TOYS AND GAMES: Farewell Coach Lou
The 1971 Robinson Knights played baseball at Rollins Field, a Port Tampa treasure where opposing coaches would lament they were down 2-0 when they got off the bus.
A sandy parking area just behind the outfield fence would be crammed with cars full of kids doing what kids do in high school. Once the final out was recorded, wrecker trucks would have a field day rescuing cars from the sand. Nobody ever seemed to mind, for the Knights had chalked up another one. To borrow ’70s vernacular, a game at Rollins was “a happening.”
Lou Garcia coached that collection of Knights.
“Three-thousand people would come to those games,” Garcia once told me. “You’d hear cowbells and a lot of noise out there.”
The ’71 Knights might have been Coach Lou’s finest work in a baseball career that spanned decades. He played professionally, coached, scouted for Major League teams, and performed other assorted jobs around the game that long ago had captured his soul.
Garcia died last week, his life will be remembered during a service this morning, effectively closing a chapter of Tampa baseball history.
Coach Lou was the real deal.
One time he got thrown out of a game at Rollins — yes he could be somewhat demonstrative — and innings later the umpire (whose name shall remain anonymous) received a phone call inside the concession stand. The umpire took the call in between innings and guess who was on the other end of the line? Coach Lou had to get in a little more barking.
You bet he was. And in deference to the way baseball is taught these days, he would remind his hitters that the bat was to be used. He taught an active approach, which made for aggressiveness and hitters who looked to damage a baseball rather than dissect at-bats. Hit the damn ball!
Coach Lou also understood the talent he coached for the simple reason he gave his time to coaching youth leagues as well. Once a player reached Robinson, Coach Lou already knew him well.
Most touching about the man was the simple fact he cared so about the players who played for him. I played one season for him as an undersized 15-year-old Colt Leaguer, but I knew him the rest of my life. He always made me feel included in his baseball family. He’s one of the only people I never minded calling me “Billy” whenever I saw him.
Sure, Coach Lou had run-ins with players and fathers alike. You can’t grow up around youth baseball without such conflicts, particularly in Tampa where everyone’s son is the next great thing. But again, the man cared.
Jeff Vardo, who played for Coach Lou, once told me: “Lou was more than a coach. He was like a father to all of us. His wife would make spaghetti for all of us. Then she’d fix us all sandwiches and we’d all go out and play some more. When we were at Robinson, the school was the hub. You looked for excuses to go there.”
Robinson was classified as a 2A school in 1971, which translates to bigger classification under current rankings. It was a big school. Those Knights clinched their state title with a 5-2 victory against Miami Beach.
“This team was so good that when the leadoff batter for Miami hit a home run they didn’t even worry,” Garcia told me. “They were definitely my best team ever.”
Garcia’s most special, too. After all, he coached that group step by step, from Little League through high school.
I attended the team’s 20-year reunion when I worked for The Tampa Tribune. The group carried a warmth familiar to those who have accomplished something great together.
They were introduced prior to the start of a Robinson game on that special day and they finished their reunion afterwards by going to Coach Lou’s house to knock down a few “cool ones” while they watched a video tape of the championship game.
You can take away the ability, you can take away the good looks, but nobody can ever take away that championship season.
Coach Lou will be missed by that ’71 team as well as a loving family and the many he touched within his baseball family.