Legendary coach stepping away from the game

Years ago, when working on a book about baseball’s Boo Ferriss, I called one of his former Delta State players, West Lauderdale coach Jerry Boatner.

From Boatner, I got more than I could have hoped.

Boatner told me he has said the same prayer every day of his coaching career, a career that ended last week when Boatner called it quits at age 73.

Boatner told me his daily prayer went like this: “Lord, please let me just have half the positive influence on people that Boo Ferriss has had. Just let me help half as many people become successful in life as Coach Ferriss has.”

“Listen, I know I can’t be Boo Ferriss,” Boatner explained that day. “There’s only one Boo Ferriss and there’s only going to be one. I’ve told the Lord so many times that I’d settle for half the influence Boo Ferriss has had.”

Boatner’s right. There will never be another Boo Ferriss. But the just-retired West Lauderdale coaching legend has been a most exceptional Jerry Boatner. He can consider his mission accomplished, his prayer answered. His influence on Mississippi baseball and Mississippi baseball people has been immense.

Start with his record. In 50 years of high school baseball coaching, 45 at West Lauderdale, Boatner’s teams won 1,202 games and 14 state championships. You read right: 14 state championships.

There’s more: In 2017, after his next to last season, Boatner was named the national high school baseball coach of the year by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association.

There’s still more. Also in 2017, Boatner was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, where he joins such Mississippi coaching legends as Ron Polk, Hill Denson, Paul Gregory, Bob Braddy, Dudy Noble, Tom Swayze and, of course, Boo Ferriss.

You will note that all those other Mississippi Hall of Famers coached college baseball. Boatner is the first – and so far – only Mississippi high school coach to be inducted into the prestigious group.

Boatner’s 50 years in high school baseball take us back to a time when most Mississippi high school baseball coaches were football assistants and most high school baseball fields were glorified pastures. Few had lights. Teams played 10 to 12 games a year. High school baseball was an afterthought.

Boy, has that changed and Boatner has helped lead the charge.

“The one thing he does, he makes sure you are prepared,” said Jackson Academy baseball coach Jay Powell, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer who got his start under Boatner at West Lauderdale.

“Nobody is going to out-work Jerry Boatner. What he did for me is he laid a foundation of working hard. He always said that if you want to be great, you are going to have to do something extra, work harder than the next guy.

“Throughout my career at Mississippi State and professionally, he always came to mind when I felt like I was too tired to lift weights or run or whatever,” Powell said. “I knew what he would say and so I would go do it. Plus, he was so danged competitive. He hated to lose. I know that rubbed off on me, too.”

Southern Miss baseball coach Scott Berry has coached several former West Lauderdale players at both Meridian Community College and then USM.

“Coach Boatner’s players were always ready for the next level,” Berry said. “He had a process of developing his players and it started in the seventh grade. His coaching style was intense and his players mirrored that intensity. We always called West Lauderdale baseball ‘The Factory’ because of all the players Coach Boatner produced.”

Powell, the pitcher who helped Boatner win two of his 14 state titles and went on to be the winning pitcher in Game Seven of the World Series, believes it unlikely that any coach will ever win more games, but he believes something else is even less likely.

“There’ll never be another coach who loves the game more than that man loves baseball,” Powell said. “He doesn’t hunt, fish, play golf or any of that. Baseball has been his life. I cannot imagine him not coaching.”

Rick Cleveland  is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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