Family, friends and many former players came to South View High School on a warm Saturday afternoon earlier this month to pay tribute to former Hope Mills Boosters baseball coach Doug Watts.
Watts, himself a graduate of American Legion baseball at Whiteville in the late 1940s, gave 51 straight summers helping coach the sport he loved before finally retiring just before the start of this season.
Mark Kahlenberg, current coach of the Hope Mills team, organized the ceremony at the South View High School baseball field where the Boosters play their home games, presenting Watts with a framed Hope Mills orange jersey to remember his years of service.
Chip Watts, Watts’ son, threw the ceremonial first pitch to his father, who served as catcher.
Asked why his dad gave 51 years to American Legion baseball, Chip said the answer was simple.
“He felt he got to college (East Carolina) because of American Legion baseball,’’ Chip said. “He wanted to give that opportunity to other people.
“He makes everybody feel important, whether you’re in the starting lineup or sitting on the bench. When you feel like you’re important, it tends to bring out the best in you.’’
Jay Johnson, who went to high school at Cape Fear, was the shortstop on one of Watts’ best Legion teams, the 1984 squad that won the Eastern American Legion title and advanced to the state championship series before falling to perennial power Salisbury.
“To me, it went way further and deeper than baseball,’’ Johnson said. “He was more like family with me. He was almost like another father.
“Even after baseball, I’ve maintained a relationship with him. I love him as much today as when I first set foot on the field with him.’’
Watts said he was thankful for all the people who have stuck with him over the years as he strove to keep American Legion baseball alive in Cumberland County. There were once a number of
American Legion teams in Cumberland and surrounding counties. For the last several years, Hope Mills and Whiteville have fielded the only Legion teams in the Cape Fear region.
“I think travel ball has taken some of the popularity away from American Legion baseball,’’ Watts said. He recalled when he played the game in 1948 in Whiteville, there wasn’t even television for people to watch at night.
He said he stuck with it because he enjoyed watching young people battle to win every night, and for the chance to redeem themselves by being a hero in a game after making a costly mistake the night before.
“When people come and tell you it’s the best years of their life, it was mine too,’’ he said.
PHOTO: Doug Watts