Hayden's fire still burns (Feature)

By Louie St. George III
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Wearing khaki shorts and a Redskins T-shirt, Joe Hayden drapes a white towel around his neck and goes to work.

The iconic Midland (Ohio) Redskins manager saunters from ballplayer to ballplayer, coach to coach. Abbreviated conversations — often nothing more than a one-liner — follow. This, a morning practice on a baseball diamond under a cloudless Farmington sky, is Hayden’s arena. Has been for years.

Baseball is a passion. So too, is using the game to open doors for young men. It’s his way of giving back.

“My philosophy is that if you have the means and can sponsor something like this, and coach it, it’s a lot harder to do that, to give of your time,” Hayden said Tuesday at Piedra Vista High School, where his team was preparing for Wednesday night’s game against the East Cobb (Ga.) Yankees. “You could buy a tuba for the band or a giraffe for the zoo and say you’ve done your part — and that’s true, you have — but I think if you give your time, you’re enriching the greatest asset the United States of America has, and that’s our kids.”

Hayden is back in the “Amateur Baseball Capital of the World” this week. His storied program is making its 17th consecutive Connie Mack World Series appearance, a run that includes nine Series titles. Along the way, Hayden has managed a bevy of future major leaguers, including the all-world Ken Griffey Jr.

Establishing a national power, however, was never the driving force behind the Redskins.

In fact, Hayden was nothing more than a father watching his son’s game when the coaching bug flared.

The young team was struggling.

“This is terrible,” Hayden lamented to his wife, Lois.

“I said, ‘ya know, if i could just work with these guys on the weekend they’d be better,’” he told her.

Little did he know, his wife already had set that wheel in motion. The team’s coach was leaving town, and Joe would take over the following day.

“I said ‘Lois, you got to understand one thing: I don’t coach losers. If I take this over I’m going to put everything into it,’” Hayden remembers.

He took over the team, which boasted an unseemly 1-8 record at the time. They reeled off nine wins in their final 11 games to finish an even 10-10.

“I never had a losing season after that,” Hayden says.

Indeed, Hayden is the rare baseball manager unaccustomed to losing. His Midland team is one of the premiere amateur outfits in the country. Redskins annually get drafted by major league clubs, and they checker Division I rosters from coast to coast.

But Hayden isn’t concerned simply with cultivating elite talent. Sure, he likes winning, but winning means nothing if it’s not done the proper way.

Thus, the Redskins are a classy bunch. When they strolled into the Farmington Civic Center last Thursday, they did so with collared shirts, pressed pants and shiny shoes.

“I think it’s the most important thing,” Midland outfielder Jon Edgington said of his team’s professional approach. “Just a little thing like not wearing a hat in a hotel (or) wearing a collared shirt and ironed khakis and nice shoes — it’s just little things like that that make you take pride in yourself, make you want to stay disciplined, and realize you’re here to play baseball and win as many games as you can.”

More than a baseball team, Midland is akin to a large, extended family.

And Hayden is the patriarch.

“He takes care of us like he’s our father,” Edgington said. “We all call him ‘Papa Joe’ and that’s a clear sign of how we all feel about him. Whatever we need, he’s always there for us.”

Consequently, Hayden sees a host of familiar names pass through his program.

“I added it up the other day and we have coached, in the last few years, 19 sons of guys who played for us,” Hayden said, his voice shaking, lips pursed. “It chokes you up. It is a family and we stay together.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Hayden’s former ballplayers stay abreast of Midland’s ongoing success. After the Redskins beat Dallas D-BAT 7-1 on Tuesday to improve to 2-0 in this week’s tournament, he received three text messages from a trio of current big league players, including Corey Patterson and Jay Payton, who wanted to congratulate Papa Joe.

Hayden rattles off a few keys to Midland’s success — foresight, hard work, good players. He’s quick to credit fellow Redskins fixture Dave Evans — “he’s coached with me for 25 years,” Hayden said — along with the rest of his staff. But none of it’s ground-breaking. Successful teams must, of course, work hard and find quality players.

The real secret, perhaps, is as simple as it is elusive: create a fun atmosphere for the players.

Wednesday’s workout was fraught with laughs. There was no yelling and nary a hint of negativity. The Redskins were loose but focused.

“We have just one rule with this team as far as practice: The last guys to leave the field will be the coaches. If you want more practice, we’ll be here,” Hayden explains, before noting the importance of having fun on the diamond.

“We don’t do screaming and yelling — that doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s got to be fun because they give so much of their time.”

With his team immersed in yet another World Series run, Hayden is enjoying another Farmington vacation.

Certainly, it’s old hat by now. It’s a time-tested formula — win 50 games and qualify for the World Series. Repeat.

Does it ever get old, ever wear the manager out?

“Sure it wears on you,” Hayden said. “The older you get, the quicker you get tired.”

Such is the price of building a dynastic club.