The first thing I saw was Beech scoring on a booted grounder.
Next was something I hadn’t seen in 20-plus years of knowing this man. Wildcats coach Anthony Ford was fired up and angry because interference wasn’t called on the Beech base runner for deflecting the ball, forcing the error.
His mood was much better less than an hour later as second baseman Will Hudson turned a line drive into a game-ending double play and Andrew Franklin had pitched a 2-1 win for the Wildcats, inciting a dogpile (catpile in this case) in celebration of the program’s fourth district championship.
I first heard of Anthony Ford as a Little Leaguer and Babe Ruth player in the 1980s during my first stint at The Democrat.
I knew his mother earlier. As a graduating high school senior in charge of my own bank account for the first time, Gail Ford was one of the tellers at the bank where my two cents sometimes resided.
I had left the paper by the time Anthony reached Lebanon High School. But with the Blue Devils in some hard times following the retirement of longtime coach Bruce Skeen, it seemed like Ford was all LHS baseball had.
It was enough for Woody Hunt to sign the local right-hander to a scholarship to Cumberland. He wasn’t a star, but he worked his way into the pitching mix. He was on the traveling squad as the Bulldogs reached the 1995 NAIA World Series championship game. He sat a couple of rows behind me and across the aisle on the chartered bus taking us back to Tennessee from Sioux City, Iowa.
The next year, he was the opening day starter.
After Cumberland, he coached some summer league teams. His father died around this time from a double brain tumor just as Anthony was settling into becoming a man and two weeks before his son, Chase, was born.
When Wilson Central opened in 2001, Ford was hired as the head baseball coach. His assistant was his former LHS and CU teammate Jody Atwood.
The 16 ensuing seasons have been a mixture of success and failure. He coached a hard-throwing left-hander named James Adkins who is still the Tennessee Vols’ career strikeout leader. His Wildcats won some games and a few district championships.
It seemed as though the quiet and unassuming Ford and his program was oftentimes operating in the shadow of rival Mt. Juliet, where another former Cumberland teammate, Mark Purvis, was building a state power with a run of state tournament appearances and one of the best high school facilities in the state – not once, but twice - as a fitting protege of the legendary Hunt.
Ford has never been one to toot his own horn, probably doesn’t even own one. But what he does own is a work ethic worthy of his college coach. He took the plot of ground granted the baseball program by the school, saw lights added, built an indoor facility adjacent to the field and constructed actual, old-fashioned dugouts which are below ground level. The facility is good enough for TSSAA to use it for the Division II-AA state baseball tournament every spring.
I asked Ford about the field the other night and he deflected credit to the help he’s had, including parents. Like Hunt, if money’s needed, he and his players will raise it. One year, my family and I were riding on a shuttle wagon he was pulling with a tractor ferrying folks from Immanuel Baptist Church up Castle Heights Avenue to Wilson Bank & Trust for Oktoberfest. Another fundraiser.
This has been a special season for Ford, whose son, Chase, is the Wildcats’ catcher. He won his 300th career game earlier this week. He is the only coach from the original 2001-02 faculty still in the same post.
Late last week, his peers honored him as District 9-AAA coach of the year. At the same time, the league’s softball coaches named its top coach, bestowing an honor on a first-year coach at his alma mater who had recently coached a state champion at a local private school: Jody Atwood, the same Jody Atwood who was on the ground floor with Ford 15 years ago when the Wilson Central Wildcats were born.
“I miss Jody, Jody’s a good one,” Ford said.
Atwood’s season is over earlier than he is accustomed to, having been part of a couple of championship teams as an assistant baseball coach and head softball coach at Friendship Christian.
But Ford, whose Wildcats will play host to Northeast in the Region 5-AAA tournament opener at 7 p.m. Monday, will try to take his team to new heights this week. His last district title team lost at home in the first round of the region in 2014. The next year, they suffered an excruciating extra-inning sectional loss on the road while Central’s softball team was winning at home on the way to the state championship.
Spring Fling has come to Central for several years now for D-II baseball. It would be nice for Ford and his Wildcats to go Spring Fling themselves.
It would be a deserved reward for a season (or 16) of quiet hard work and dedication.
Andy Reed is sports editor of The Democrat. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @wilsoncosports.