Bottom of the ninth

Coaches step down after lengthy success

Sentinel photo by MATT STRICKER
Bernie Howard, left, and Chuck Curry reached the pinnacle of success coaching baseball in Mifflin County before retiring in July.

LEWISTOWN — Some farewells are mundane; others are momentous. Ending something you love with all your heart is the most difficult parting of all.

For 20 years, Bernie Howard and Chuck Curry teamed to form one of the most successful coaching duos in the history of Mifflin County sports.

The pair coached their last game together when the Mifflin County Legion team lost 8-7 in 11 innings to Hempfield East in the Region 7 championship game on July 23. They made their retirement official after the contest ended. Fewer than two weeks later, Howard gave the reason for his stepping down as both legion and Mifflin County High School baseball coach.

“The main reason I’m stepping down is personal health issues. I suffered a stroke on Mother’s Day and ended up in intensive care in Danville for the better part of a week,” Howard said. “My doctor said it was time to make some lifestyle changes to reduce the stress and so forth, in my life.

“Chuck and I have been in this, it seems like forever and we hoped to extend this coaching union another year, but it came to a point where you have to put your health first. It wasn’t an easy decision. This is what we’ve done most of our adult life, but in the long run, it was a decision which was made for me.”

For Curry, continuing without his friend was unthinkable.

“Basically, we’ve had a verbal agreement for 20 years. When one of us decided we were done, for whatever reason, we were both going to be done. We didn’t want to do it without each other. It made my decision pretty easy,” Curry said. “I encouraged him, as much as I could, to do the right thing for himself.”

Milroy Post 287 defeated Hempfield 7-6 in nine innings and then had to defeat Beech Creek to make it to the finals for another game with Hempfield. Mifflin County won the contest against the Crickets by a 2-1 count in nine innings. Less than an hour later came the 11-inning affair with Post 981.

“To go 20 innings on the last day, we will remember that for a while. It’s a tribute to the athleticism of our players. We got out there (Latrobe) and all eight teams were tough. We got beat the first game and could have been going home the first day. The guys battled and battled,” Howard said. “The last day, matched up against Beech Creek, our long-time rivals, was great. We went nine innings with them in about 105-degree weather and then turned around and played 11 innings more.

“That was like two heavyweight boxers slugging it out. There were six lead changes in the game. When the last out was made, we had the bases loaded and it took a nice running catch by their center fielder to get the final out,” Howard continued. “It was draining, but Chuck and I talked about it after the loss, if you’re going to go out, you couldn’t make a better script.”

Knowing the end would come and actually having it happen are two different things. The finale was tough for Howard to take.

“You never want to end. It’s true. When that’s what you’ve done for so long, it’s tough,” he said. “It was a unique final day and one I know I won’t forget for a long, long time.”

The end had a bittersweet tone for Curry — sad for the end but happy for how it ended.

“Obviously, it was sad and we shed a tear, but we had the biggest smiles because of the performance in that tournament and the fact that not only as coaches we would go out this way, but the team deserved to go out that way,” Curry said. “This team was basically the high school team and we proved we were one of the top teams in the state.”

Howard coached 17 years in Little League before making the move to Babe Ruth. It was there that his friendship and coaching partnership with Curry began.

“We hooked up at Lewistown West. Lewistown was part of Mifflin County Babe Ruth and we both had sons playing. My son Dan was a year older than his son, Chad,” Howard said. “We never sat down and drew up a contract or anything, but we developed into the best of friends. We’ve had a great, not only coaching relationship but a personal friendship and it’s gotten better over the years.”

Curry, who coached for 15 years in Little League, remembers the day when Howard asked him to make the move to Babe Ruth.

“In Chad’s last season of Little League, he came over to a game and asked John Hilton and I, we were coaching together, and asked if we wanted to come up and help him and we never looked back,” Curry said.

What happened next was the most dominant run in the history of Mifflin County Babe Ruth baseball. The duo amassed a 392-92 career record with eight league titles, including six straight. They won 11 District 7 championships and Howard became the first coach to win three consecutive state titles (2003-05).

How dominant were they? Lewistown West won a record 73 straight games, lost one, and then went on a 47-game winning streak for a 120-1 record from 2009-2012. Both made the Pennsylvania Babe Ruth Hall of Fame in 2008.

What was the secret to their success? Good old-fashioned, nose to the grindstone work.

“Hard work and consistency. We had a plan that we stayed with in practice, our players bought into it and we worked hard,” Howard said. “We had a good off-season program. We put it all together and it worked.”

Curry agreed the main key to success was hard work in practice.

“We did everything both of us did separately in Little League — keep the kids busy in practice and then we outworked everybody,” Curry said. “Everything else came into place and carried over into all-stars.”

When Howard decided to leave, a well-known figure in Babe Ruth tried to get him to stay, but Howard knew it was time for a new challenge.

“Ray Wilde once told me I couldn’t leave Babe Ruth because I needed only eight more wins to get to 400. I looked at his sheet and saw I needed eight more losses to get to 100, so I knew it was time to go,” Howard joked.

They made the move to Legion ball, replacing Larry Wolfe at Post 287. At Legion, they went 110-58, winning three Central Penn League Tournament titles and three Region 7 berths, including a spot in the regional final this year.

“The Legion experience was great. You have your high school guys with a smattering of college-age guys up to age 19. We had wonderful support from Milroy Post 287,” Howard said. “They stepped up to back this program because to do it we needed to travel, we needed to go to tournaments and we played a lot of games. We averaged about 30 games a year. We had a lot of success because we had good talent. We enjoyed the travel and competition. We played teams from Canada, last year’s national champions in Delaware Post 1 and others, so the Legion experience was very gratifying.”

