Jerry Hunter of Laney High in Augusta decided last spring that he couldn’t be a head coach of two varsity sports.
So he had to choose.
In basketball, Laney had made the state semifinals in each of Hunter’s three seasons. Laney played in a state championship game in 2012.
In baseball, Laney has never made the state playoffs in Hunter’s 13 seasons. The 2013 season was perhaps his worst – just two victories.
Hunter chose baseball.
‘’I truly feel that God has a purpose for all of us,’’ Hunter said. ‘’After being a victim of the hoop dream myself, I want to make sure that while under my watch if I see a kid who possesses the same blessings [for baseball that Hunter had] that they have the opportunity to maximize their potential. We have kids walking around with baseball bodies living basketball dreams.’’
Hunter played baseball growing up, but as he entered high school, gloves and bats weren’t so cool at his inner-city school in Columbia, S.C. He was influenced by his friends and Michael Jordan. ‘’I want to be like Mike’’ changed his life, not necessarily for the better, he said.
Hunter went to Paine College in Augusta on a basketball scholarship and was part Paine’s 1994 SIAC regular-season championship team. But he missed his first love. Hunter decided to walk to the baseball team as a senior.
‘’Everyone laughed at first because no one knew my pedigree, but by the end of the season, I was the starting shortstop hitting in the four spot with a few long balls under my belt,’’ Hunter said. “After playing a half season of college baseball, it trumped all four seasons of college basketball as far as productivity. The sport that came naturally to me still was running through my veins.’’
Hunter believes he would’ve been a professional baseball player if he’d followed his heart and his natural talents when he was younger.
‘’And that’s not being arrogant or cocky,’’ he said. ‘’I got lost in the middle school to high school transition phase. Now that AAU basketball is so popular, we are losing youth at an even earlier age. Basketball promotes instant gratification, and a failure goes unnoticed throughout the course of a game. Baseball, on the other hand, requires the mental toughness of dealing with failure openly.’’
Out of college, Hunter got a job as Laney’s baseball coach. He’s had teams to finish 12-8 or 13-7, but he admits the program took a dive while he focused on basketball the past three seasons.
Laney boosters were puzzled when he got the basketball job in the first place, since he was seen as a baseball man by then. But after the success he had, they were puzzled again when he walked away from it.
‘’Coaching basketball is easy,’’ Hunter said. ‘’You can control the time whereas in baseball you can’t hold the ball and let time run out. You have to make plays to win. ‘’
His baseball sales job isn’t easy, though.
Only 17 players tried out for the Laney team this season. Only about four of those are true baseball players, Hunter said. Two of those are his sons, Omari “Duke” Hunter, the No. 1 pitcher, and Njike “G.K.” Hunter, a natural outfielder who is playing catcher because no one else has done it. Another ninth-grader, Fernando “T.J.” Smith, is a switch-hitting freshman who leads off and plays center field and first baseman.
Other players have never played the sport. The team is 1-3 in Region 3-AA so far. That victory was against another Augusta city school, Josey.
But Hunter said the talent is walking through the halls. They just have to make the choice that he did last spring.
‘’In these days and times, it’s no secret why inner-city baseball has the blues,’’ Hunter said. “But just as sure as David had the courage to take on Goliath, what fuels me is the same energy, which at times I must say can be discouraging and costly. But through hard work, we surely will find a way.’’