High school baseball has changed a lot in 50 years. Just ask Bobby Lynch

June 15, 2017 FieldsColumn

Ashland’s 1967 state baseball title team was recognized at Saturday’s state finals. The former Tomcats who were there (left-to-right) Joe Conley, Fred Leibee, Toby Talbert, Bobby Lynch, Mike Smith, Dave Staten and Tim Huff.

BY MIKE FIELDS

Ashland’s 1967 state baseball champions were recognized during Saturday’s state finals at Whitaker Bank Ballpark to mark the 50th anniversary of their title.

Bobby Lynch, who was a standout pitcher on the Tomcat teams that won three consecutive championships (1966, ’67, ’68), was there with a few of his former teammates.

High school baseball is a whole ‘nother sport now than it was when Ashland beat Fort Knox 7-2 to win the state title at UK’s Shively Field 50 years ago this week.

The bases are still 90 feet apart; the pitching rubber is still 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate; it’s still three strikes and you’re out; but some of the rules and trappings of the high school game have changed considerably.

Well aware that we sounded like a couple of curmudgeons, Lynch and I discussed some of the differences between the game played in the ’60s and the one played today.

  • Rules that limit how much a pitcher can work have changed high school baseball significantly, especially in the post-season. “That’s probably the biggest difference in the way they do things now,” Lynch said. He noted that when Bowling Green won the state title in 1965, senior left-hander Stan Markham pitched three complete games in two days for the Purples. In 21 innings of work, he gave up 4 earned runs, 7 walks and had 28 strikeouts. In 1966, when Ashland beat Shelby County in the finals, the Tomcats’ victory didn’t create as much buzz as Shelby County’s win over Owensboro in the semifinals. The Rockets won 3-1 in 17 innings. Owensboro’s Wayne Greenwell pitched all 17 innings for the Red Devils and had 27 strikeouts – still a state record. In the 1967 state tournament, Lynch pitched in all three games for Ashland, but that added up to “only” 11 1/3 innings. 
  • There were no aluminum bats in high school baseball 50 years ago. Just wood, baby. Louisville Slugger was the most popular model. Lynch remembers swinging an Adriondack. “And sometimes we’d use bats that were broken that we nailed back together,” he said. The sweet sound of solid contact then was a CRACK! of the bat. Now, with aluminum, it’s an awful high-pitched PING!
  • There were no batting gloves. Lynch recalled hitting the ball off the handle of the bat “and it stung your hands, especially early in the year when it was cold.” Hard-earned calluses provided some relief. Now kids wear batting gloves while playing tee-ball. “It’s mind-blowing,” Lynch said.
  • There were no perfectly manicured fields. Some diamonds had skin (no grass) infields. Those that did have grass were spotty and uneven. “You’d step on the dirt and it was more like sand, and it was like smoke would come up around your leg. It was terrible,” Lynch said. “There were holes in the outfield, and you just learned where they were and made adjustments.” Today’s high school facilities – not to mention Whitaker Bank Ballpark – are the very definition of diamonds: gems. Lynch remembers a photo of his team in the dugout at the state finals at UK. “It’s the saddest looking dugout you’ve ever seen,” he said. “At the time, though, we thought it was awesome because we were playing on the University of Kentucky field. Kids these days would look at a field like that and laugh.”
  • There were no indoor hitting facilities. You weathered the weather to groove your swing. Private instruction in the off-season? Ha! You were too busy playing other sports to obsess over baseball.
  • High school games were played under the sun, not the lights. Games were played after school, which made it almost impossible for parents to attend, which wasn’t a bad thing. Lynch has seen enough youth sports in recent years to note behavior problems among some parents. “I’m not sure they have respect for the coaches or umpires or anybody,” he said. “It’s ‘my son’ this or ‘my daughter’ that, and things get out of hand.”
  • There was no Gatorade in the good ol’ days. “And at that time you were told to never drink water because it’d bloat your stomach,” Lynch said. Some players took salt tablets instead. While in Lexington for the the 1966 state tournament, Ashland’s team ate at Howard Johnson’s, and Lynch saved some packets of honey from the restaurant. He wound up eating the honey when he pitched in the state finals. “It did seem to boost my energy a little bit,” he said.
  • A lot of high school baseball players nowadays have several sets of uniforms. In the 1960s, you made do with one. Your mom kept it clean. “I’ve done several speeches where I’ve said the mothers were the key to our success,” Lynch said. “Dad might’ve showed you things, but the mothers did all the dirty work. And when things weren’t going good, it was the mothers that patted you on the head and kept you going.”
  • Oakley sunglasses weren’t around in the 1960s. A lot of players today wear them, or at least have them available. “I saw a college game the other day,” Lynch said, “where there was a high pop-up and the kid had his Oakleys on his hat, but he couldn’t see the ball because the Oakleys weren’t over his eyes. But he sure looked cool.”
  • High school baseball used to be relatively cheap to play. Not today. A nice glove might cost $200 or more. (A Rawlings Mike Trout model could set you back $450!) “And you notice all the kids have their own batting helmets, and a backpack with a couple bats that cost $300 or $400,” Lynch said. “I keep telling people around here that if I had to play baseball today, I’m not sure I could because I know my parents couldn’t afford it.”

High school baseball has seen a lot of other changes in the last 50 years, including the introduction of the designated hitter, radar guns, booster clubs, travel teams, more protective gear for catchers, social media, and the debatable influence of ESPN highlights.

But one thing that’s the same today as it was in 1967 is the beauty of being part of a team playing America’s grandest game.

“It was fantastic experience for me,” Lynch said. “The competition was great and I loved it, but the best thing about baseball, and all sports, is the relationships you build that last a lifetime.

“You can share the memories over and over again They’re like fish stories . . . everything gets a little better over the years.

“But with those Ashland teams, it’s hard to beat what we really accomplished.”

Bobby Lynch was a key member of Ashland’s three-peat. (Lexington Herald photo)