HIGGANUM >> In 2000, a reporter asked legendary Maryville College baseball coach Boydson Baird to reflect on his career.
“Nobody could have enjoyed life any more than I have,” said Baird. “I have a great family, and I’ve worked with some fine young people.”
Baird passed away 10 years later at age 91 but his words seemed to echo over the baseball diamond at Haddam-Killingworth High School on Sunday as one of his former players celebrated a career coaching milestone.
Yes, Boydson Baird was Mark Brookes’ coach at Maryville, a small Division III baseball program right outside Knoxville, Tennessee. “I had a great time playing in the South and in the warmer weather,” said Brookes, an infielder for the Scots from 1970-73.
Brookes did some traveling after graduation and then was ready to take an assistant coaching position at the college level. But he missed New England. His family was here. There was also a brand new high school opening on Little City Road that just happened to be looking for a baseball coach.
Goodbye Knoxville. Hello Cougars.
“The timing was just right,” said Brookes.
Brookes reached the 600 career win mark on Sunday with a 4-0 victory against rival Morgan. In the celebration afterwards, Brookes seemed to channel Coach Baird.
“I’ve been blessed with talented kids,” said Brookes. “It’s easy for me to have coached all this time because I’ve had good kids from good families. H-K’s a great community and I’ve been lucky to be a part of it and lucky to have done what I did here.”
H-K’s only baseball coach is 600-264 in 38 seasons. Brookes’ teams have qualified for the state tournament an amazing 37 consecutive years. It’s a streak that has been handed to team after team. Talk about pressure.
It’s also a consistent level of winning that just doesn’t happen. The teacher and baseball coach, who was now becoming a father, needed someone else to be “all in” all these years. And that someone was the coach’s wife…Rae Brookes.
“Sports was just something that we had in common,” said Mark Brookes.
Their five children – son, Sean, and daughters Erin, Talia, Tessa and Nara – all starred at H-K in various sports.
“We were a pretty sports-minded family growing up,” Brookes added. “Rae was right there for me in the spring and she was right there for the kids as well, bringing them to all their games. She was all in and it made things a little easier to do what you need to do to make the program successful. I don’t know the flip side of it but if you don’t have that family commitment it has to be very difficult.”
The family values that Mark and Rae bestowed on their children – things like commitment, and finishing what you started, and working hard, and all the stuff that gets you through life – carried over to the baseball program.
“It all starts with that foundation,” said Brookes.
And it’s why Brookes can’t even count how many congratulatory calls and texts and emails he’s received from former players and coaches, including his high school coach at Middletown, John DeNunzio, and from parents whose sons played on Brookes’ very first teams and who have stayed in touch through the years.
“Every player he’s had and every other coach that has coached against him knows what he brings and the class that he brings to coaching,” said Ryan Mackenzie.
Mackenzie played for Brookes and was an assistant coach with the Cougars for six years. He just finished his second season as the Cougars head basketball coach.
“As a head coach now I can honestly say that I have learned more from him and what he does silently rather than what he does on the field,” Mackenzie added. “That’s the stuff that means more to us than anything else.”
This Memorial Day the Cougars will gather at H-K for the annual alumni game. Players from almost every decade attend the game, which promises to be extra special this year.
And the one thing every senior baseball player who ever suited up at Haddam-Killingworth has in common is this: they all played on a winning team and they all played in the state tournament.
“To this day I get at least a visit on that (alumni) day from team number one,” said Brookes. “So it means a lot to me to see them come back and to be able to talk to them and see how their lives are going. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing them grow up and do neat things and see their families and their kids.”