. He knew baseball and he could get players (recruit).”
Patton said he also enjoyed playing for Henry Joy in Little League and Charlie Bailey and Greenwell at Science Hill. And he liked playing quarterback for King Springs after Larry Abel and Terry Abel encouraged him to leave Keystone (Parks & Rec) and play on their team at the Boys Club in the sixth grade.
“I was going to be the next Condredge Holloway,” he said with a chuckle.
Instead, he was the Big Nine player of the year in baseball and an All-Southern Conference outfielder at ETSU.
“Billy had all the tools: the speed, the arm and he could hit,” Bailey said. “I remember a catch he made against Germantown that was Major League. Billy Patton was fun to watch.”