JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge
In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer Steve Junga talked with longtime Blissfield High School baseball coach Larry Tuttle, who has led the Royals to seven Michigan state championships.
Yesterday afternoon on the green grass and smooth infield dirt at the well-manicured Blissfield High School baseball field, which he calls his "front yard," 40th-year Royals head coach Larry Tuttle and his team renewed their annual quest for a state championship with the start of district tournament play.
The Royals have won a state-record seven of them at the Division 3 (formerly Class C) level in Michigan under Tuttle, taking home crowns in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1992, 2000, 2002 and 2003.
Entering yesterday's district tournament, this Michigan high school hall-of-fame coach had posted a 968-285-4 overall record, and his teams have played 46 percent of their games during his tenure against higher-level (Division 1 and 2) competition.
There have been 31 league, 22 district and 13 regional titles. Blissfield was also state runner-up in 1999, lost in the semifinals twice and the quarterfinals three times.
Tuttle credits the success to the high level of commitment to baseball in this small rural town, which operates a top-notch Little League program, has first-rate parental involvement, dedicated athletes and a staff of assistant coaches he says is second to none.
The program has produced 43 first-team and 13 second-team All-Michigan players, 22 Division-I college players plus many more at lower college levels. Nine have played professionally, including Ray Soff, a 1976 grad who pitched briefly for the St. Louis Cardinals (1986-88). Brad Fischer (1974), reached the major-league coaching ranks with the Oakland A's.
Tuttle also has coached the Blissfield American Legion summer team to an 1,164-528-8 record during his tenure, and late this summer he will coach his 3,000th total baseball game.
Larry Tuttle, born on D-Day (June 6, 1944) to Irene and Leland Tuttle, who are both deceased, grew up with younger brothers Jim, now 61, and Doug, 59. Both also went on to great success as high school teachers and coaches in Michigan.
The family lived on their farm and the boys attended a one-room schoolhouse until Larry was sixth grade (1956), when a tornado destroyed the building and the boys joined the Morenci school system.
The Tuttle brothers all played football, basketball, baseball and ran track at Morenci High, and all later earned degrees from Adrian College. As a prep running back, Larry led Lenawee County in scoring as a senior in the fall of 1961, and was runner-up as a junior.
He and former wife Becky have two grown children - son Matthew, 32, who played on the 1992 state championship team, and daughter Amy, 28. A middle child, son Aaron, died at 6 weeks old.
These days, Tuttle - who retired from teaching (mathematics) in 1999, and from his duties as athletic director in 2003 - spends half of his year as a resident of Marco Island, Fla., returning north for the spring and summer baseball seasons.
"I GREW UP in the country on a farm on a gravel road. We had no running water in the house until I was 6 years old. We had no telephone, had a 12-inch black-and-white TV, a stamp cost 2 cents and the medical doctor still made house calls.
"I remember mom putting myself and my two brothers in the old pickup truck and driving us two miles to school. My dad would work in a factory all day and come home and farm until after dark every night.
"Most of our food came from the farm - vegetables, meat and milk. My work ethic was instilled in me by my dad and mom. In addition to taking care of us and taking us to school, my mom would dress us up every Sunday and take us to Seneca Community Church. My Christian faith is the most important thing to me in my life today. My mom and dad never missed any of our school activities or athletic events we were involved in.
"BASEBALL IS UNIQUE from the standpoint that it's a controlled sport. In football, if you do something wrong, you've got 30 seconds to redeem yourself. In basketball, maybe you have 10 seconds; you throw a bad pass and go back and steal it and score.
"In baseball, you may not get another chance to redeem yourself at the plate until the next game, and the same thing defensively. You may not get a ball hit to you. I think the challenge of having to live with that experience has always been intriguing to me.
"WHEN I FIRST came to Blissfield I was the sixth or seventh coach they'd had. There was not a big interest in the sport, and there wasn't a continuity between the high school program and the Little League program. The first two or three years we were not real successful.
"In 1973, we were in the Huron League and we dropped from Class B to Class C, and we really felt we had an excellent chance at doing well. That was one of our goals to get to the state tournament. Fortunately enough we did and we won it. That's what really propelled the interest into the sport here.
"Once you win that first one, there's always that carrot out there. Then the community, the people in little league and our high school people realized what we were doing. That was the first state championship for Blissfield in any sport, so it did spur quite an interest.
"THIS HAS FAR exceeded any expectations I ever had. I figured I might coach baseball for maybe 6, 8, 10 years and then I'd be gone. But after we won the first state championship, and we had a great group of kids, that's when I started to think, 'Hey, we've got something really great going here. We're just going to keep working at it.'
"The players themselves haven't changed. I think every player I've coached wants to be successful. The biggest difficulty in all phases of high school coaching right now is the intervention they get from home. The interference of parents sometimes takes away from what we attempt to get accomplished. That is the toughest thing now compared to what it was when I first started.
"WHAT I REGRET most is not being able to spend as much time with my children when they were growing up because of the time I spent coaching other people's kids. I feel I cheated them, even though they say I didn't. It's a guilt complex I put on myself.
"Aaron was 6 weeks old when he died from a congenital heart defect. Only three quarters of his heart was developed. If it happened today, he probably would not have died with the medicine available and the doctors' knowledge of the heart.
"I think of him whenever I get together with my two children as he would be 30 years old now. It's still a void in my life. Any time you lose a family member or a close friend it makes me appreciate, even more, all the blessings God bestows on me.
"BLISSFIELD IS A GREAT town and it's a great place to live. I'm an hour from Comerica Park, 30 minutes from Fifth Third Field and 45 minutes from the University of Michigan. It's an ideal spot to live if you don't want to be in a big town."
"I'm planning on coming back next year. As long as I still enjoy it, and as long as I have the coaching staff and the support of the school, I will continue doing it. As soon as I feel the parents don't need me or don't want me, or the athletes feel I'm too old to do this, I can move on.
"I don't want to think I'm getting old. There's a lot of things I want get accomplished yet and I want to keep working at it."
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