BRIGHTON — Mark Carrow didn’t know what to expect April 22 when he arrived at Brighton High School’s baseball field, where he was the guest of honor for a ceremony officially naming it Carrow Field.
“I remember back in October, when they announced this would happen, I told my wife, Mary, that there will be probably 60-70 people here, because there are 18 players on each team and their parents,” he recalled. “We pulled up here and there were all these people, and these young men who look older now.”
Dozens of Brighton alumni, some of whom Carrow hadn’t seen since their high school days nearly a half-century ago, were in attendance for the ceremony held before a doubleheader with Ypsilanti Lincoln.
Carrow retired in 2006 after 34 seasons as Brighton’s baseball coach, recording 823 wins, now eighth on the state’s all-time list. He also was an assistant football coach and coached both boys and girls middle school basketball.
He came to Brighton a year after graduating from the University of Michigan, where he played baseball for the Wolverines, starring at third base.
“My dream was to coach baseball at Ann Arbor High,” Carrow said of his high school alma mater, now Ann Arbor Pioneer. “That was my dream.”
But he had applied to Brighton Area Schools as well, and after a year teaching in Grand Rapids, he and Mary both were offered teaching positions.
“Wouldn’t you know it? We were in school for two days and Ann Arbor calls me up,” Carrow said. “They had a phys ed job open. I’d have been the JV football coach, and I knew the baseball coach was on his way out. It was everything I wanted, and I went to (administrator) Bob Scranton and said, ‘Here’s what’s happening.’ He told me to think about it over the weekend and come back Monday.
“My wife and I talked it over, and we were so grateful to Brighton for giving us a chance to be near our hometown that we felt we owed them a year,” Carrow said. “In November, we bought a house that we lived in for 22 years.”
Brighton’s sports teams weren’t the dominant squads of today. The football team had had two winning seasons in 20 years, and the year Carrow arrived went 0-9.
“We played in six homecoming games, including our own,” he said. “Everyone wanted to play us.”
The baseball team wasn’t much better, having gone decades without a winning season.
But the Bulldogs were 12-12 that first spring under Carrow’s leadership, and never finished below .500 during the rest of his tenure.
The Bulldogs joined the Southeastern Conference the next year and got off to a 7-0 start before losing at Lincoln.
“The kids were crying on the bus ride home,” Carrow said, “and I knew right then that Brighton had turned a corner, that it meant something to win and losing wasn’t acceptable anymore.”
Brighton took off, winning 20 games or more in all of his last 23 years as a coach, and a total of 13 league titles, 12 District titles, three Regional crowns and while making two trips to the Semifinals.
The talent was there, too, including 16 all-state players and two Mr. Baseball Award winners in Ron Hollis and Drew Henson.
Carrow earned national and Michigan Coach of the Year honors three times apiece and was inducted into the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1992.
The field was renamed in his honor after the Brighton school board changed its policy to allow the renaming of facilities to honor living persons less than two years ago.
But Carrow is quick to cite the reasons for his success.
“The players are the ones who made this possible,” he said. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I never threw a pitch or hit the baseball. I got 800 wins, but it was because of them.
Carrow has a photographic memory, which came in handy while chatting with former players.
“It was funny, because with each kid I remembered an incident about them,” he said. “Jeff Bogos, who I hadn’t seen since he graduated in 1979, came out and I said, ‘Do you remember when we were at Milan and your knee went out (of place) in the middle of the field?’ It happened twice. He said, ‘How do you remember that?’ And I said, ‘How could I not?’”
Carrow moved to Florida after his retirement, where he and his longtime assistant, George Reck, meet up a couple of times a week. He makes frequent trips north to watch U-M football and to visit his son, Chris, who lives in Chicago.
Baseball is firmly in his past.
“I think I’ve been to one high school game since I went down there,” Carrow said. “I hated the way the coach was coaching, and Mary did, too. She said, ‘We don’t have to watch any more high school baseball,’ and I said, ‘You’re right.’”
When he retired, Carrow said he would likely be forgotten in a few years.
Seventeen years later, his legacy is assured and his memory will be invoked any time one looks at the scoreboard in left-center field that has a “Carrow Field” sign on top of it.
Not bad for a coach who was in the right place at the right time.
“My dream was fulfilled, and rightly so,” Carrow said. “And, believe me, I made the right decision. I couldn't have had better kids to teach or lived in a better community. It couldn't have worked out any better.”
PHOTOS (Top) The Carrow family stands together in front of the welcome sign to Carrow Field – including daughter Tiffany (front left), Mark and Mary (second from left, front and back) and son Chris (far right). (Middle) The Carrow name stands tall atop the scoreboard at the field named for the longtime coach. (Family photo by Daniel Collins.)
If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.
For starters, the Grand Rapids Christian coach credits the superior coaching he had as a youngster, especially for helping him make the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Team in 1988.
From there, Gates points to the experience gained as a former Big 10 Baseball Player of the Year, a seven-year major league playing career that saw him rubbing shoulders with such notables as Hall-of-Famer Tony LaRussa and Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, and then landing at a high school where the critical support he received from players, community and administration was priceless.
Put it all together and that, at least in part, explains Gates becoming the first Grand Rapids-area baseball coach with three state titles on his resume.
The Eagles' 2-1 win over Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in the June 17 Division 2 Final marked Gates' third title as a coach. His Grand Rapids Christian clubs had previously won back-to-back titles in 2012-13.
