Durrie Hayes was missing his right fielder.
A St. Michaels youngster named Harold Baines had smacked four home runs against the Oxford Little League team Hayes was coaching, and was due up for his fifth at-bat. Hayes slowly walked away from his bench and soon spotted his missing outfielder, James Brooks, standing on the other side of the right-field fence.
“I said, ‘James, what are you doing over there son?’” Hayes recalled decades later. “He said, ‘Coach, he’s going to hit it here.’”
A back-and-forth ensued between outfielder, whose age was somewhere in the ballpark of 10 and 12, and coach, still years away from legendary status.
Brooks held his ground, convinced he was in the right place, while Hayes continued his pleas, trying to draw his right fielder back into fair play.
“I told him, ‘Son, if he hits it there and you catch it it doesn’t count,’” Hayes said. “‘You have to come on this side of the fence.’”
Brooks conceded, took his place on the right side of the fence, then watched Baines hit a fifth homer that landed five feet from where he had just been standing minutes before.
“Oh, he wasn’t happy,” Hayes said of Brooks. “He just looked at me. I’ll never forget that look he gave me.”
There was little Hayes forgot in a coaching career he had planned to continue this spring before being diagnosed with cancer in mid-January and passing away April 2, 2020 at Talbot Hospice at age 70.
“He remembered every single pitch,” said Rachael Milligan, who pitched two years while Hayes was head softball coach at Chesapeake College. “He had such attention to detail.”
An attention to detail that helped Hayes find success at every level he coached.
He piled up victories as a player and coach in men’s modified-pitch softball leagues. He returned to his alma mater of Easton High as an assistant for the girls’ softball team in 1989. Hayes took over as head coach in 1995, leading the Warriors to a 232-46 record over a 13-year stretch that included seven Bayside Conference championships, six regional crowns, three state titles (2000, 2002, 2004), and three state runner-up finishes.
He started an 11-year run as Chesapeake’s head coach in 2008, again taking a program to heights never before attained, guiding the Skipjacks to a 285-133 record that along the way lassoed two Maryland junior college titles (2006, 2009), a share of two other state championships (2010, 2018), one Region XX crown, and the program’s first-ever trip to the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series.
“He was the best softball coach that I have seen in my tenure on the Eastern Shore, and beyond that,” said Dr. Ed Baker, a distinguished professor at Chesapeake College and veteran baseball and softball umpire on the Eastern Shore.
But while he carefully crafted perennial powers at Easton and Chesapeake, Hayes never forgot what was at the heart of his success — his players.
During his acceptance speech at the induction ceremony for Easton High’s inaugural Hall of Fame class last September, Hayes gave heartfelt thanks to assistant coaches Jay Cappa, Jay Chance, Clay Stevens and Ronnie Johnson.
“But most of all you’ve got to thank the players,” Hayes told the audience. “And not just Jen (Doty Frantz), and not just the ones that made all-conference. All of them. All you coaches know, you’ve got to have everybody. They’re the reasons we won championships. The girls. And they’re the reason we were able to create such a successful program.”
Easton and Chesapeake certainly had loads of talent during the Hayes years, but players on those teams spoke of his knack for believing in them more than they believed in themselves.
“He was the best coach I’ve ever had in any sport. He’s the best softball coach that I ever had hands down,” said Casey (Dulin) Baynard, who played varsity four years at Easton, the last two with Hayes as head coach. “He was the one that you just wanted to just give everything you could because you knew that he believed in you.”
But it wasn’t always easy, especially when Hayes could see what his players sometimes couldn’t.
“Half the time we looked at him like he had three heads,” Baynard said of Hayes’s penchant for preparing his players for any situation possible. “Like how are we going to be able to do this?’
“I think at the time he was still coaching his men’s softball team that was always super good,” Baynard continued. “So I can remember one day looking at him and being like, ‘Durrie. We’re a bunch of high school girls. How do you expect us to do all this stuff? We’re not your men’s softball team that’s out winning national championships.’ He kind of looked at me and said, ‘I expect you to do it because I know you can do it. I know you can do these things.’ He just had so much faith in us.”
Hayes also had faith in what he was doing, stemming from a foundation of principles he acquired, beginning with the teachings of his father, Lou Hayes Jr., who helped found Homerun Baker Little League in the 1960s.
