When Jerry Boatner arrived at West Lauderdale (Miss.) High School in 1974, baseball was played on the old football practice field. Chicken wire served as a backstop. Each dugout consisted of a board placed across two stumps.
When the administration said there was no money for improvements, Boatner went to the bank and borrowed $80,000.
Friends of the school did dirt and construction work for free. He sold ads that hung on the ballpark’s fences and appeared in the team’s yearbook.
Pretty soon, West Lauderdale’s field was as manicured as any in the state — including those at Mississippi State and Ole Miss. It was a field of dreams long before Kevin Costner plowed under his Iowa corn.
Today, that field is named for Boatner, who is retiring after 50 years of coaching, 45 at West Lauderdale, his first five at Clarkdale. He steps aside with 1,202 victories — more than any coach in Mississippi history — and an astounding 14 state championships.
“I’ve always been driven to make my daddy and family proud,” says Boatner, 73. “Growing up, I didn’t feel like anybody thought I would be a success.
“I fell in love with baseball and coaching. That’s all I could do, but it’s all I ever wanted to do. I am a blessed man.”
‘People thought I was crazy’
I was fortunate to watch first-hand as Boatner’s program blossomed. He was a young head coach in Collinsville, and I was a fresh-out-of-college sports writer in Meridian, about 15 miles away.
Boatner was so far ahead of his time that his home games were viewed as part baseball, part circus.
“People thought I was crazy,” he says.
Following his first season at West Lauderdale, Boatner attended an NCAA regional tournament at Mississippi State. Ron Polk’s Georgia Southern team was a participant.
“When Georgia Southern took infield, Coach Polk had four coaches hitting four orange baseballs and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ playing in the background,” Boatner says. “Man, that blew me away. I thought I was going to pass out.”
Boatner’s teams soon began taking infield the same way, except to the tune “The Hustle.” While hitting grounders, Boatner would yell: “I love it! I love it! I love it!”
“We tried to intimidate other teams, especially when they came to our place,” Boatner says. “Part of that was the field. Most teams had never seen anything like ours. And as years went by, they would have to look at the signs of our state championships hanging by the concession stand.
“Then we would throw ‘showtime’ on them. Our infield routine was impressive. The other team wouldn’t even watch. They’d either go behind the dugout or go out into the outfield and turn their backs.
“That told me all I needed to know about them.”
But that routine wasn’t all for show.
“When you have four people hitting infield practice at one time, your infielders are going to get 15 to 20 more ground balls than they normally would. It was rapid fire.”
Boatner wasn’t shy about expressing his displeasure to umpires.
“I was covering one of his games one night, and I got there a few minutes late,” says Bill Zimmerman, who was on the Meridian Star staff with me. “When I walked up, the field was littered with bats, baseballs, batting helmets.
“I knew Coach Boatner had already gotten into it with an umpire.”
While Boatner’s temper mellowed through the years, his attention to details and fundamentals did not.
West Lauderdale pitchers were allotted 10 seconds between pitches. His team had 9 seconds to get off the field after getting the third out. After a third strike, swinging or taking, Boatner’s players were required to sprint toward first base until the umpire yelled, ‘Batter is out!”
And my personal favorite: With two outs and West Lauderdale batting, players in the dugout were required to put on their gloves. As soon as the third out was made, they sprinted to their positions.
“If you’re the other team, can you imagine watching a team take the field like that as you’re walking off?” Boatner asks. “Opponents had to be like, ‘Man, these guys love playing the game.’ Again, that was part of the intimidation.”
So, too, were the covered grandstand and the air-conditioned skybox for those who donated $300 to the program or volunteered their work on the field. It has a waiting list.
Parents of the players sat in raised chairback seats along the home baseline. No lawn chairs allowed.
And Boatner, already a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, encouraged his players to participate in other sports.
“I always thought a guy who played football was a little more aggressive on the baseball field,” Boatner says. “He sure wouldn’t mind standing in there and taking a pitch on the arm or leg.”
Players and coaches across Mississippi owe Boatner a debt of gratitude. He helped set the standard and other schools soon attempted to follow. He changed the high school game in Mississippi the same way Ron Polk, after moving to Mississippi State in 1975, changed the college game nationally.
I shared that opinion with Boatner the other day.
It brought him to tears.
Impacting players’ lives
Boatner played football, baseball and basketball through junior high in Meridian, but there was something about baseball that stole his heart.
After graduating from Meridian High in 1963, he attended East Mississippi Community College where the Lions won a national championship his sophomore year. Boatner went on to play at Delta State for the legendary “Boo” Ferriss.
“Coach Ferriss always talked about impacting kids’ lives,” Boatner says. “In my early days as a coach, I was just trying to climb that ladder of success. But as the years went by, I thought more and more about impacting the lives of the players.
“When Coach Ferriss died (in 2016), I cut an article out of the paper about just how many lives he had impacted. I taped that article to my notebook so I would see it every day.
“The Lord has blessed me with so much, and I wanted my players to know where I stood with that.”
Boatner doesn’t believe it was a coincidence that the same year (2007) he lost Marsha Jo, his wife of 38 years, to a heart attack, he also coached his best team.
“She died about three weeks before the season,” Boatner says. “If I hadn’t had baseball to take my mind off the pain for a little while each day, I don’t know what I would’ve done. That team was special on the field, and it helped me so much off the field.”
Boatner married again — this time to his eighth-grade sweetheart. He and Linda are moving to Jefferson, Georgia, an hour northeast of Atlanta.
“We each have two daughters and now we have 12 grandchildren to enjoy,” he says. “That’s the main reason I’m retiring — to spend time with them, watch them grow up.”
His final team went 25-5 and lost two one-run games May 3-4 in the Class 4A semifinal round against Vancleave.
“I’m gonna miss the game, no doubt about that,” he says. “I’m going to miss the competition and team aspect of it. That’s why I liked coaching high school teams.
“People said I should get a travel team up during the summers, but I never wanted to do that. Kids on travel teams play as individuals. They don’t bunt, don’t hustle. I want that thrill of victory and agony of defeat thing going with a group working for the same goal.”
And he might not be completely retired from the game. Boatner already has talked with a couple of high schools in Georgia about volunteering in some capacity.
“It’s hard for me to imagine baseball not in my life in some way or another,” he says. “It’s all I’ve ever known. And I feel like I have something to offer.”