In early 1983, a new minor league baseball team came to town and promptly jettisoned the beloved Peaches nickname. The Class-A Macon Redbirds were born.
T-Shirt Night, Mug Night and Brown & Williamson Night were scheduled. Fifty-thousand dollars went to redo restrooms and spruce up half-century-old Luther Williams Field. A deal was struck with a local cable TV outlet to show 20 home games on a tape-delay basis.
Its going to be un-Maconite not to watch the Redbirds, the cable companys president declared.
But then the season started, and halfway through it the average attendance at Redbirds home games was 721. To make things worse, the teams star center fielder and leadoff hitter, a flashcube-quick 21-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., broke his wrist.
He missed the entire month of June, 32 games.
Up to then, Vince Coleman had stolen 55 bases and was on pace to break the modern-day professional record.
Major leaguer Rickey Henderson had set the record the previous season with 130. When Coleman got hurt, it didnt seem likely he would make a run at Hendersons mark. But he did. Coleman stole 41 bases in July and pulled within 34 of the record with August left to play.
But out West, a minor leaguer named Donnell Nixon, the speedy younger brother of future Atlanta Brave Otis Nixon, was racking up as many steals as Coleman. Nixon, who would go on to play in the majors, had 144 steals in 135 games when his season with the California Leagues Bakersfield Mariners ended on Aug. 28.
Two nights later, going into the Redbirds next-to-last game against the Greenwood Pirates in South Carolina, Coleman trailed Nixon by two. Coleman went 0-for-3 in the game, but he reached on a walk in the ninth. On the first pitch to the next batter, Coleman bolted for second, but he didnt get a good jump. Greenwoods catcher gunned the ball to his shortstop in time to nail Coleman. It was only the 24th time Coleman had been caught all season. It would be the last.
After the game, Coleman told Telegraph reporter Bob Stratton, I wanted to get at least one (steal). Three isnt a burden, though. Id really be pressed if I was going into that last game with four or five to get. Ill be more relaxed tomorrow.
Coleman needed two steals to tie and three to best Nixon for what would surely be base-stealing immortality. But the season finale in Greenwood was nearly a rainout. Redbirds manager Lloyd Merritt worried about the weather. With Coleman so close to making history, he wondered that if Coleman fell short, whether hed forever be kicking himself for not green-lighting Coleman to steal more.
So before the last game, Merritt told Coleman, Anytime you get on base, regardless of where you are, I want you to try to steal. You get on base, you steal. ... If you get on third base, I dont care what theyre doing, I want you to steal home.
In the first inning, Coleman swiped third.
He was one steal from tying the record. Standing at third, he waited for the pitcher to go into his stretch and then took off for the plate. But he threw on the brakes. Even so, Coleman didnt get caught. Instead, the pitcher uncorked a wild pitch. Coleman scored but got no credit for a steal.
Oh my God, Merritt thought.
But in the fifth inning, Coleman stole second to match Nixon.
Then he broke for third.
Hed broken the mark set three days earlier and at the same time put his name beside a record that for 29 years would become part of baseball lore, living on as one of Macons claims to fame.
Even as heralded players came and went -- and teams came and left -- Colemans 145 steals in 113 games were a bragging right.
But early this week, a Cincinnati Reds prospect on a team in Pensacola, playing in his 120th game of the season, slid past Coleman. Billy Hamilton stole four bases in a game Tuesday night to give him 147. Pensacolas season ends on Labor Day.
In the hours before Colemans record was broken, Merritt, the manager from Colemans Macon days -- back when box seats went for $3 -- recalled that Colemans season here was more than a steal-a-thon.
Coleman posted a .350 batting average with 156 hits. He scored 99 runs. Still, it was Colemans burst on the base paths that turned heads.
He was so fast. His first step he was running. Thats what was so incredible about him. On that first step he was gone, Merritt, 79, says now. It was all timing on Vince. ... He had a way of reading pitchers.
In an interview a decade later, after he went to the majors and became the first player to swipe more than 100 bases in each of his first three seasons -- not to mention the quickest in big-league history to tally 600 steals -- Coleman spoke of his record-setting summer in Georgia.
It does seem like it might be a record that may never be broken, he said.
Merritt sure figured it wouldnt.
Ive bragged to people, he says. They talk about records and I say, One of the greatest records ever set is Vinces record of 145 bases stolen when he missed (32) ballgames. ... People didnt realize just how great it was. ... If he had played (32) more games, where would he have been?
Tom Bocock, an infielder who batted second in the Redbirds lineup, says batting behind Coleman took some getting used to.
You knew you were taking a pitch, so you could watch the pitcher, watch his velocity. ... Youre giving so many strikes up, but youre also hoping (Coleman) gets to third so you can get an RBI, Bocock says.
He and Coleman became friends. Coleman once signed a bat for him, addressing it to the best No. 2 hitter in baseball.
I took so many strikes, Bocock says.
Though Colemans record has been eclipsed, Bocock doesnt think it diminishes his feat. If anything, it is a reminder that if Coleman hadnt been hurt for a month that there would be nobody even in the same hemisphere with him.
But anytime youre involved in something, he says, you hate to see it go by the wayside.
Though the Macon papers ran see him while you can editorials -- Dont miss him! -- urging locals to catch a glimpse of Coleman before he was gone, Bocock says Colemans run at the record never became a selfish pursuit.
He didnt showcase it, Bocock says. He just did it. It was his gift.
And he wasnt above sharing.
Bococks mother and father showed up one evening to see the Redbirds play a road game in Asheville, N.C.
Before the game, Bococks dad, whod gotten to know Coleman a little, asked the speedster, You gonna steal a base for me and my wife?
Coleman said he would.
After the game, Coleman went up to Bococks dad.
Yeah, Mr. Bocock, I got two for you, two for your wife, Coleman said, and three for me.
Yes, it had been a seven-steal night.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this story.