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Wright (left) and Tony La Russa/Photo by Tim Umphrey/Getty Images

Shaping lives

Sports | Baseball's greatest coaches rarely reach its greatest stage

Issue: "Beyond the body count," Nov. 5, 2011

For the sixth time in his storied career, Tony La Russa has led a team to the World Series. The Cardinals manager, who ranks third on baseball's all-time managerial wins list, reached this year's Fall Classic with the same kind of innovative string pulling that has defined his 33 years at the helm of three Major League ball clubs. By any baseball standard, La Russa's place among the game's greats is secure.

But greatness can be a tricky thing. Behind the clear measures of victories, championships, and individual honors (La Russa has four times won Manager of the Year awards) are fuzzier categories like character, mentorship, and compassion. Many of baseball's greatest sources for these less flashy attributes never reach the professional ranks. Many of baseball's truly great coaches labor in the shadows.

Like Jerry Wright, longtime coach and teacher in the high school ranks of Alabama. For more than 30 years, this genial wizard of the diamond taught youngsters how to play the game with dignity. He died Oct. 14 at age 58 after a fight with melanoma. Wright's passing brought little more than a whimper of local media coverage. But his life deeply impacted thousands.

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Peter Bezeredi, who succeeded Wright as baseball coach at Baldwin County High School in 2007, says past players, parents, and fellow coaches remember Wright as much for his exemplary leadership as his baseball savvy: "He was a great family man, and he was a great role model in his walk with God. Coach Wright had a strong faith, and he will be missed by a tremendous amount of people."

Chris Coleman, one of Wright's former players, told the Mobile Press-Register that Wright did more than coach; he inspired: "He pushed us to perform higher than we ever thought we could. Not only did he coach us on the field, but off the field he shaped our lives."

Wright managed plenty of on-field success, too. He led the Baldwin County Tigers to seven area championships and was honored as post-season all-star game coach 11 times. His career mark of 491-290 earned him induction into the Alabama Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

But those accomplishments are hardly what made Wright great. As former player Jason Hadley says, "He not only cared about winning but cared about each of his players and treated each individual as his own son."

Coach reproach

By Mark Bergin

Associated Press/Photo by Rick Osentoski

Two coaches, one word: adolescent.

Jim Harbaugh's emphatically condescending handshake and backslap of opposing coach Jim Schwartz following the 49ers victory over the Lions Oct. 16 contained all the maturity of a 13-year-old poor sport. And Schwartz's reactionary tirade of profanity and peacocking looked the part of a teenage hissy fit. Reporters have relished the narrative of two young, exuberant coaches leading resurgences for two once irrelevant teams. But the storyline has swerved from Cinderella to Peter Pan.

Harbaugh and Schwartz are not alone. The once dignified office of NFL head coach-home to the likes of Tom Landry, John Madden, Don Shula, and Bill Walsh-now often falls to classless buffoons. Cases in point:

• In 2010, Chiefs coach Todd Haley refused to shake hands with Denver coach Josh McDaniels after a blowout loss. Haley pointed at McDaniels and delivered an expletive.

• In 2009, then Raiders coach Tom Cable scrapped with assistant coach Randy Hanson during training camp, leaving Hanson with a broken jaw.

• At Super Bowl XLII in 2008, Patriots coach Bill Belichick left the field before the game had ended, disgusted with his team's shocking upset loss.

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