“He knew the game and he knew how the game should be played,” Lou Hayes III said of his younger brother. “One thing our father told us, that you never criticize a kid on the field. If they made a mistake, you didn’t criticize them on the field. But when you came in (from the field) it became a teaching moment. You pull them aside, and it might not be right at that moment, but you’d say, ‘Hey, look at that play. Wouldn’t it have been better if we had done it this way?’”
Hayes may never have ripped a player on the field, but he made it clear from the outset how things were going to be run.
“Well first of all, you treated everybody the same,” said Cappa, who assisted Hayes all 13 years at Easton. “So it didn’t make any difference if you were a Jen Doty or a Whitney Fahrman. You got treated the same. Everybody got the equal chance. Everybody got the chance to prove themselves.”
Preaching fundamentals though wasn’t the only critical ingredient that turned Easton and Chesapeake into programs that contended for titles year after year.
“You’ve got to have talent and you’ve got to have good coaching, and he certainly was that,” Cappa said. “But the other thing was, you had to be able to make those players want to lay down for each other. That was biggest thing; to get a group of girls that were bonded together, that they would sacrifice anything to help the other one.”
Another component in Hayes’s coaching excellence was his ability to infuse players with his knowledge and drive those points home to where his players executed what they had been taught.
“And that’s an art in coaching that most people don’t realize,” Baker said. “You can study and you can learn the sport, and you can do this and you can do that. But can you get your players to execute what you know, what you have taught them? And if you do that then you’re going to be a great coach. And that, in my opinion, was one of Durrie’s absolute greatest strengths.”
Easton and Chesapeake not only executed sacrifice bunts, the hit and run, and throwing to the correct cutoff, they practiced situationals, in-game scenarios that some thought might never happen, and then did.
“He always worked on every scenario he could think of,” said Chance, an assistant to Hayes at Easton and Chesapeake. “‘Hey, it’s 2-1, bottom of the seventh. We’ve got runners on first and second and this happens, and that happens.’ And we’d work through hundreds of them. He was always prepared for the play that never happened just it case it did.
“He’s the first coach that I ever coached with that did so many situationals that it would drive you crazy,” Chance continued. “He was always prepared for the play that never happened just in case it did. After a couple of years I got it. I was like, ‘Oh, OK that damn play happened.’ And it had never happened ever before in my life. And I was like, ‘I can’t believe this. That play happened. Who’d a thought?’ Lo and behold we were ready for it. We had practiced it. He always was playing for that last play.”
And he was always practicing those situations in an effort to put his players in a position to succeed.
“There was never a situation that we got put in in any game that we had not practiced,” said Nicole (Foster) Lewis, Easton’s winning pitcher in the 2002 and ‘04 state championship games. “Whether it was someone on second and third, one out. If a ball was hit anywhere or bunted, depending on what the score was, every single person knew what base they had to cover, where they needed to throw the ball, who the cutoff people were. He made us smart softball players. And that’s what made us different than a lot of other talented teams. He made us smart. We learned the game.”
There was one situation though Hayes perhaps had not prepared for three pitches into the 2002 Class 2A state championship game.
“I remember specifically my freshman year, the state championship game,” recalled Lewis, who became Easton’s starting pitcher early in the 2002 season when No. 1 hurler Ali Femi became ill from the venomous bite of a brown recluse spider. “I was so nervous and my first three pitches of the game I rolled into home plate. He called timeout right away and came out and I was like, ‘This is it. I’m not even going to get to pitch in the state championship game. He’s going to pull me. I can’t throw the ball across the plate.’”
Hayes didn’t panic and stayed with his freshman hurler.
“He told me, ‘Do you want to pitch this game, because if you don’t want to pitch it then (I’ll) go warm Ali up,’” Lewis said. “‘But if you want to pitch it I need you to start throwing strikes.’ I said, ‘I want to pitch it.’”
Foster went on to toss a complete-game four-hitter — capping a 19-0 freshman campaign — and Femi swatted a grand slam as Easton defeated Lackey, 9-2, for its second title in three years.
“It wasn’t just us girls that had talent,” said Frantz, Easton’s shortstop on the 2000 and ‘02 state title teams. “We played well as a team, but we played well as a team because of his coaching.”
That coaching continued at Chesapeake in 2008, when it went 6-17 in Hayes’s first year at the helm. The Skipjacks never had another losing season under Hayes, starting in 2009, when he led Chesapeake to the Maryland JuCo and Region XX championships, and their first appearance in the NJCAA World Series.
