So long, Don Welch: The last of the 3 Musketeers

April 20, 2014 at 6:35 pm

donwelch-baseballcard

Say this about Don Welch: he sure knows how to get your attention, especially on his way out.  His has been a career full of colorful exits.

The Dayton, Tenn. native first made his mark in Chattanooga broadcasting in the 1960s, as a news reader and disc jockey on WDXB radio.  Jerry Lingerfelt was in charge of hiring and firing, and got to know Don well, hiring and firing him numerous times.

Don Welch on WDXB, 1964

Don Welch on WDXB, 1964

He remembers one of Don’s more memorable farewells.  “I came in one day, and Don had left a pile of his equipment on my desk, with a handwritten note, saying ‘I Quit!’ That’s just Don,” Lingerfelt said.

Don’s most famous goodbye would come in 1989, when his performance on the news, made the news.  He had left Chattanooga the previous year, after working 20 years at all three TV stations at one time or another.  Nashville had come calling, in need of a weekend weatherman.  WTVF, the CBS station had heard of his folksy persona, so Don accepted their invitation to move up to Music City.  The good times lasted ten months.  There were disagreements over clothing and hairstyles, and one night during the live newscast, Don had had enough.  Saying he felt “squashed, persecuted and kicked in the teeth” by station management, he looked into the camera and said, “Folks, have you ever been backed into a corner and they thought you were going to take it?”  He was just getting warmed up.  The camera crew froze.  Is this really happening?  Is this some kind of a joke?

“Well, that’s what’s happened to yours truly here at Channel 5.  I’ve been put in a position by management that I cannot accept, and I will not live with.  So this will be the last time you’ll see Don Welch in Nashville.”  With that, he walked off the set, leaving the stunned anchorman to say, “We’ll be right back!”  The Associated Press picked up the story, and the tale of the weatherman’s live-TV walkout went national.

Within days, he was back on the air in Chattanooga, where he has remained ever since.  On Wednesday April 23rd, he will say goodbye again, but this time it will be much more cordial.  At the age of 72, Don’s days of “I quit” notes and on-air walk-offs are over.  Sure, he’s still cranky and cantankerous at times, but he has mellowed, a little bit anyway.

Don’s 52-year broadcast career has been a rollercoaster ride, and he’s even taken a few detours along the way.  After leaving WDXB for the last time in 1968, he became an announcer at WRCB Channel 3.  Then-news director Fred Gault said, “He was hired to read commercials, and worked his way into the control room where he learned to direct newscasts.”  That was Don, deciding which cameras anchorman Mort Lloyd and weatherman John Gray would be looking into.  One day, they needed somebody to fill in doing the weather, and Don figured, “I can talk my way through anything, I can do this too.”

1975 WRCB Don Welch ad in TV Guide

1975 WRCB Don Welch ad in TV Guide

So Don started his on-air TV career, and for the next seven years, did a little bit of everything on Channel 3, eventually becoming the regular weekday weatherman.

In 1975, WTVC Channel 9′s new general manager Jane Grams was determined to get the station out of last place in news, where it had been since 1958.  The station had selected Darrell Patterson as its new sports director, then hired Bob Johnson as news anchor, but needed a weather personality to complete the new team.  Patterson and Welch had worked together in radio, so the connection was made.  Welch was hired away from Channel 3, and suddenly the last-place news station started getting some attention. (Ironically, Ms. Grams, the city’s first female TV executive, would wait four more years before adding a woman to the anchor desk.)

Don Welch, Bob Johnson & Darrell Patterson, 1976

Don Welch, Bob Johnson & Darrell Patterson, 1976

The new anchor team clicked immediately.  To this day, they’re compared to the Will Ferrell “Anchorman” movie characters of the 1970s. Welch was 33, five years older than Johnson, and seven years older than Patterson, so you would think he would provide some maturity for his younger brethren.  Not a chance! Instead, he led these merry Musketeers on a nightly ride of on-air chaos and some off-air fun too.  While the other channels stuck with their “just the facts” style of delivering the news, the Channel 9 crew poked each other like wayward frat boys.  Some called it “happy talk,” but Bob, Darrell and Don just chalked it up to natural chemistry.  “I’d talk about wooly worms and Grandpappy’s weather lore, and get it right more often than the certified meteorologists,” Welch laughs. “One time Bob asked me if it would rain tomorrow, so I got out my lucky quarter, flipped the coin, and tails said no.  It didn’t rain, so we kept using that quarter.  Finally someone said to stop doing that, I don’t know why!”

