Tim Rector once tried to knock down a telephone pole with his bat, he was so hardened by competition. He swung fiercely at the ball, too, and hit a grand slam to propel the 1969 University of Tulsa baseball team to a Missouri Valley Conference championship en route to the College World Series, where the Golden Hurricane became the only TU men’s program to play for a national championship.
Now, as teammates digested their bowls of chili with stories and laughs that get heartier every year, Rector looked across the living room at the 88-year-old man who could hardly keep still on the sofa, he was having such fun.
“Coach, I wanna tell you something,” Rector said. “I don’t know that I’d be ...”
His voice broke for a moment, then he continued: “My life has been blessed, and I owe you for a lot of that. My family, my friends. Never quit. Stay the course. You taught me that. You taught us all that. I owe you for that. And I thank you for that.”
Gene Shell, as wispy in build and spirited in tongue as he ever was in a dugout, and now warmly embraced and fully beloved, looked up behind his big, round glasses and said: “I owe you more.”
You recognize this scene if you ever had a coach and a team that meant so much to you it practically hurt. You are bonded by competition and results and joy and pain, and before you know it the experience has become deeply personal.
Time takes you away from each other eventually, but the longer it passes the more personal it gets. Facebook helps some. There are scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and Polaroids.
But what you really need is to be together. Stories and laughs don’t resonate if it’s just you killing time before clicking off the light for bed. You need to share them.
You need the team again.
That’s why this recent cozy evening inside the south Tulsa home of Jay Weinheimer, a pitcher on TU’s ’69 national runner-up, was such a thanksgiving. With Shell on the sofa next to his wife, Frances, and Roger Adams over to his right and then Rector, Weinheimer, Cliff Butcher, Steve Caves, Roger Whitaker, Tom Jenkins, Larry Byrd and Phil Honeycutt around the room.
Ken Knight, TU’s mid-1960s linchpin who knew what Shell needed better than anyone and who rubbed off on the freshmen who became ’69 seniors, was there, too. And all the wives who loved these men and appreciated their connection to each other almost as much as they did.
Steve Rogers, TU’s ’69 featured attraction who went on to fame with the Montreal Expos, came for supper before having to run home.
“We came from different backgrounds and different approaches to life,” he said. “But by the time we were gone we all had an element of steel in us. What Gene was to me and the team was legitimate.”
“It’s true,” Weinheimer said across the room from Shell. “You think back on your life, especially as you get into your 70s ... You run into somebody that gives you an opportunity that literally does change your life. I’ve got 10 grandkids I’m so grateful for. Jan and I will be married 50 years next year. But, you know, you started that.”
Blessings filled the room for two hours. How Shell could make you work and make you mad and ultimately get you to produce, the “skinny mm-hmm.” How he could make you laugh without the intention, whether by threatening to fight an entire home crowd of hecklers in Arizona or threatening to dump horse manure on TU’s outfield to counter a St. Louis team that watered its grass into a bog when the Hurricane played there.
The players teased their coach for his temper, his thinness and the fear that if they snuck out the windows after bed check they risked bumping into him at the bar.
“I’ve gotta know,” Honeycutt said at one point. “Were you trying to hide the limited baseball knowledge you had by running us so much?”
The team broke into laughter about every two or three minutes. Then the chuckling stopped, everyone folded their arms or legs and smiled off into space like they’d just eaten the best meal or realized their children had all grown up to become remarkable adults.
The room got quiet for a bit and palpable fondness set in.
“The Lord’s at work,” Shell said as he sank back into the sofa. “To have a ball club not only stick together like this, it just don’t happen. That’s what makes you guys so special. I mean, you’ve got friends, you’ve got your church and you care about other people, but your relationship with your teammates ...
“As far as me and Frances are concerned, you guys were the biggest part of our lives. That’s the end of the story. Every time things get tough for me, you bet your ass I’m gonna call you. If I need help, I know you’ll be there.”
They’ve been there. Shell has spent some nights under care the past decade or so. He has experienced some hardship.
He always had Frances, though. He always had his players, whether up in the hospital room reminding him to be easy on himself or at gatherings like this one at the Weinheimers’ reminding him to remember.
He always had the team, same as the players he coached. There was always the team.
There always will be.
Shell spoke to Sports Illustrated at the ’69 College World Series, about all these boys from Tulsa high schools like Hale, McLain and Webster coming together and playing for their hometown university, and how extraordinary that was.
“This team is a real personal thing,” he said at the time.
That doesn’t ever go away. As the years pass and another Thanksgiving arrives, that sentiment gets clearer and stronger.
The evening wound down and the ’69 Golden Hurricane gave its coach a blue TU pullover. As Shell pulled it from the gift bag, he smiled and said: “Oh, man, looky there. Thanks, kids.”
“We want you to know how much we love you,” Weinheimer said.
“I don’t need anything to remember you guys by,” Shell said. “You’ve already done so much.”