“It kind of has to tell you something when you take a team from that losing season and bring them to that (national) JuCo (World Series) appearance,” said Frantz, who after graduating from Easton went on to play at the University of California at Pennsylvania, where she set 14 individual school records. “Definitely something to point out there. He was able to take a team, and it wasn’t a bunch of different girls that he had put together that brought him that winning season. He literally coached those girls up to that winning season.”
Perhaps one of the finer examples of coaching up a player came between 2009 and 2011, when Janean (Lowenberger) Hodgson played at Chesapeake.
A native of Saskatchewan, Canada, Hodgson had planned to attend North Carolina Central after her high school years, but missed the international student deadline.
“I was kind of heartbroken, but within a few days I got a call out of the blue from Durrie,” Hodgson said in a phone interview from Calgary, Alberta, last week. “And he goes, ‘I want to know if you would consider coming to Chesapeake College?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know where this is.’”
Ecstatic she still had a chance to play in the states, Hodgson researched Chesapeake and Hayes. But it may have been a phone call from her brother that swayed Hodgson’s decision to head to Wye Mills.
“I can remember having a phone conversation with my brother the day before Durrie was going to call me back.” Hodgson said. “My brother said, ‘If you look at his coaching record, he had three losses in his entire career at Easton High School.’ He’s like, ‘This guy obviously knows something. You’ve got to take the chance.’ And so I did.”
A left-handed hitting second baseman — just like Hayes — Hodgson played fall ball at Chesapeake in 2009. But in February 2010, she learned North Carolina Central’s coach had contacted Hayes and wanted him to hide her because she couldn’t get there.
“I was totally taken aback by that,” Hodgson said. “I didn’t know Durrie was in cahoots with this guy. But when I kind of stepped away, I thought of how much I had learned, and I only been with Durrie since August. I felt that I had grown so much in softball by that point that I thought, ‘You know what, this is a JUCO. I know it’s two years and I think if I want to give myself the best chance as a softball player I have to stay here for another year.’ And so because of Durrie and because of his coaching, that was one of the main reasons why I did decide to stay at Chesapeake for two years.”
The co-winner of the 2011 John T. Harrison Award given annually to the school’s top graduate, Hodgson was inducted into the Chesapeake Hall of Fame in 2015 along with Hayes, and Frank Szymanski, the school’s athletic director and baseball coach.
“I learned more about softball from Durrie in my time at Chesapeake than in the previous 18 years combined,” Hodgson said during her hall-of-fame acceptance speech.
Milligan learned something else playing for Hayes, who was known for not sugar-coating anything.
“I think the number one thing that he did for me, I didn’t have a lot of personal accountability before I played for him,” said Milligan, a graduate of Queen Anne’s County High, who after graduating from Chesapeake went on to play for Margie Knight at Salisbury University. “And I would make excuses. You know, ‘The umpire was squeezing me’, or ‘The pitch you called wasn’t right.’ Sometime in the middle of that first season I played for him we had a heart-to-heart and he said, ‘These excuses aren’t helping anybody because I know you think of them as reasons. But reasons sound just like excuses. And you just got to roll with the punches. If something didn’t work out your way, take some accountability and move on.’”
Milligan would move on.
“He always told the story of this one changeup he called for me,” Milligan said. “As soon as he called it he knew it was the wrong call. And it must have gone out 450 feet. It would have been a home run on a baseball field. And I came in and he was getting ready for me to yell at him and I said, ‘That was the worst pitch that I’ve ever thrown in my entire life.’ I think from that point on, even in my professional career now, I felt like I learned a lot of personal responsibility. He said himself it changed the rest of the momentum for the season.”
Hayes stepped away as Chesapeake’s head coach after the 2018 season, but returned in the fall of 2019. He had recruited a strong group of freshman, and was doing his usual diligent preparation ahead of the team’s annual spring trip to Florida before his cancer diagnosis in mid-January. He entered Talbot Hospice on Thursday, March 5, and had a steady string of visitors for two weeks before the coronavirus limited him to one visitor a day until he passed on April 2.
“It’s only truly fitting that we’re saying our farewell to Durrie with a bunch of empty ballfields,” Frantz said. “It’s unfortunately due to pandemic situation, but only fitting for him.”