The Bob-Don-Darrell team was only in place for about five years, but Channel 9 got out of the ratings basement, and many viewers still remember the trio fondly.  Don left TV for two years, was lured back by Channel 12, and since has returned to Channel 9 two or three times, hosting various morning and midday shows.

Darrell Patterson, Bob Johnson and Don Welch in 2007

Darrell Patterson, Bob Johnson and Don Welch in 2007

Since 2005, he’s been hosting “This ‘N That,” a 12:30 p.m. show that has allowed him to “just be Don,” doing feature stories and interviews with a lighter touch.  He’s also found time to be a pipefitter, a Shriner, and snare drummer for Highlander Pipes and Drums.

He’s had a few health issues in recent years, and after announcing his retirement in March, told me he’s not sure what he’s going to do.  “For the first couple of months, I’ll just do nothing, and then figure it out.”  When asked if he’d follow in the footsteps of Patterson, and do some commercials after retirement, he said, “Absolutely! I’m not letting Patterson get ahead of me!”

Don Welch’s hearty laugh, big smile and folksy weather wisdom will long be remembered, as will his various fashion choices and hairstyles, ranging from buzz-cut, to Tony Orlando, to Santa Claus.  I have a feeling he won’t be a stranger in retirement, and we’ll get to see him doing a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.  Stay classy, Don!

 

 

 

Apply for the world’s toughest job

April 16, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Several applicants responded to a job offer, which required a bit more work than they were prepared to do.  And no wonder, the pay was low, the conditions were inhumane.  Who would possibly take on this assignment?  Watch this all the way, for the surprise ending:  you won’t regret it!

 

“It’s the Sheriff. May I come in?”

April 15, 2014 at 3:15 am

It’s almost 10 a.m. on a rainy Monday morning in Flintstone, Georgia.  Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson, accompanied by the County Coroner, and a Sheriff’s Department chaplain, make the short drive from Chattanooga Valley Elementary School to the home of a child’s parents.

“This was one of the worst days of my career,” said Sheriff Wilson, in his 18th year on the job.  “But then I think of that mom, dad, his brothers and grandparents, all those students and teachers.  They’re heavy on my mind.”

Zackery Bryant

Zackery Bryant

He’s referring to the tragic death of six-year-old Zackery Maximus Gage Bryant,  a kindergarten student at Chattanooga Valley.  According to Georgia State Patrol investigators, at the barely-daylight hour of 7 a.m., Zackery walked in front of the bus, outside the view of the driver, who was dropping off students in the school parking lot.  The bus struck the little boy, killing him instantly.

A Walker County deputy, Mason Brewer,  was on the scene within a minute.  He was first to confirm the bus driver’s worst fears.  A little boy had been hit.  The driver had picked up and taken Zackery to school and back every day, along with his brother Matthew, who is two years older.  There were other children, teachers and administrators in the busy parking lot too.  Within seconds, Zackery’s lifeless body was shielded from view.  Everyone on the scene was visibly shaken.  Deputy Brewer has two daughters of his own, also in school.  Word spread quickly among the school’s staff: “We’ve lost a child.”  Superintendent Damon Raines, a solid and compassionate man, sent word to all of the county schools.  Principals and counselors answered the call.  Among them was Mike Culberson, the Lafayette High principal, whose wife Heather is principal of this school.  She was taking it hard.  It was like losing one of her babies.

As news of the tragedy got out, a few Facebook experts instantly began pointing fingers.  “Bus drivers should always know where the children are,” wrote one.  “What kind of school doesn’t have a safety team in place when buses drop off kids?” asked another.  A child had died just a few hours earlier, and some people already had all the answers.  This would be an ideal time for Facebook to have an “eject” button, but there’s no such luck.

Sheriff Wilson, a deeply religious man, has made these visits before.  “If I’m available, I’d rather inform the family about the loss of a loved one, instead of having my staff do it.  It’s my duty, not so much as Sheriff, but as a Christian.  You don’t do this by phone, not if there’s any way possible to tell someone face to face.  I was not alone,” Wilson said.  “I had our chaplain Neal Brown and the coroner, Dewayne Wilson with me.  We’ve all done this before.  It’s never easy, and I knew this one wouldn’t be.”

