Three Salutes To The Braves, Sib Evans Jr. And Lester McClain

Tuesday, September 25, 2018 - by John Shearer

Fans of major league baseball know that sometimes their favorite teams can often be dominating, bad or mediocre, depending on the season or even span of seasons. 

But perhaps the most fun time to be a fan is when your team is just downright inspiring and uplifting.

Such has been the case with the Atlanta Braves this year. Did anyone see a first-place finish in the National League East coming after some struggles and attempts to rebuild in recent years?

But inspire is what this year’s team did. The Braves even clinched the division more than a week before the end of the regular season, saving diehard fans from a little extra nail biting down the stretch – at least until the post-season begins.

This team definitely has had a good vibe about it, primarily due to the contributions of three young players – Ronald Acuna Jr. from Venezuela, Ozzie Albies from Caracao and Johan Camargo from Panama. Watching their skills on the field --  particularly those of Mr. Acuna and Mr. Albies – and their youthful exuberance in the dugout has been a genuine joy.

They along with such established players as first baseman Freddie Freeman, right fielder Nick Markakis and such pitchers as Mike Foltynewicz have also uplifted the team. Even catchers Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki have added to this strong feeling of “team” as role players on this year’s squad managed by the seemingly laid-back Brian Snitker.

Perhaps no other team has inspired Braves fans since the 1991 squad, which went from last to first and was within a hit or two of winning the World Series. Braves fans started getting a little spoiled after those first couple of years of the 1990s, and it resulted in some complacency and emptiness after some of the later teams started exiting earlier in the postseason than desired after great regular seasons.

But 2018 seems to have re-energized the fan base. 

Of course, such equally inspiring Braves teams of the past, such as those of 1969 and 1982, have lost in the first round of the post-season. But fans are hoping for a better fate this time. 

Only time will tell regarding this 2018 team that has had a few question marks with its relief pitching. Regardless, it will still go down as a season to remember for those who love to do the tomahawk chop.

An inspiring and admirable life was also demonstrated by Sib Evans Jr., my former coach at Baylor School, who died on Saturday at the age of 70 after taking a walk. 

Coach Evans had gone to Baylor as a good athlete and son of longtime teacher and coach Sib Evans Sr., and he was a biology teacher and coached several sports. He was the varsity soccer coach who won a state championship in 1976, he assisted coaching the defensive ends with the outstanding Red Etter teams of that era, and for a period was also the junior high track coach.

The latter is where I crossed paths with him the most. As a seventh-grader in my first year at Baylor, I went out for the track team, and that is where I first experienced the genuine hard work that is required to be a successful athlete.

Practicing daily on the old cinder track in front of the gym, I have still not forgotten all those grueling 440s we would do. I remember he would announce the number in advance, usually around 6 or 8, and I would feel a little pain as I ran each one with him reading the time on his stopwatch to make sure we were pushing ourselves. 

Having grown up under all those coaches in the military days, he understood the expectations that came with developing into an accomplished athlete.

Running with those standout track runners such as ninth-graders John Wilson, John Little, and Jeff Aiken, I actually was able to contribute in the junior high meet against McCallie around mid-season.

Unfortunately, my foot started hurting during that meet at McCallie on a partly rainy day, and I later learned I had a stress fracture. It would be one of several unfortunate and minor injuries I would suffer at Baylor, and it ended my season.

I remember one day after I was injured and was wearing a special sole on my shoe, I stopped by the student center and bought a cinnamon roll about the time track practice started.

I either had to watch practice or just wait to catch the bus home, but I remember running into Coach Evans. He saw I was taking it easy eating a snack and, while knowing my season was over, encouraged me to stay serious – or maybe get serious – about track.

It may have caught me off guard on that day, but it was a good lesson for the long run.

I remember being a little disappointed that I did not get a junior high letter in seventh grade, despite participating in two or three meets. But when I came back the next year, I was determined to contribute as much as possible, despite suffering another injury – a broken arm – right at the start of the season.

I competed in the high jump and 220, and I remember being almost overcome with emotion when we held our banquet at Bethea’s on Brainerd Road and he announced that I would receive a letter.

I think it was about that time we learned he was also getting married. 

I also ran track under him the next year, despite also trying to play on the golf team. And then I observed him more from a distance when he was an assistant on the football team working with some of the other players, but he kindly encouraged – and pushed – me once or twice.

It was also advice well received!

And I remember once he helped me in a more passive way. About my senior year, my car died as I was driving out Baylor Road, and I remember he was right behind me, and gave me some change to call home.

While at Baylor, I learned he had served in the Vietnam War. 

I also recall that he was on our senior rafting and hiking trip to the Northeast Georgia area, and when our yearbooks arrived, I asked him to sign mine. I went back and looked, and this man with the perfectly manicured blond hair wrote, “John, I have enjoyed working with you since junior high. The best to you. – Sib Evans.”

He left Baylor within a few years after I graduated in 1978 to work with Provident/Unum as an investigator and also admirably served with the Walden’s Ridge Emergency Service, perhaps as a volunteer. I remember driving down Signal Mountain Boulevard when we lived up there in the 1990s and seeing him standing outside one time during a shift.

He served and provided for his family after earlier focusing primarily on mentoring, and it was a life well lived.

Also living a noteworthy life to date has been Lester McClain. Fifty years ago this month, he became the first black football player to play in a varsity football game for the Tennessee Volunteers when they tied Georgia 17-17 on the new artificial turf at Neyland Stadium.

I still contribute stories to a Knoxville publication, and I thought it would be neat to try to track him down for a story. After realizing he has been a State Farm Insurance Agent for several years, I was able to get his cell phone number and caught him while he was making runs to Home Depot.

He seemed flattered and honored that I wanted to interview him, and kindly recalled his days at Tennessee, where he became a solid contributor for three years as a receiver/wingback. 

He was not expected to be the first black player, and was actually just signed to be a teammate of a star black player, Albert Davis, from Alcoa. But Mr. Davis ended up not coming to Tennessee due to some academic issues, so Mr. McClain was pushed into the role of being a major black pioneer almost by accident.

While he admitted there were the expected moments of isolation being in such a minority, he called his time at Tennessee overall quite positive. 

And today, he still pulls hard for the Vols. “I still stay sick for a week when they lose,” he said with a laugh.

He also takes pride in his contributions of being a trendsetter. “The older you get, the more honorable it becomes,” he said.


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