By Used with permission from the Boston Globe Online.
By John Vellante
LOWELL - Like any retiring coach, Jim Stone had hoped his last game would be a win.
That didn't happen.
Instead, his University of Massachusetts at Lowell River Hawks baseball team dropped their finale, 5-3, to Franklin Pierce in the championship game of the NCAA Northeast Regional Tournament. Stone's 37th and final season fell one game short of a third straight trip to Montgomery, Ala., and a berth in the Division 2 College World Series.
Disappointed? Sure he was. Stone admitted he shed a few tears and needed a few hugs to get him through the initial moments after the final curtain dropped.
But with 801 wins to his credit - and that ranks right up there with the best in the country - Stone said there is much to look back on and much to be proud of. Every win, he said, had meaning, and every loss, and there were 393 of them during his career, hurt - some more than others. Like the loss to Franklin Pierce.
In the grand scheme of things, though, said Stone, that was only a game played on a field. The biggest sorrow in his 37 years wasn't the loss of a game. It was the loss of a player - Dave Boutin of Lowell, Stone's catcher and captain-elect - who died in 1990 at the age of 21, following a short but valiant battle with cancer. That, said Stone, hurt more than any loss, and it's something he thinks about in his daily life.
"Nothing even comes close to the heartache we all felt when Dave died," said Stone. "It was so quick. He was diagnosed during our spring trip to Florida in March and died in September. He was a backup catcher his freshman and sophomore seasons, and this was to be his year to start. The position was his. Then he got sick. I remember late in the summer as the end got near, he called me and asked if he could buy his uniform. He wanted to be waked and buried in it. I told him it wasn't for sale; it was his for the asking.
"We retired No. 18. It will never be worn again. And we won't forget him. We wear his number on every practice jersey. It's on every uniform. He'll always be a part of the UMass-Lowell baseball program. He'll always be a part of me."
Sentiments like those are what has endeared Stone to so many of his former athletes. They write him; they telephone him; they visit him.
UMass-Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner isn't surprised that Stone feels the loss of Boutin so deeply.
"He made Dave's death a sort of rallying point for all his teams since," said Skinner. "He made sure that no one will ever forget him. But that's the kind of man Jim is. It's these kinds of extraordinary steps that he took, that emotion that he brings to the game, that keep so many people connected to the program in a very powerful way."
Stone, who calls Atkinson, N.H., home, really didn't hesitate when asked to name a few special wins.
"Finally getting to Montgomery and the World Series after so many tries," he said. "Getting there in 2001 and 2002 and representing Lowell so well. In 2001, we beat Central Missouri State, the top-ranked team in the country, and in 2002, beating 14-time champion Southern Florida. Nobody thought we'd win either game. Those are two wins I'll never forget."
Stone, a 1960 graduate of Springfield College, began his coaching career the same year at Tilton-Northfield (N.H.) High and moved on to Mascoma Regional (N.H.) High in 1963. In 1965, he went to UMass, then Lowell Tech, to assist baseball coach Rusty Yarnall. When Yarnall retired at the end of the 1966 season after 41 years, Stone succeeded him. Now Stone is calling it a career.
In the spring of 2004, UMass-Lowell baseball's new boss will be Burlington native and longtime assistant, Ken "KC" Connerty, only its third head coach in 78 years. "I am thrilled to be succeeded by one of my own," said Stone. "KC has been extremely loyal to me and the baseball program at UMass-Lowell. This program would not be as successful without his input and his coaching."
In Stone's 37 years on the bench, many honors have come his way. He's been named Coach of the Year 21 times in all by the New England Division 2, the Northeast Region, the New England Collegiate Conference, and the Northeast-10 Conference. In addition, 21 of his teams have earned NCAA Tournament bids, and in the past 23 years, the River Hawks have strung together 20-win seasons 21 times and won 30 or more in a season seven times.
But Stone, 65, credits all that success to his players.
"I have been blessed with tremendous athletes, but more important, they have been tremendous human beings," he said. "They made my job so much easier. I have been fortunate to have had great assistant coaches. They all made me look good and they all loved baseball as much as I did.
"More than 35 of them have gone on to become coaches themselves and it makes me happy to know that I could have possibly influenced their decisions."
Two of those players are Bob Bushong of Hilton Head Island, S.C., owner of several small industrial businesses in the Southeast; and Jake Hiatt, vice president of El Paso Energy in Houston. Bushong started a scholarship in Stone's name five years ago, and Hiatt is one of its major contributors. Both played on Stone's first team in 1967.
"Coach Stone, yes, I still call him Coach Stone," said Bushong, "always had a lot of love and friendship for his players. He made us feel like family. I had so much respect for him, and I still do. We have an ongoing friendship and I love him. He is a really good person, just the most unassuming person. All the success he has had over the years hasn't changed him one bit. He's just been so consistent in his love and friendship and loyalty."
Athletic director Skinner, in discussing Stone's longevity, called it a rarity.
"[Stone], I think, survived five athletic directors," said Skinner. "In this day and age, that doesn't happen very often. The university was very fortunate to have had someone like Jim Stone who cared so much about the program. He did some things that were very important and can never be forgotten. Obviously, he produced outstanding teams, and his program provided a home for many of the top players in the Merrimack Valley. And those kids in turn developed an emotional attachment to the program and to the school. It's not something you can turn your back on.
"I've seen a lot of coaches come and go, but I don't know if any of them combined those qualities. The success he had, too, was an important piece of the university/ city initiative that produced Tsongas Arena and LeLacheur Park. When you look at it from that perspective, his tenure here will be lasting."
Stone admitted that not being on the bench next season will be difficult but assured anyone who cared that he wasn't going away. He and his wife, Pat, principal at Timberlane High School in Plaistow, N.H., who will also retire after 29 years in the school system, will winter in St. Petersburg, Fla., where UMass-Lowell makes an annual trek in March.
"Coaching has been my life for 43 years, so sure, I'm going to miss it. I don't have a number of hobbies, but I think I will take some golf lessons. . . . My wife and I are going to travel, enjoy our six grandchildren, and basically just go with the flow."
John Vellante can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.