Sgt. Tommy Sturdivan of the Georgia State Patrol helped document the accident, and made a key decision: before the bus was towed away, he instructed that the number of the bus be covered.  As Sheriff Wilson said, “That bus will be back in service some day, and he said people might associate the bus number with this tragedy.”

Dan Gilchrist is a true angel among us.  The pastor of the Presbyterian Church across the street, he also has children in the school.  He wore many hats on this day, first dropping off his children, then helping re-direct traffic, opening a sad press conference with prayer (“Oh Father, how desperately we need your spirit,” he began) and then providing a room to comfort the family, out of sight of this horrible tragedy.

“I knocked on the door,” Sheriff Wilson said.  “There was a car in the driveway, so I figured someone was there.  I knocked a little harder.  The boy’s mother answered, and she asked who was there.  I said, ‘It’s the Sheriff, may I come in?’  We asked if she had heard about an accident at the school.  She said she had not.  I said, ‘We need to tell you what happened.’  Like anyone else, there was some disbelief at first, that maybe we were mistaken.  It took a little time to sink in, and then we prayed with her.”

The boy’s father, who was at work in Chattanooga soon got the news, and joined his family at the church.  Deputy Brewer, who was first at the scene, told the Sheriff, “I need to go home to hug my daughters.”

The bus driver, whose own 20-year-old son died three years ago, is “very shaken up,” and the school district is allowing him to take some days off.  The accident investigation report, released late Friday, said the driver was not distracted while behind the wheel.  He was pulling away from the school when the child walked in front of the bus, to pick up something he had forgotten.  He will not be charged in this case, with investigators concluding it was an unavoidable accident.

(Personal note: As the father of two boys who were six years old for a brief moment in time, I can say with certainty that fewer things on earth are more precious than a six-year-old.  To this day, when given a choice of classrooms to share a Dr. Seuss book, I’ll take kindergarten every time.  The wide-eyed wonder, the honesty, the innocence.  There’s nothing quite like it.  They’re no longer babies, but they still love a good hug.)

Zackery’s obituary describes him as a fan of super heroes like Spider Man and Captain America.  His grandmother said he will be buried in his favorite Spider Man outfit.

Back on Facebook, amid the prayers and the second-guessers was this wonderful nugget: “My grandson is in the little boy’s class.  He asked if he could send him a card to make him feel better.” Spoken like a true six-year-old.

“This tragedy has touched people in Walker County and beyond,” Sheriff Wilson said.  “We’ve all been on a school bus, our children ride those buses, and we wonder, could it happen to us?  I hope mommas and daddies everywhere are reminding their children about school bus safety.  And I hope they’re all hugging their children and grandchildren, no matter how old they are.  I know I will.”

Zackery Bryant

Zackery Bryant

 

 

 

Remembering the UTC Arena concerts: Where did they go?

April 6, 2014 at 4:17 am

It was October 8, 1982.  I was there, along with 11,000 other excited music fans.  It was the night we had long awaited.  Chattanooga finally had an arena large enough to attract superstar musical acts.  The Tivoli Theater, with about 2,000 seats, was a great place for an intimate show, but much too small for a big-name artist.  Memorial Auditorium had not yet been renovated.  It had hosted its share of big shows, but its poor sight lines and 4,000 seat capacity had long been surpassed by venues in surrounding cities.

The UTC Arena (or as some called it, The Roundhouse) put Chattanooga in the big leagues as a concert town.  The opening night headliner was Kenny Rogers, who was cranking out hits one after another.  As we squeezed into our seats, the thankless task of opening the show went to comedian Lonnie Shorr, whose so-so material was met with widespread disinterest from a crowd ooh-ing and aah-ing over the new building.  The Gatlin Brothers were up next, in a set marred by a very awkward moment.  As audience members continued to chatter, singer Larry Gatlin stopped in the middle of a ballad, and said, “Hey, don’t let me interrupt anything.  If y’all would rather talk among yourselves, we can just stop right here.”  The crowd settled down, and Gatlin sang on.  Finally, Rogers appeared, singing “Lucille,” “Coward of the County,” “The Gambler” and his other big hits.  We went home happy, awaiting more great shows at our new arena.