Gates passed former Grandville Calvin Christian coach Jay Milkamp as the Grand Rapids-area coach with the most state titles. Milkamp won in 1994 (Class C) and 1996 (Class B).
Gates, a member of three Halls of Fame, is quick to deflect the credit for three championships and two other championship game appearances. What he treasures most is being mentioned in the same breath as other legendary west-side coaches such as Jenison's Gary Cook, Ron Engels of Wyoming Park, Hudsonville's Dave Van Nord, East Grand Rapids' Chris LaMange, formerly Rockford and now Ada Forest Hills Eastern's Ian Hearn and Milkamp, most of whom Gates either played against while an all-stater at Grandville or through coaching at Grand Rapids Christian.
"I'm just a small piece of what has transpired in 11 years," he said. "Just to be mentioned with them and their success is an honor. (Three titles) is not an individual thing, but because of many people and what they can do working day in and day out together.
"I've always said the west side doesn't get the recognition it should in baseball. There are some great coaches here with great baseball talent, and I think you see that in the postseason."
If basketball can spawn what is affectionately known as "gym rats," then Gates is surely a classic example of the diamond's version of someone who has lived and breathed baseball his entire life. He was a two-time all-stater at Grandville who went on to a standout career at the University of Minnesota that included a lifetime .387 batting average. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1991 and consensus All-American. Gates played internationally with USA Baseball on the 18U team in 1988 and then the collegiate national team in 1989 and 1990. Over those two seasons on the collegiate team he appeared in 68 games, hitting a combined .363 with 49 runs scored and 54 RBIs.
He was drafted by the Oakland A's in the first round (26th overall) of the 1991 draft and went on to hit .264 in 685 major league games over seven seasons.
Upon his retirement, Gates founded the Frozen Ropes training facility in Grand Rapids, worked as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, became the West Michigan Whitecaps' second-ever manager in 2001, coached Byron Center for two years and has compiled a remarkable 298-89 record in two coaching stints at Grand Rapids Christian.
After virtually a lifetime in baseball, Gates said his coaching success can be spread in many directions. He said it began at Grandville, was influenced by such managers as John Anderson at Minnesota and LaRussa and Kelly at the major league level, and with brushing shoulders with many of Grand Rapids' most successful coaches.
The experience led him to a coaching philosophy that includes a priority on building relationships with players, providing a full explanation of his thinking to the players, a quiet but firm coaching of fundamentals, and, above all, communication. If there is anything that Gates does not do, it's relying on the "old-school" coaching method where coaches demand excellence in no uncertain terms.
"I've taken little bits and pieces from a lot of people," said Gates, a member of the Grandville, University of Minnesota and Grand Rapids Halls of Fame. "I want players to figure out who they can be. Whether it's Ken Griffey Jr. as a hitter, Randy Johnson as a pitcher or Terry Steinbach in catching, you don't just take one person and say who can I be? If you want to compete at a high level, you need to be better than anyone you go up against.
"Part of being a good coach, and it doesn't matter if it's a 9U program or high school, is about making players understand and be able to apply what they learn. Baseball is a hard game, one of failure where if you succeed three times out of 10, you're a star. You have to get players to understand failure."
Gates said all three Grand Rapids Christian champions were marked by different strong suits. The 2012 club, for example, breezed its way to a 36-5 record, while the 2013 club finished the regular season just 12-15 but put together a torrid seven-game winning streak during the tournament. This year's team was marked by a deep pitching staff and what Gates describes as a "group of gamers."
"All of them were different, but I firmly believe that pitching and defense win championships," Gates said. "But you also have to get hot at the right time."
It's not unusual for major leaguers to completely hang up the spikes once their playing days are over. They're tired of the pressure, the frustration of fading talent and losing the battle with Father Time, and the constant travel away from family. Gates faced all that and still found himself enthralled with the idea of coaching.
"I've loved the game since I was like 4 years old. There's nothing better than smelling pine tar or the look of manicured grass. The smells and sounds of baseball, that's what I love," he said.
One of his coaching goals is to impart the love of the game to his players. And it seems the message is getting across.
"It's awesome playing for him," said first baseman/pitcher Ty Uchman, who graduated this spring. "He gets us to focus on the little things. If there is something on our minds, we know we can go to him. He's an open book. I know he'll always talk to us, and that builds trust and a bond."
Another recent grad, infielder Kyle Remington, will follow Gates' footsteps to the University of Minnesota and said one particular trait sticks out to him about his coach.
"He's very patient," Remington said. "There are all levels of players in high school, and he treats them all the same. Doesn't matter if they're struggling; he never raises his voice. He's a very comfortable and relatable coach to play for.
"He knows baseball is a game of failure so if you don't understand a drill or an adjustment to have to make, he'll talk to you in a patient way."
Gates said he suspected even when he was a major leaguer that coaching was likely in his future.
"I did, and it was an easy decision. God has a plan, and I had a feeling I would stay in the game," he said. "Baseball has given me everything. I love the game, and I know I've been blessed. I want to take what I've learned and pass it along. That's always been a part of me."
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PHOTOS (Top) Brent Gates appears on the USA Baseball collegiate national team in 1989 and makes a pitching change during this spring’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team. (Below) Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players. (National team photos courtesy of USA Baseball.)