Ray Bailey knew baseball; his son taught him something else 

  • Ray Bailey in front of Merrimack Valley High School on what would have been the last day of the school year if not for the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Bailey is retiring after 36 years in education. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ray Bailey in front of Merrimack Valley High School on what would have been the last day of the school year if not for the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Bailey is retiring as a teacher. GEOFF FORESTER Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 6/21/2020 7:38:06 PM

Ray Bailey learned a hard lesson in 2002, his last season coaching the Merrimack Valley High School baseball team.

Bailey, who retired this month after teaching English for 36 years at MV, didn’t like that rarely-seen version of himself. His son, Ben Bailey, had joined the team as a freshman.

A teammate spoke to Bailey during a practice, telling him he was being too hard on his son, not being fair, not giving him enough credit.

And that’s when Ray saw Dr. Jekyll in the mirror, a coach verbally pounding his son like a hammer on a nail.

It was very un-Bailey like, but what happened next was simply un-coach like: Bailey hung up his spikes that year, in his mid 40s. He’d taken the dose of perspective that had been handed to him and ran with it. As the coach that season, even when there was no game, Ben and his base hits and throws to first were always on Ray’s mind. He was obsessed.

But that was Bailey. Fair, aware, humble and, very infrequently, explosive.

“I didn’t want the stigma of being that overbearing parent and that’s what I had become,” Bailey told me by phone. “The father who loses his mind. I just expected too much. He was more than good enough at that time. I was hard on him. I could not control my emotions. It was on my mind all the time.”

Leave it to Bailey to speak openly in this manner. About this, a sensitive subject. He wanted to make sure I had the complete picture, who he was, what made him tick, the good and that one bad thing.

His behavior in ‘02 might have surprised some, since Bailey is our version of Tom Hanks, always nice, always fun.

As Mark Kimball, who played for Bailey and then coached MV himself, said, “Everyone asks if you can say something bad about Ray. That was hard, because there were not a lot of things you could call him out on.”

“You never know with a new coach and he won us over immediately with his knowledge of the game,” Kimball continued. “The way Ray does things and says things is the right way. He teaches the game.”

He did that for a long time, teaming up with the late Concord High Coach Warren Doane and Bailey’s predecessor, Dave Anderson, to win three American Legion Post 21 championships, and form the Mount Rushmore of baseball minds in the city.

And he was great, a catcher, often the leader of a team, at Newfound Regional. Bailey captained the soccer and baseball teams and was All-State in three sports. He was class president his senior year, 1976, and he’s in the school’s hall of fame.

He played at UConn. And, yes, he thought that maybe, maybe, he could make a living off baseball.

“No question, I thought that until the end of my sophomore year,” Bailey said. “I realized that just because you want it and you work hard, there’s a good chance it won’t happen.”

He was hired by Merrimack Valley and coached junior varsity sports, before he and Amanda moved to Florida to make life easier for a relative.

Bailey mowed golf courses, taught physical education, coached basketball. He worked as the director of athletics at a boarding school, then took the same position with the Derryfield School in Manchester.

Then Anderson, to whom Bailey had grown close during their playing days in adult baseball leagues, called. He was thinking about retiring. Did Bailey want the job? Of course, but he needed to teach, too.

Then former Athletic Director Dick Chandler told Bailey he could teach English fulltime as well. Bailey knew all the big Concord-area baseball names, he had coached at the school and Amanda had graduated from MV.

Plus, Bailey was a Penacook sort of guy. He was not a Derryfield School sort of guy.

“Right away I knew this is where I wanted to be,” Bailey said. ” Derryfield was not my cup of tea. It just wasn’t a good fit. Merrimack Valley had working class, blue-collar people, tough-nosed kids and Derryfield was upper class. I did not relate as well.”

His new players related to him well, which says a lot, since Bailey was replacing Anderson, who won state titles and coached Bob Tewksbury, a 100-game winner in the big leagues who often cited Anderson as a guiding force.

“Dave was a legend,” Kimball said. “If he told you to spit three times, you did it because you thought it might lead to a hit. Then Ray comes along and he was the only guy on the planet who could have replaced Dave. You could believe in him.”

The old coach knew what he was getting, after this pair had spent so many years together practically living on a diamond.

“An even disposition,” was how Anderson described his successor. “Not too high, not too low. He related well with the kids, and over time he had a big influence over them, whether it was in the classroom or on the ballfield.”

Bailey loved talking about the old days, no matter the subject. He spoke about the 10th inning home run that beat him in the playoffs after a terrific comeback by MV.

He mentioned Dave Huckins, who died from cancer three years ago, but not before attaining star status in basketball to help MV win the state championship in 1989. Huckins didn’t play baseball until his senior year.

He belted a home run far over the 350-foot mark at Memorial Field to give MV the lead against an undefeated team.

Said Bailey, “At that instant, that hit made me see that this is a game played at its purest level. Here’s Dave Huckins, who we later lost, hitting one out, and it must have gone 400 feet.”

Of course, he recalled Ben’s first and last hit. That first one came in ‘02, when Ben worked his way up to the No. 2 slot in the order, a rarity for a freshman. That hit broke up a no-hitter. He was one of the best hitters on the team that season.

Meanwhile, technology was growing, and Bailey was a pencil-and-paper guy. And when a player in practice felt the urge to mention to Bailey during practice that Ben was having a great season and Bailey was putting too much pressure on him, something clicked.

An epiphany, Bailey called it. And that was it. He never coached high school baseball again.

“I looked at myself and said, ‘What is going on? Have I lost my mind?’ Bailey said. “I knew that if I didn’t get better about this, we would need to make some changes.”

Bailey knew his limitations. He watched Ben from the stands for three years, telling me, “I was able to control myself so much better and I enjoyed the game. It was so much easier and so much nicer.”

Which is why Bailey, despite a lifetime of baseball in every league imaginable, walked away.

He’s at peace.

“I made the right decision,” he said. “It worked out for everyone, and life went on.”

And Ben? How tough was dad that freshmen season?

“Sometimes I definitely wanted a ride home with my mom or my brother,” the son said. “But that was my best year, and to this day, his style of coaching has stuck with me with everything I do.

“He brought out the best.”

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