utc-dianaross

We were not disappointed.  During the next few years, rarely a month went by without a superstar or two on our local stage.  As soon as one act left town, we would get word that another was on the way.  Something for everyone:  Diana Ross.  Alabama.  Tina Turner.  Bob Seger.  Cher. Billy Joel.  Motley Crue.  Elton John.  Heart. Lionel Richie.  Rod Stewart.  Billy Idol.  Doobie Brothers.  Hank Williams Jr.  Van Halen.  Randy Travis.  Journey. Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Jackson Browne.  ZZ Top.  Bad Company.  Reba McEntyre.  Luther Vandross.  Alan Jackson.  The Allman Brothers.  Bon Jovi.  Def Leppard.  Don Henley.  Wynonna Judd.  Metallica.  Chicago.  The Beach Boys.  Guns N’ Roses.  The Statler Brothers. Sandi Patti.  Rick James.  Aerosmith.

utc-conway

A triple-header with the three biggest country stars on the planet: Merle Haggard, George Jones and Conway Twitty.  Jimmy Buffett.  REO Speedwagon.  John Denver.  Itzhak Perlman.  Guns and Roses.  38 Special. Bob Hope. MC Hammer.  Dan Fogelberg.  John Mellencamp.  Barbara Mandrell.  LL Cool J.  Michael Bolton.  Styx.  Clint Black.  Whitesnake.  The Osmonds.  Rick Springfield.  Kenny G.  Barry Manilow.  Poison.  REM.  Amy Grant.  The Gaither Family.  Richard Marx.  The Oak Ridge Boys.  Even some of the opening acts were big names:  Huey Lewis and the News.  Molly Hatchet. The Pointer Sisters.  Kansas.

utc-buffett

Not to mention all the tractor pulls, rodeos, wrestling matches, Disney On Ice, Harlem Globetrotters, Bob Barker’s Game Show Giveaway, circuses and other spectacles that dotted the calendar.

This isn’t meant to be a complete listing.  I know I left some out, and you’re welcome to add to the list.  Just typing those names brought back great memories:

My then-fiancee Cindy attended the Diana Ross show in early 1983.  She tried to talk me into going, but I was emceeing the KZ-106 English Leather Calendar Girl contest that night.  Well, somebody had to do it.

I took my mother to one of Alabama’s many sold-out shows.  She was not particularly agile at the time, so I helped her down the endless steps to our great floor seats.  We got comfortable, and about 10 minutes before showtime, she said, “I need to go the restroom.”  I soon discovered the restrooms were on the 2nd level.  Back up the steps we go….

utc-vanhalen

Rod Stewart kicking a soccer ball….The Pointer Sisters energetically outshining the headline act, Lionel Richie….getting to meet Kenny Rogers backstage (my wife, then a bold, brash newsperson got tongue-tied when she met him…”I didn’t know he was so tall and handsome!”…..meeting Bob Seger in his dressing room (he offered me a kiwi…I’d never had one, so I declined, telling him I was trying to quit)…getting bored at the Chicago concert (too many 1980s-era ballads, not enough 70s era horns)….realizing the Arena was not a good place for balladeers like Dan Fogelberg or Jackson Browne to play…being totally knocked out by Tina Turner’s command of the stage…looking on with amusement as Billy Joel handed off the high notes to a backup singer…seeing Billy’s then-wife Christie Brinkley holding their baby Alexa just offstage…watching  Barbara Mandrell play pretty much every musical instrument ever invented…and so many more.

utc-barry

Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.  But they did.  The arena that hosted at least 20 big-name shows a year, now may host a handful.  Elton John, who lives 2 hours away, has visited twice in recent years.  Taylor Swift was here a while back, just before she became TAYLOR SWIFT.  Maroon 5, Zac Brown, Carrie Underwood and Toby Keith have all appeared in the past several years, but such shows have been few and far between.

Where’s Tim McGraw?  George Strait?  Lady Gaga? Katy Perry? Arcade Fire?  Keith Urban?  And the other first-class acts that used to appear here every few weeks?  The quick answer:  They would rather go somewhere else.  Since 1982, the Arena has gone from shiny and new, to undersized and outdated.  Better-designed venues have sprung up in Atlanta and Nashville with a few thousand more seats.  That means bigger crowds, and more sales of t-shirts, programs and other merchandise that fatten artists’ wallets.  One source close to the UTC Arena (now McKenzie Arena) told me, “It’s not from lack of trying.  We’re always trying to attract big shows.  Some artists say people will drive from Chattanooga to Nashville or Atlanta, but it doesn’t work the other way around.  They look at us as just a blip on the map.”

