Beloved baseball coach retires

Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Longtime volunteer baseball coach Mike Tatum has given up coaching after a 35-year run.
Photos by Payton Comerford

Eye on the ball. Don’t be afraid of it. Feet shoulder width apart. Hands out in front.

Mike Tatum, 58, is all about the fundamentals of baseball.

“Well I love the game of baseball – I love being out here, to teach them to fundamentally catch baseball and throw it. That’s really what I love,” Tatum said, glancing around the field at Cornersville Middle School, where he’s been the volunteer head coach for more than a decade.

One of the fields at a local ball park is named in honor of Mike Tatum.

But the time has come to apply another fundamental lesson of life: quitting when it’s time. After three and a half decades of teaching young players how to field a ground ball, swing through their hits and making it to home plate, Tatum watched play from the dugout for the last time.

His day job as manager at the Tennessee Technical Coatings plant in Lewisburg pays the bills for Tatum but when the field lights come on, he’s been “Coach” and for 35 years that has been his biggest career accomplishment.

“I try to look at it as if it’s my actual job. Because, it is. I’m the head coach so I make time,” Tatum said.

It was 1982 when Tatum found something special on the diamond field, and something even more special, teaching the kids who run around it. He rose from coach in a league, to a seat on the board of league directors, to vice president of the T-Ball league, to now district commissioner of District 8 of Cal Ripken Baseball.

Half swinging has never been Tatum’s style. He’s been all in. Even after his three sons hung up their cleats.

“Work, church, family, and baseball – that’s all I did,” Tatum said of his fast pace.

Now, it’s time to slow down. He wants to go to a game and sit in the bleachers, and find time to fish again, something he used to enjoy immensely before baseball. Known as “Poppy” to his five grandchildren, he wants to watch them play without worrying about coaching. His twin granddaughters are now on a T-ball team and a grandson plays soccer.

Tatum doesn’t want to miss a game, just not wearing his coaching Polo.

If you’ve ever stepped past the white lines in the dirt, then you know that baseball is more than just throwing, catching, and hitting. Tatum defines this belief, and has mastered it through the years.

Here’s a sampling of his home plate philosophy:

“I think you have to show respect to get respect.”

“If you make a mistake we run (laps) as a team - I believe in teamwork.”

“You earn a spot on the ball field. I coach to win. I think that’s life too. Ain’t nobody going to give you anything – you got to earn it.”

And there’s more:

At the end of the game, that’s all it is, a game.

What you walk off the field with is most important.

The lessons that baseball can instill – that’s what hooked Tatum.

The longtime coach realized early on during his voluntary coaching career that this was much more than just a game. The game is a way to mold young men, a job he takes very seriously.

Tatum has seen almost three decades and two generations of strong hitters, fast-ball pitchers, and dedicated catchers. Many of them stand out.

One pair is a father-son duo. When he ponders coaching the Terry boys he can’t help but smile. Jonathan Terry, the father was a member of Tatum’s teams in the 1990s. Tatum leaves coaching having Luke Terry on his squad. The Luke Terry, 15, who has become a media darling showing off his skills as a one-armed player.

Luke’s fundaments for catching and throwing are a bit different. He’s a leftie by necessity. Luke’s right arm was amputated due to a bacterial infection at just 19 months old.

The teenager accomplishes Tatum’s fundamentals a little differently as seen by millions on TV and YouTube videos.

He fields the ball, immediately tossing it a foot or two in the air. Simultaneously, he drops the glove and snags the ball in midair. Stepping to his right he throws to the baseman, often catching runners slow-footed.

It’s second nature for Terry, Tatum said.

Fundamentals should be second nature.

Tatum thought last season would be his final time on the field as coach, but then he met Luke.

“He was one of the big reasons why I came back one more year. I know the older I get, I (think) I really can’t do that. Well, if you want to you can. That’s at any stage of our life, any age – depends on how much you want to do something. He makes you think a little bit more when you see him,” Tatum said of Luke.

A little more about humility and grace, a little more about persistence and grit.

“I try to be as good of a Christian man as I can be, and I try to instill those principles into young athletes. That’s what I try to do,” Tatum said.

Winning or losing, Tatum has held all his teams to a high standard. Just as he holds himself to one.

Luke, third in the batting order of the Cornersville Middle School Bulldogs, said the now-retired coach made a difference, in his play and his life.

Asked what he’d tell the coach if he got the chance: “Thank ya for coaching me.”

To which Tatum would inevitably reply: it was my honor.

Payton Comerford is a journalism student at Middle Tennessee State University. She was one of several students who spent a week in Marshall County writing stories for the Marshall County Tribune.