Originally created 05/24/05

Season enriches coach's Westside story



His physician told him he would leave the hospital in three days.

He had known Dr. Robert Brand most of his life. If Dr. Brand said so, it was going to be so.

And that's where Gerald Barnes was Nov. 30, 2004.

"I'd had six knee surgeries," Barnes said. "This was number seven. Three surgeries on my right knee was enough. My doctor said it was best to have a knee replacement. Football season was over. Christmas break was coming. The timing made sense."

The man with more wins than any coach in Georgia high school baseball history would be lucky to just leave Doctors Hospital.

"My dad is tough," said his son, David. "I was at college getting ready to come home for Christmas. But he had complications with the knee operation. Nobody told me much. But knowing my Dad and knowing he'd been in the hospital for five or six days, I decided to come home. He wasn't doing as well. We all wondered if he was going to make it through."

Barnes has had quite a year. His Westside team (28-2) continues one of its most successful seasons in his 30 years at 3 p.m. today at home in the Class AA playoffs against Pike County. It has followed his most trying off-season.

"My momma always told me to take any time you get put down seriously," the 53-year-old Barnes said. "Anytime you get put down you have to wake back up. Momma said there's always risk in all of my knee surgeries. Turns out, she was right."

His blood pressure spiked during the procedure as his system rejected his medication. A tube was put down his throat. Not quite the portrait of the man known best by his blue Westside cap, layered in the dust of a red-clay infield.

"I stayed in the hospital about 10 days," Barnes said. "Blood pressure went way up. I think the bottom number of my reading was 125. And 90 for that is high. Intestines failed. Organ failure. It got really bad. Not at death. But pretty close to start the real worrying."

He did not return to school until Jan. 18. Barnes went back to the hospital six days later to have his leg manipulated - complications based on a lack of rehab.

"Been a building process since," Barnes said. "My stamina hasn't been good. I've had to back off a few times in practice ... "

Barnes suddenly halts that sentence. He'd spent the last few minutes talking and tracking every "ping" of his Westside lineup go through batting practice.

A young man walks by.

"Getting around on it better that time," Barnes tells the player. "On it better, buddy. You think?"

The player agrees with a "Yes, sir" and shuffles off. That's as good a picture of Barnes' health as any. What he's been through has not taken away his focus from a game he's taught for more than four decades.

School is closing out. The heat of summer is on its way. And Gerald Barnes' mind is focused, like always, on playoff baseball.

"Back in the hospital, I knew if he could walk he'd be back here on this baseball field," David Barnes said. "He's still hungry. Still burns to win. More than anything I just want this team to be the one to bring back another championship for him."

BARNES PLAYED AT Richmond Academy for a coach who held the monopoly on area baseball championships long before the likes of himself, Terry Holder and Jimmie Lewis ever filled out a lineup card.

The legendary A.L. Williams won state titles for the Musketeers from 1952-1958.

"Easily one of the greatest baseball minds that has ever been around here," Barnes said. "He won seven state titles in a row."

Barnes tried to match the feat, winning back-to-back state championships in 1988 and 1989 with a smaller talent pool to draw upon. It measured the progress from his arrival as head baseball coach at Westside fresh out of college - at the age of 23 in 1975.

"I thought I knew the game, but I found out how much I didn't know," Barnes said. "The thing is teaching. You find better ways to teach what you know faster."

Barnes estimates he's had 15 of his players go on to sign professional contracts. Maybe another 45 have gone on to college baseball.

"It's been these players," Barnes said. "Good kids who like to work hard at playing baseball well. I just try to find a way to get their best efforts every day."

Hephzibah coach Jason Osborn played for Barnes at Westside in 1991 and 1992. A lot of his coaching style has come from Barnes.

"He just inspires your respect," Osborn said. "I'd probably still run through a brick wall for him because that's the way it was when I played for him. I know because I broke my nose once or twice trying to run through one of those brick walls for him way back then."

NOBODY KEEPS A coach with 615 losses.

"There's no method," Barnes said. "Everybody basically practices the same. It's finding good kids who like to work hard at playing baseball. Baseball is 100 years old. There's no secret we've got here nobody hasn't figured out."

Barnes has been amazed by the tenacity of this year's group. One day the bottom of the lineup comes through. The top of the order then wins the next series.

Barnes has, by his count, 15 region championships. It's one of the main reasons his 2005 team earned number 15.

"When you get down to it, you want to see the team concept," Barnes said. "You want to see guys improving as the year goes along showing that cohesiveness."

He never envisioned any of it. When he started, he just wanted to be somebody's varsity head football coach. Somewhere.

Baseball was what football coaches did in the spring.

"A young man is a fool if he gets into coaching hoping to win 300 games," Barnes said. "All you do is in coaching is hope to survive until the next day. The 600 wins mean that we've been successful as a team. That's all it means."

Barnes still occupies the same third-base box he always has.

"The only thing my players say is that I run out to argue with umpires more because I can show off my new knee," Barnes said. "Nothing has changed. The thrill of winning is always there. And the pain in losing now hurts a lot more than my knee."

The only mark he's missed out on this year was the first day of batting practice.

"I wanted to be at the point with my knee where I could throw the first day of batting practice," Barnes said. "I made it on the second day. But my health is coming. If I ever get to where I can't do this physically that will be the time I let somebody else run this show."

He credits the work of Chip Fulmer. His longtime assistant has been invaluable to the team's and Barnes' success. Barnes needed a walker and a cane to work through rehab. He's leaned on Fulmer just as much.

"Chip has been real special this year," Barnes said. "You probably need to have his picture in the paper before mine."

Barnes had another doctor's appointment Monday. There was the thought he wouldn't be able to stop by practice. Fulmer was going to run the show without him.

And he did. But Barnes stopped by to catch most of practice from the Westside bench. It worked as well as any prescription.

"I've needed being here with them more than they needed me," Barnes said. "Coming to this ballpark and being around these guys is just pure fun. I don't know what else I would do if not this."

Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or jeff.sentell@augustachronicle.com.