Curry echoed Howard’s sentiments. Legion was a fun time but with a purpose — building the high school program at Mifflin County.

“Legion was the most fun time of the year. The thing to remember is we did legion to build the high school program and that’s what we are the proudest of,” Curry said. “We weren’t just high school coaches. We gave them opportunities to play in the summer and the fall, which, when you give the kids those kinds of opportunities, they will get better. And that’s all you can do as a coach.”

A phone call from out of the blue brought the duo more change and even greater responsibility — coaching the high school program.

“I got a call from an administrator saying the baseball job was open and I should apply. I hadn’t even thought about it because, at that time, Chuck and I were out of Babe Ruth and coaching legion ball with Post 287,” Howard said. “I talked to Chuck and we decide to go for it. It was just one of those things that came up and there we were.”

Playing in the Mid-Penn Commonwealth is no picnic and Howard knew that going in.

“I knew the competition would be great and we rarely saw a team that at least didn’t have one Division I pitcher,” Howard said. “The level of athleticism was so good, if you are a baseball purist, this was the league to watch. There were no crazy, runaway games. This was in-the-trenches baseball. We were advocates of small ball and we were able to implement that.”

The duo guided Mifflin County to a 52-53 record with one District 6 title and a Commonwealth Division championship — the only district and league championships in program history.

“People don’t understand how tough the Mid-Penn Commonwealth is. The easiest thing I can say is this year we were 7-7 in the league which is one of the toughest divisions in the state,” Curry said. “Four of our losses were to Red Land, who won the state title and Cedar Cliff, who was in the final four. Two more were to State College, who won the District 6 title. Six of our seven losses were to some tough competition, so I’d say 7-7 in the Mid-Penn is a successful season.”

Small ball became synonymous with Howard and his style of play — his bread-and-butter offense if you will.

“It’s a great offensive weapon and you have to use all your weapons. If you practice it, you can execute it and we practiced it,” Howard said.

Their teams were so efficient at executing Bernie Ball, as Wilde coined it, that teams knew the bunt or the suicide squeeze was coming and still couldn’t stop it. A funny story from Howard drives the point home.

“We’re down in Princeton, New Jersey, in a Babe Ruth regional semifinal game. John Thompson is standing with some people out along the third base line, we’re behind by two runs, have runners on second and third, and J.T. turned to the guy and said, ‘keep your eyes on this, here comes a squeeze bunt.’ The kid lays it down and we scored,” Howard said

“The guy looks at J.T. and says, ‘That’s neat –how did you know that?’ J.T. says, ‘Hold on a second, it’s coming again.’ We did, and scored again. People frown on it but if you practice it, it’s a lethal weapon.”

Howard and Curry feel they left the future of both the high school and legion teams in good standing for whoever takes over.

“For the high school program, the cupboard is full. There is an enormous amount of talent there. We feel they should do extremely well in the Commonwealth or District 6,” Howard said. “Hopefully, whoever takes over follows through with the Legion to help these young players get the extra 30 games. The Legion is on solid ground and the Post 287 board, headed by John Pannizzo, has done wonderful things. The coach that takes over will find they are great people.”

Curry believes both squads can contend for championships in 2020.

“I feel this team next year can win the district championship and compete for a Mid-Penn title. Most of the team is back for Legion and if they all come back, there’s no reason they can’t win a regional title and beyond next season,” Curry said.

So, how did they do it? What made them successful for so long?

“Between the two of us, we don’t have any talent. We spent all our time coaching baseball. That’s all we know,” Howard said. “We come from very similar backgrounds. Our dads were blue-collar workers who loved a cold beer and baseball. We grew up with the game. We both had the opportunity to coach with Frank Pupo, the master of the practice. We meshed together well.”

Organization and mutual respect played a huge part as well.

“Bernie is the most organized person I’ve ever met and he’s also the fairest person I ever worked with. He was never a dictator, to me or anybody else. Every coach had a say in the program,” Curry said. “I was always the outfield coach and he would always allow me to make whatever decisions I wanted in the outfield. He did that with the pitching coach too. When you have that mutual respect for each other that makes it easy to stay together for 20 years.”

When asked to think about their greatest accomplishment neither brought up the 554 career wins at all three levels of baseball.

“To me, it has nothing to do with wins. It’s the players and the respect that we see from the players we had years ago, still keep in touch with us,” Howard said. “We have former players who are now teachers, doctors, career military people and Purple Heart recipients. Those are the wins for us. Those are the things I’m most proud of.”

“It’s the relationships we’ve had with the players and former players. At the end here, some of the text and emails we’ve gotten have brought tears to my eyes,” Curry said. “There’s love and respect there and it means a lot to us. That’s much more important than any wins we have. The relationships. The players. That’s what made it worth it and that’s why we did it.”

Another aspect that makes Howard proud is the reputation and respect the program received over the years from fellow coaches.

“Over the years, Chuck and I have earned the respect of the coaches, officials and so forth who we’ve come in contact with wherever we were,” Howard said. “We take a lot of pride in that. We had a first-class operation and we always took the high road. When someone told us we were a class act, we took a lot of pride in that. It’s a good reflection on the program.”

What will the two miss the most when baseball season rolls around next spring?

“That’s easy — the players,” Howard said. “We would be at it a full nine months out of the year. You have to love it and have the time to do it. We loved it and will always love it. Whoever takes over we wish them the best and hope they love it half as much as we did.”

All good things must come to an end is the truest of maxims and for 20 years, Bernie Howard and Chuck Curry gave Mifflin County plenty of good things.