Tuesday, June 14, 2011

SPORTS >> Death leaves coach’s box, hearts empty

Special to The Leader

The Sherwood baseball family lost a longtime and beloved member recently when John Ray passed away from complications following heart surgery.

Ray coached baseball in some form or another for over 30 years. He helped coach Bob Hickingbotham when his children played for the Gwatney American Legion team, then was the assistant to Mike Bromley on the Sylvan Hills Bruins, helping the Bruins to multiple state championships.

“I thought the world of John Ray,” said Hickingbotham. “He was just an outstanding guy. There haven’t been many better than him. Back when his kids played for me we didn’t have an edger for the infield, so he would go around the entire infield using a shovel to edge the grass and make the field look good.”

Most recently Ray was back working with little ones. He began coaching his grandson Jackson’s T-ball team, along with his son John (J.J.).

“John told me not too long ago that there is nothing like a 4-year-old to humble you,” said Sylvan Hills Bruins coach Bruce Mason. Mason coached with Ray for over 10 years.

“John always loved working with kids, whether the older boys we coached or more recent with the youngsters,” said Bromley. “One of the biggest things I remember about John is that the kids respected him. He got along with them and was their friend, but they also absolutely recognized him as an authority figure. This can be a cruel world and he always tried to use baseball to teach them life lessons. We enjoyed working with them and I think it helped keep us both young.”

One of the first things used to describe Ray by his friends was his strength of character. A strength of character born out of being a Marine, serving in Vietnam and helping veterans as a rating specialist and supervisor for the Veteran’s Administration.

“He was a man of great character and just a fine individual,” said Mason. “You never had to guess where he was coming from with his distinct idea of right and wrong. He was always encouraging the boys to play the game the right way and to do things the right way away from the field.”

Ray loved baseball and gave so much of his time to teaching the game the right way to hundreds of players over the years.

From helping Hickingbotham in Jacksonville, to serving as the Sylvan Hills A head coach and AAA assistant coach, to putting balls on a tee for kids more interested in playing in the dirt, Ray was almost as common around the fields as ball caps and baseball bats.

“John was a baseball man; he was a good man,” Mason said.