By Trey Williams
When Science Hill’s baseball team played in the state championship game against Germantown in Memphis in 1981 the majority of Hilltoppers starters were looking for a second state title.
No, Science Hill hadn’t won the state the previous year. In fact, the ‘Toppers went 9-12 in 1980 during coach Charlie Bailey’s debut.
But the Johnson City National All-Stars won the Little League state tournament in 1976, and eight of the ’81 Hilltoppers starters, including ace Mark Elrod and slugging catcher Jackie Cook, were on that team.
A sense of déjà vu developed in ’81, and it didn’t dissipate until the Hilltoppers lost the final game of a three-game series by a 6-2 score.
Rain had extended the Hilltoppers’ stay in Memphis long enough that an impromptu trip to Graceland materialized during the off day.
“If we’d had one more day of rain and could have brought Mark Elrod back,” Bailey said, “I think we would’ve been state champions.”
A hard-throwing right-hander, Elrod went 14-2 as a senior in ’81. Bailey, Cook and Jimmy Williams, the backup catcher, estimated Elrod throwing everywhere from 88 to 92 mph.
“Mark was at least 88 – at least,” Williams said. “I mean I had a bruised thumb a long time from catching him in the bullpen. It was hard. He threw a very heavy ball. If you didn’t catch it just right, it hurt.”
Elrod also did some catching, including on the state champion Little League team.
“He’d throw it over the fence flat-footed (from home plate) at 11 years old,” Cook said. “We rode Elrod’s arm to the state with (those teams). We sure did. He didn’t know how good he was. He was strong, strong. He could throw you out from his knees from behind the plate. He’d pick you off first base, man, like it was nothing.
“Sweat would drip off the brim of his hat. I believe he was throwing above it (90 mph). I really do think he was throwing a little above it. Mark Elrod could’ve went a long way. I mean it. He had an offspeed pitch too that made that fastball pop. It looked like a pill coming at you.”
The ’81 Science Hill team had plenty of talent beyond Cook, who signed with Charley Lodes at ETSU, and Elrod (Walters State offer). Strong-armed middle infielder Jeff Forney made it to Double-A with his beloved Cincinnati Reds after setting a stolen base record at Florida Atlantic.
Mark Hunter and Billy Patton joined Lodes and Cook at ETSU. Patton became an All-Southern Conference center fielder.
Middle infielder Tony Shade batted leadoff as a junior in ‘81 and first baseman Jimmy Street hit fifth in the order. Scott Edwards, the uncle of former Pittsburgh Pirate Will Craig, was a capable hitter.
Science Hill won 1-0 at Jefferson County for a region title. Elrod struck out 14 while pitching a nine-inning, three-hitter. Street delivered a walk-off single off the wall after a two-out rally had loaded the bases via a double (Hunter), single (Patton) and walk (Cook).
Science Hill defeated Baylor 19-10 in Chattanooga in the sectional round. Cook was 3-for-6 with a home run and a double and three runs. Shade, Patton, Forney and Edwards each had three hits as well.
Elrod came on in relief, allowing two runs in five innings.
Science Hill defeated Germantown 3-2 in the opening game of the three-game championship series. Elrod capped a two-hitter with a one-two-three seventh.
Cook’s game-winning two-run double in the sixth scored Elrod and Shade. Cook had left the game with an injured ankle, even missing an at-bat, but reentered in hobbling fashion.
“Jackie hurt his ankle in about the second or third inning and had to come out of the game,” Bailey said. “And I guess we had runners on first and second and it was Jackie’s turn to bat and I looked over in the dugout and he had his sock off and had his foot propped up. I said, ‘Jackie, can you swing the bat?’ He said, ‘I believe I can.’
“So I said, ‘Put your socks on,’ and he went in there, and son of a gun, he bounced one off the fence in left-center field and we scored two runs. And that won the game.”
Cook, who led Science Hill with 10 home runs, and hit some tape measure home runs against the likes of Tennessee and The Citadel during his brief Buccaneers career – “I wasn’t big on school,” he said – permanently changed his swing due to that painful at-bat.
“I could put no weight on my front foot,” Cook said. “I remember it well. … I learned to hold my weight back and transfer it during the swing. I learned it that at-bat.”
Germantown scored four unearned runs off hard-luck loser Chuck Osborne in the 6-2 championship victory.
It was the second gut-wrenching runner-up finish for the majority of Hilltoppers. The Johnson City Nationals finished runner-up in the Little League Southeastern Regional in St. Petersburg, Florida in ’76. One more victory and the team would’ve advanced to Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
“We was that close – a bunch of kids from the projects was that close to the Little League World Series,” Cook said. “That loss hurt me more than anything.”
The Little League team and Science Hill’s ’81 team had a great deal of diversity.
“A lot of ‘em had to overcome a lot,” Bailey said. “I remember we had a rainout in Memphis. What do you do with a baseball team in Memphis? Herb Greenlee had driven us down there on the bus, and we loaded ‘em up and went driving around and ended up at Graceland. We went through some neighborhood and they were like, ‘Look at those houses. Those are two stories.’ And Cook said, ‘Well, I live in a two-story myself (in the Keystone projects).’
“That was a good bunch of kids and good bunch of players.”
Cook said the players knew Bailey cared about them beyond what they could do between the lines.
“Coach Bailey treated me like I had millions,” Cook said. “He was so good to me. I guess he knew we didn’t have much. My family didn’t have much, anyway. But he always took me under his wing and made sure I had stuff to do everything with.”
“He was real good to me. I’ll never forget him for it. I think the world of that man.”
Forney, who died unexpectedly last year after a distinguished career that included coaching at Notre Dame and Arizona State and a stint as the Arizona Diamondbacks strength coach, was always eager to relive ’76 and ’81 in recent years.
“That whole junior year (’81) was really special,” Forney said. “We were a tight-knit group. We hung out a lot outside of baseball. I remember some good things that probably wouldn’t be good to put in this story.
“Coach Bailey emphasized team. There were no hot dogs or no one person, it was everybody. And we had guys who came from all walks of life: Keystone, the projects, all different neighborhoods and backgrounds.”
Cook reiterated his gratitude for having spent a chunk of childhood and most of his teenage years with talented teammates.
“When you look back you realize how good those teams were,” Cook said. “But we were just playing ball, just having fun. It was a blessing.”