I’d love to hear about your favorite “Roundhouse” show memories.  Most of the big shows took place before cellphone cameras became commonplace, so there aren’t many pictures from the 80s and 90s era shows.  But we can still hear the music, and the applause.

 

Raw video of Lookouts skydiver’s hard landing

April 4, 2014 at 11:32 am

Here’s a YouTube video from Luke Prince, taken Thursday night at the Chattanooga Lookouts opening game at AT&T Field.  The Chattanooga Skydiving Company was part of the pre-game festivities, and Justin Silvia reportedly suffered a broken leg when he hit the turf way too hard.

More than five thousand onlookers are grateful it wasn’t more serious.  Notice the public address announcer, who kept reading the promotional announcement: the show must go on!

Just another reason to love firefighters

April 1, 2014 at 10:58 pm

From my friend Bruce Garner with the Chattanooga Fire Department: this photo was taken after the fire at Mountain Creek Apartments on Tuesday afternoon:

cat“The cat’s owner watches anxiously as Lt. James McKnight administers oxygen to a cat that was rescued from the fire.  The cat appeared to be suffering from severe smoke inhalation and was in respiratory distress. After administering the oxygen for several minutes through a mask specifically designed for cats and dogs, the cat’s condition appeared to improve significantly.”

Thank you, Lt. McKnight.  Animals are sometimes considered an afterthought in a crisis situation.  But as you can see in this photo, this cat is part of someone’s family.  Thank you to all of our first responders for your heroic efforts, in attempting to protect and save the lives of all family members in dangerous conditions. 

Good advice: Don’t break into a web designer’s house.

April 1, 2014 at 7:06 pm

By now, everyone should assume that you’re on camera pretty much everywhere you go.  If you break into someone’s home, you might as well smile for the camera.  The dude you’ll see in this video, wearing a white t-shirt, ball cap and jeans shorts (jorts?) is about to become a well-known face.  It’s 3:00 p.m. as I write this, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in custody by sundown.

It so happens he broke into a home owned by a web developer, a self-described tech junkie/computer nerd, who had installed clear, sharp security cameras in his home.  Not just one, either.  So you’ll see crisp, colorful video of a rather large dude who tore through a door, and grabbed various electronics items and liquor bottles during his two appearances on camera.  This happened mid-afternoon, bright sunny daylight on Monday March 31st.  The home is located in the Stuart Heights area of Hixson, near Chattanooga.

You’ll see it all over the news soon, so go ahead and meet your newest reality TV star, appearing soon in a slammer near you!

 

 

April Fools! The jokes are on me.

April 1, 2014 at 2:39 am

It’s April Fools Day, and thanks to all who sent in jokes!  Some of these are yours, and others are among my favorites.  Sabrina Cook, Robert Young and Marshall Nikowsky each win some fun gifts including Sonic gift cards and CDs from my prize closet.  Let’s have a laugh or five.

A couple from the country had never been to a big city, so they decided to take their son to New York and see the sights, like Rockefeller Center.  There they saw an imposing pair of metal doors with lighted numbers over them.  They wondered what in the world these metal doors could lead to.  An elderly, hunched-over lady hobbled past them, pushed a button next to the doors, they slid open and she hobbled in.  The doors shut, and the man and his son watched as the numbers went up, then down again.  A moment later, the doors slid open again, and a beautiful, sexy young woman walked out.  The man and his son stood there in stunned silence.  He then said to his son in a low voice, “Boy, go get your mother.”

 

A woman noticed she hadn’t seen her elderly neighbor in a few days so she called the police.  An officer came and searched the house, and, sure enough, the neighbor had apparently died peacefully in his sleep.  The coroner was called, and after an examination, the officer called the morgue to come retrieve the body.  The van driver at the morgue asked the officer exactly where the body was.  The officer looked out at the street signs and replied, “We’re at the corner of Hydrangea and Chrysanthemum.” “How do you spell that?” asked the van driver.  The officer thought for a moment, and then said, “How ’bout I drag the body over to the corner of Pine and Oak, and you can pick it up there?”

