A journalist tired of the news grind finds unexpected inspiration when he’s roped into coaching a rowdy baseball team.
by Jim Dodson | illustration by Gerry O’Neill
I hear a voice and look up. The face is much older, the voice deeper. But both are so familiar.
“Hey, Coach,” says Peter Gay, giving me what I used to call his “sly fastball grin.”
I stand up and we hug.
“You grew up, buddy.”
“And you grew old, Coach.”
“Funny how that happens.”
We both laugh.
Forty years ago, Pete and his brothers, Fred and Rodney, and their friend, Alvin, were the invincible infield of an inner-city baseball team I coached for two spring seasons called the Highland Park Orioles.
I nicknamed them the Birds of Paradise because most of the players came from a tough inner- city neighborhood where, by agreement with their anxious parents and guardians, I dropped them off near a street named Paradise after every practice and game.
Atlanta, in those years, was anything but a paradise. Due to the infamous “Missing and Murdered” crisis that besieged the city between 1979 and 1981, in which 30 Black kids and young adults were abducted and murdered by an unknown person or persons, the city that declared itself “too busy to hate” earned the distinction of being the “Murder Capital of America” for several years running.
In the spring of 1982, I was a senior writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday Magazine, the oldest Sunday magazine in the nation. During my six years there, I’d written about everything from unrepentant Klansmen to corrupt politicians, presidential campaigns to repo kings, a constant stream of violence and social mayhem.
While working on a story about Atlanta’s famed medical examiner, Dr. Robert Stivers (who was reportedly the inspiration for the late-1970s TV drama Quincy) I actually saw my next-door neighbor, a med student, gunned down in his backyard by an assailant.
The young man died as his hysterical girlfriend and I waited for the EMTs and cops to arrive. The cops took their own sweet time, shrugging it off as just another drug deal gone sideways. I followed the ambulance hauling my neighbor’s body downtown to the ME’s office to await his autopsy. Talk about art imitating life’s worst moments.
I decided that I was becoming a career burn-out case. I’d had enough of covering the sorrows of my native South. But my editor — a charming true-blue Atlantan named Andy Sparks — had spotted my brewing crisis. He suggested I write about “lighter” subjects for a time.
So I went over to a rutted ball field with pen and pad, planning to write a sweet little feature story about the hopefulness of spring baseball tryouts in my Midtown neighborhood. Instead, I ended up getting strong-armed by the league director to take on a wild bunch of Orioles whose coach never bothered to show up. Looking back, it was one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me.
Our first practice was chaos. The team horsed around and barely paid attention as I placed them into tentative playing positions. But somehow, I got the four best players into key spots. Pete and Alvin would rotate between pitching and playing third; Fred was on first base, and Rodney was catching.
On our way home, I stopped at a popular neighborhood joint called Woody’s just two blocks from the ball field, foolishly thinking that if I bought them a milkshake and got to know them better, the four best players on the team might help me whip the Birds into shape. Instead, they hooted and hollered and made such a ruckus that the owners tossed us out and warned us not to return unless we learned to behave.
“I remember how you gave us a lecture about being gentlemen in public places,” Pete says as we sit together at Woody’s 40 years later. (Its milkshakes and steak-and-cheese sandwiches are better than ever.)
Peter Gay is 53 today, a hard-working father of three grown children, and a popular volunteer football coach and recruiter for Booker T. Washington High in the center city. He’s dressed in the bright blue colors of the Washington Bulldogs. Two years ago, he’d called me out of the Bulldog blue.
“I remembered the story you wrote for the Reader’s Digest about us,” he explained on the phone that afternoon. “And I remembered that you left Atlanta to write books. That’s how I found you on the Internet.”
“Tell me,” I’d said. “Is Woody’s still there?”
A day later, Pete sent me a photo of himself in front of the Woody’s sign. We made a plan to meet there when I came to Atlanta for my latest book research.
That first season, the Birds of Paradise never lost a game. Or if we did, I don’t recall it. We often won by football scores. Pete had a lethal fast ball. Alvin’s curve was unhittable. Rodney was an awesome catcher and Fred played first base like a pro. Even better, the Birds calmed down and became true gentlemen, on and off the field. (Though I spent a small fortune at Woody’s once the other members of the team learned about my gambit and got in on the post-game treat.)
“You kind of bribed us to behave with milkshakes,” says Pete today. “But I get that now. It really worked.”
Because of the Birds, I stayed for one more spring in Atlanta. In year two we went undefeated. A coach from the all-white northern suburbs even proposed a “Metro” championship game at his team’s immaculate facility north of the city. We set a date for the game, and I went out and purchased new orange jerseys with my own money.
A few days before the match-up, however, my opposing coach called back to say that some of his parents were concerned that my kids might feel “intimidated about playing in such a nice facility.” I assured him the Birds wouldn’t be intimidated. We both knew the meaning of his code words.
“Well,” he said uneasily, “maybe… next year.”
There was no next year. After the season, the owners of Woody’s threw us a party and I left Atlanta for Vermont. There, I learned to fly fish, knocked the rust off my golf game and found a whole new career writing about people and subjects that enrich life.
I realized that the Birds of Paradise gave me a gift those two years: a healing glimpse of what real happiness is like. As another spring dawns, I’ve seen Pete and Fred several times and even attended the beautiful wedding of Pete’s daughter, Petera, last summer. Very soon, on my next trip to Atlanta, I’m planning to take my entire infield to a nice, grown-up dinner, with or without milkshakes.
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.