On the night he was inducted into the Macon Sports Hall of Fame, Jeff Battcher looked across the sea of faces in the Monument Room at the Macon Coliseum.
He saw family, friends, colleagues, former teammates and coaches.
A face was missing from the formation.
It was one that surely would have been beaming with pride, that of a man he first met 47 years ago. Their lives came together on a dusty baseball field not far from where Jeff’s name was now mounted on the hall of fame wall with 195 others.
Jeff had prepared his acceptance speech. He had rehearsed it, trying to keep his remarks to less than five minutes, even though he had plenty to say and a lot of people he wanted to recognize.
His wife, Janet, a former Baldwin High School girls basketball coach, was in the audience. She had been inducted in 2006, so he was joining her as the only husband and wife in the hall of fame. His older brothers, Tony and Richard, were there, along with the Wellborn family and Darryl Jones, his high school coach. Coach Bill Curry had traveled from Atlanta for the ceremony.
At the podium, the old quarterback “called an audible.’’ He put his notes in his pocket and followed the script written on his heart.
He told the audience about the man who could not make it that night. He wasn’t rich or famous. Most had probably never heard of him.
“For more than 40 years, he was married to the same woman, lived in the same house and had the same job,’’ Jeff said. “His name was Vernon Sinclair, and he was my Little League coach.’’
He was just an ordinary guy who made an extraordinary difference.
The room grew quiet, except for the silverware rattling in the kitchen as the dinner plates were being put away.
Sinclair had planned to be there, even though he was in intensive care, dying of cancer. Jeff had even arranged for an ambulance to bring him to the Coliseum for the ceremony.
But he was too ill to attend. His wife, Betty, kept vigil at his hospital bed. Their daughter, Sherron Tullos, represented the family at the induction banquet on May 5.
Nine days later, Sinclair died. He was 75 years old. Jeff gave the eulogy at his funeral.
Father’s Day has always been more of a hollow day than a holiday for Jeff. His own dad walked out of his life when Jeff was 7 years old. He and Janet have no children of their own.
He chooses to fill the void by honoring the memory of unsung father figures like Vernon Sinclair. He pays it forward.
‘HE WAS THERE FOR ME’
In the summer of 1969, the first man walked on the moon and 400,000 music-loving hippies showed up on a dairy farm called Woodstock.
That same summer, the late Joan Battcher found herself a single mother trying to support four children.
She got a job at Southern Bell. It was working a split shift as a directory assistance operator in the morning and evenings, and often on weekends and holidays.
Her youngest son, Jeff, was a promising athlete, even as a second-grader at J. Ellsworth Hall Elementary in the Shurlington neighborhood. On the first day of baseball tryouts, his mother dropped him off at Ocmulgee Little League in Baconsfield Park. She had filled out the paperwork. She had attached his registration fee with a paper clip.
He had everything he needed — except a ride home.
“I was standing around, kind of like a lost kid, trying to figure out how I was going to get home,’’ Jeff said. “Mr. Sinclair was one of the assistant coaches. He came up to me and asked if I needed a ride. Those were different times. I told him we lived way out in east Macon, past Bowden Golf Course, almost to Jones County. He said it didn’t matter.’’
For the next three years, Sinclair always made sure Jeff was on his team — the Maroons, the Apaches and the Braves. He would pick him up and take him home from practices and games.
“He wasn’t a great coach or motivational speaker,’’ Jeff said. “But he was there for me … a decent, honest guy who never asked for anything in return. He was never late. He was always on time in that old blue station wagon. He gave hope to a kid who had nothing. He made sure I wasn’t a kid who was left in the shadows.’’
He changed Jeff’s life in other ways, too. Sinclair worked in the composing room at The Macon Telegraph, and he once took his team there on a field trip. Jeff remembers seeing the giant printing press on Broadway and walking through the newsroom, with all those typewriters clicking and clacking.
Sinclair made him a souvenir — his name spelled out in letters in hot type.
“It was amazing,’’ Jeff recalled. “There was so much energy in that building. That day was a huge influence on my decision to go into journalism and the news business.’’
He gave hope to a kid who had nothing. He made sure I wasn’t a kid who was left in the shadows.
Jeff went on to become a two-sport star at Stratford Academy. He received a football scholarship to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, then transferred to the University of Utah, where he also played baseball. He returned to his hometown as a sports director and anchor for WGXA-TV from 1986 to 1992. In college, he interned at the same Salt Lake City television station as Jim Nantz, now a sportscaster with CBS Sports, and the two remain close friends. Jeff later climbed the ladder with BellSouth and Delta Airlines, where he was a vice president and director of communications at the corporate offices in Atlanta.
Now retired, he has become a tireless volunteer in the Macon community. He is involved with Daybreak, a resource center that provides assistance to the city’s homeless population. He is active with the animal welfare group Central Georgia CARES. (Critter Advocates Requesting Ethical Standards). He is on the board of directors of the Otis Redding Foundation and the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer.
Last year, he was instrumental in bringing Major League Baseball’s RBI (Revitalizing Baseball in Inner-Cities) program to Macon, partnering with the United Way of Central Georgia, the Boys and Girls Club of Central Georgia and Macon Little League.
There are 340 children in the program this year. In its inaugural season, there were 225. Last summer, a dozen players from the Macon league were able to attend the major league All-Star game in Cincinnati.
“None of them had ever been on a plane,’’ Jeff said.
In the spring, the University of Utah alumni association invited Jeff to speak to graduates as part of a “senior sendoff” during commencement activities.
Some 1,954 miles from home, Jeff talked about his own journey, the one that began with a coach who drove him around in a blue Ford station wagon and encouraged him every step of the way.
“My address was supposed to be the ‘Secret to Being Happy,’ about corporate life and all of that,’’ he said. “But instead I just talked about my life. Gandhi once said the way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others. And that all circled back to Mr. Sinclair.
“I will never forget what he did for me. When I think about what makes me want to give back, it was because of his generosity. Doing good and helping others is what makes me happy.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism, creative writing and storytelling at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org