A local news reporter was interviewing an 80-year-old woman, who was getting married for the fourth time.  He asked her what if felt like to be marrying again at 80, and then about her new husband’s occupation. “He’s a funeral director,” she answered.  ‘Interesting,’ the newsman thought.  He then asked her if she wouldn’t mind telling him a little about her first three husbands and what they did for a living.   She paused for a few moments, needing time to reflect on all those years.  After a short time, a smile came to her face and she answered proudly, explaining that she’d first married a banker when she was in her early 20′s, then a circus ringmaster when in her 40′s, later on a preacher when in her 60′s, and now in her 80′s, a funeral director.  The interviewer looked at her, quite astonished, and asked why she had married four men with such diverse careers.  She smiled and explained, “I married one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go!”

A middle-aged woman seemed worried as she visited her gynecologist.  “Come now,” coaxed the doctor, “you’ve been seeing me for years. There’s nothing you can’t tell me.”  “This one’s kind of strange,” the woman said.   “Let me be the judge of that,” the doctor replied.  “Well,” she said, “yesterday I went to the bathroom in the morning and heard a plink-plink-plink in the toilet. When I looked down, the water was full of pennies.”  “I see,” commented the doctor calmly.  “That afternoon, I went to the bathroom again and, plink-plink-plink, there were nickels in the bowl,” the woman continued.  “That night,” she went on, “I went again, and plink-plink-plink, there were dimes. This morning, there were quarters!”  “You’ve got to tell me what’s wrong with me!” she implored. “I’m scared out of my wits!”   The gynecologist put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “There, there, it’s nothing to be scared about,” he said.  “You’re simply going through the change.”

 

Mrs. Smith is a kindergarten teacher and and the students brought gifts for her birthday.  As she walked into her classroom, little Ashley brought a gift up to her desk.  “Guess what it is!” said Ashley.   Knowing that Ashley’s father owned a bookstore she guessed, “A book?”   “How did you know?” asked Ashley.   Next Matt brought a gift up to Mrs. Smith. “Guess what it is!” said Matt.   Knowing that Matt’s parents owned a florist shop, she guessed, “Flowers?”   “How did you know?” asked Matt.   Finally, Alex brought up a gift for Mrs. Smith.  “Guess what it is!” said Alex.   Knowing that Alex’s father owned a liquor store, and seeing that the bag was wet, she placed her fingers on the liquid and then licked them. “Rum?” guessed Mrs. Smith.  “No” said Alex.  She tasted again…”Vodka?” she guessed.   “No” said Alex.   Once again she wet her fingers and tasted, “I know,” said Mrs. Smith, “It’s wine.”   “No!” said Alex…”It’s a puppy!”

It’s election season! Here’s your sign.

March 28, 2014 at 11:21 pm

True confession:  when I was a kid, I looked forward to election day almost as much as Christmas.  So in case you haven’t seen the signs along the highway, let me welcome you to election season!

signs1

Growing up in Carroll’s General Merchandise in Bryant, Alabama, we didn’t see many celebrities.  Occasionally, a Chattanooga radio star like Earl Freudenberg would stop in to ask directions to a gospel singing, but most of our traffic consisted of regular customers.  So when someone wearing a suit and tie would come in, passing out cards, that was a big deal.

To this day, I get excited.  I enjoy the controversy, the charges, the counter-charges.  The Tennessee 3rd District Congressional race is as entertaining as any reality TV show.  Just look at what the past couple of campaigns have given us:  millionaires, ice cream, family dynasties, accusations of tire-slashing and secretly recorded conversations.  Who needs “House of Cards” when you’ve got Chuck, Weston and Scottie?

signs2

Thursday night, I moderated a debate between the Hamilton County Commission candidates in District 7.  Nice people, every one of them.  Young, old, black, white, male and female.  No one’s been elected yet, but they’re already carrying on a grand local tradition.  Each and every one of them is totally supportive of new school buildings for ancient CSLA and overcrowded East Hamilton Middle, both in or near District 7.  But would they vote for a tax increase to build them?  Uh….no.  “But I’ll find a way!”  For those keeping track, that didn’t work out too well earlier in the week.

I admire anyone who runs though, I always have.  My parents were amused by my fascination with the local politicians.  In our store, we kept a bulletin board with the various cards they brought in, and I was always disappointed if a candidate visited during the school day, when I wasn’t there.  One of the first politicians I met was Sheriff C.T. Dean, who would pass out “Junior Sheriff” badges to kids like me.  I bet I still have mine somewhere, just in case I have to be like Gomer Pyle, and make a citizen’s arrest.

Some of the candidates were outgoing and friendly, others were shy.  I would try to pry information out of them, about themselves and their competitors.  I remember asking one man why he was a better choice for a top county post than his opponent, who I liked.  He said, “Lord have mercy, that guy can barely read and write, we don’t want him spending the county’s money!” (By the way, “that guy” did win the election, and somehow the county survived.)

In Bryant, we were proud of hosting the final political rally each election season.  Our little community in the northeastern corner of the county reserved the Saturday night before the election, and we always filled the gym.  Even statewide candidates would make the long trip to Bryant, because the audience was far more than just politicians and their families.  It was our big annual social event, and the Ruritan Club made some extra cash selling snacks and drinks.

I enjoyed studying the different types of speeches.  Some of the candidates were polished speakers, while others either had stage fright or just couldn’t string together a few coherent sentences.  More than once, I suspected a candidate had consumed a little alcohol prior to the event, maybe to work up enough courage to face the big Bryant crowd.

One of my favorite memories is from the 1970 campaign, when Sheriff W.R. (Bob) Collins was seeking a second term.  Collins was the personification of the term “low-key.”  Unlike the cigar-chomping southern sheriffs seen in that era’s TV shows, Collins was soft-spoken and gentlemanly.  At that year’s rally, Collins’ opponent was fired up as he took the stage, criticizing the sheriff, who sat behind him, solemn and expressionless.  Collins’ challenger told the crowd how he would clean up crime, weed out the bootleggers and drug dealers, increase patrols, and much more.  This went on for a while, until the bell rang and his 3-minute time limit had expired.

Then it was Sheriff Collins’ turn to speak.  I remember thinking, “Man, how will respond to all those attacks?  I’ll bet he’s going to have a lot to say after the way than man talked about him!”

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Sheriff Collins got up and said,  ”Folks, you know me, and I hope you’ll go to the polls on Tuesday and re-elect me for another term.” That was it.  He sat down. I was amazed.  He didn’t even say his name!  Of course, he won by a landslide, and won a few more terms after that.  Who says you need a long campaign speech?

This reminds me of an often-told political story.  A congressman was at a political rally, giving his stump speech, which he finished to thunderous applause.  He closed by saying, “Now go out and vote for me on Tuesday!”  An elderly man jumped up from his seat, and yelled, “Not me! Not me!  I wouldn’t vote for you if you were St. Peter himself!”  The congressman looked him right in the eye and replied, “That’s right.  Because if I was St. Peter, you wouldn’t be living in my district!”

My 2014 Braves Top 10 List

March 27, 2014 at 12:25 am

Fresh from my annual spring training trip, where I saw the 2014 Atlanta Braves up close and personal (as well as spying on the Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins), I feel enormously unqualified to preview the upcoming season.   But that’s never stopped me before!  Here goes:

Jason Heyward

Jason Heyward

1.  Jason Heyward will have a good year. Man, is he in shape.  That’s why I’m predicting he will spend most of the year out of the leadoff position, somewhere lower in the lineup where he can drive in some runs.  He should be capable of 25-30 home runs, with 100 RBI year after year, if he’s batting 3rd or 5th. I’m not so confident about:

B.J. Upton

B.J. Upton

2.  B.J. Upton. He isn’t going to bounce back, not this year, not for the Braves.  As Yogi Berra said so eloquently, “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.” I think it’s in his head.  Like Heyward, B.J. is in great shape, but he just doesn’t seem confident at the plate.  He still strikes out a lot.  Kudos to Braves management for trying to boost his confidence by batting him second this spring.  I just don’t think he’ll ever justify that incredibly huge contract.  I hope I’m wrong, but if I’m not:

Jordan Schafer

Jordan Schafer

3.  You’ll see Jordan Schafer in the leadoff spot, playing center field.  Before his injury last year, he’d pretty much won the job,  although no one said it out loud.  He’s the only true leadoff hitter on the roster, and his defense is terrific.  He really seems focused these days, unlike his first couple of years in the majors.  Speaking of focus…

Chris Johnson (left) with Tyler Pastornicky

Chris Johnson (left) with Tyler Pastornicky

4.  Chris Johnson is for real.  He was the pleasant surprise of 2013.  Little was expected of the “throw-in” in the Justin Upton trade with Arizona.  Johnson wasn’t the 2002 Chipper Jones, but he was way better than the 2012 Chipper.  Some believe his hot bat last year was a fluke.  Not me.  He is simply a solid hitter, and his late-season momentum has carried over into the spring.  And the Braves are going to need plenty of hitting, because….

Freddy Garcia (right) with Steven LeRud

Freddy Garcia (right) with Steven LeRud

5.  The starting pitching is a wreck.  I think the Braves will regret parting ways with Freddy Garcia.  No, he’s not getting any younger, faster or slimmer, but he was good at getting batters out.  Frank Wren’s explanation for letting him go (“Aaron Harang is a better fit for us”) was puzzling.  I could go on a lengthy harangue about my theories, but what’s done is done. Still, it brings us back to those injuries:

Phil Niekro

Phil Niekro

6.  I had the pleasure of speaking to Phil Niekro, the Hall of Famer who I first met back when he was an old pitcher, in his 40s.  Now he’s in his 70s, and the Braves always invite him to spring training as a special instructor, although he says  no one wants to learn the knuckleball.  I asked him why so many of today’s young pitchers are out with Tommy John surgery, unlike the old days when he, and many others routinely pitched 250-plus innings year after year.  I pointed out that many of those workhorses were not exactly in shape.  (Google “Rick Reuschel” and you’ll see what I mean)

The wily old pitcher said today’s pitchers are TOO fit.  Too much Nautilus training, everything’s too tight, and it doesn’t take much for a muscle to snap.  So his message to young pitchers is, “Have a hot dog every once in a while.”  Look at Phil’s career numbers.  He was never toned, but he sure was durable.  While at spring training, Phil enjoyed the company of a young first baseman:

Freddie Freeman, Phil Niekro and Fred Freeman

Freddie Freeman, Phil Niekro and Fred Freeman

7.  I think there are two Hall of Famers in this picture:  you’re looking at Mr. Niekro, Freddie Freeman and his dad Fred.  Young Freddie, barely 24, already has a .285 career batting average and 280 RBI.  Some scouts say he has the best eye in baseball.  He’s an elite defensive first baseman.  And at 24, he’s only going to get better!  The Braves have locked him in for eight years.  He’s a joy to watch, and won’t this photo be a delight if Freddie is inducted into the Hall of Fame some day?  I’m not betting against it.  Here’s something else I’m betting on:

Ramiro Pena

Ramiro Pena

8.  Ramiro Pena will see a lot of playing time this year.  While I’m convinced Dan Uggla is one of baseball’s good guys, loved by teammates and fans, I doubt he’ll ever return to his pre-Atlanta form.  Pena was about to win the second base job when he suffered a season-ending injury in June, and if Uggla struggles, we’ll see Pena in the lineup a lot.  Don’t count out Tyler Pastornicky either.  He’ll never be the “shortstop of the future” as advertised in 2011, but he will be a valuable member of the 2014 Braves.  Speaking of valuable:

Andrelton Simmons

Andrelton Simmons

9.  I expect Andrelton Simmons to be an MVP candidate this year. Like Freeman, he’s only 24 and is already considered the best shortstop in the game.  Plus, he can hit, with power: 17 home runs last year.  He has only played in 206 big league games.  Imagine what he’ll do with a little more seasoning!  Every GM in baseball would love to have Simmons at shortstop.  He belongs to the Braves for a long, long time, thanks to the maneuvering of the Silver Fox himself:

Fredi Gonzalez and Frank Wren

Fredi Gonzalez and Frank Wren

10.  Frank Wren.  We know he’s not afraid to shake up the roster and roll the dice.  Barring injuries to the nucleus of the lineup and baseball’s best closer, Craig Kimbrel, the Braves are already better than average.  I think he’ll keep wheeling and dealing to bolster the starting pitching staff.  The experts are predicting either the Giants or Cardinals will win the NL pennant.  Most are picking the Nationals to win the NL East.  Wren and Gonzalez took an injury-riddled Braves team to 96 wins last year.  Let’s hope the worst of the injuries are behind us, so the Braves can play deeper into postseason in 2014.  Now let’s do some chopping!