Back then, there was no outfield fence at the Prince George High School baseball field, but there was a tennis court beyond right field. The ground rules stated if you hit the ball onto the tennis court, you had yourself a home run.
Johnny Oates, who was dangerous hitter during his high school days, hit at least two tennis-court homers during his time at Prince George, former teammate Wayne Collins remembers.
“He could hit the ball just about anywhere he wanted to,” Collins said.
It’s hard to say just how far away the tennis court stood from home plate, but it was a distance, and there was a tall chain-link fence enclosing it. Homering there was quite the feat.
It made sense that Oates would one day become a big-league manager, Collins said. When he was a high schooler, Oates displayed a canny understanding of the game, and coach Charlie Saunders considered him like an assistant, often asking his opinion on things.
He was a three-sport athlete at high school, playing guard on the basketball team and, well, guard in football, too. Oates was short and solid – he only grew to 5-foot-11, and he weighed maybe 160 pounds in high school, not the desired measurables for a lineman. But the team had no big men to put up front, so Oates did the dirty work. By the time he was a senior, the coaches moved him to running back.
In 1970, at the age of 24, he made his major-league debut, and two years later he was the league’s best defensive catcher. By 1976, he had joined the Philadelphia Phillies, where he competed in spring training with Bob Boone for the job of starting catcher. Oates won the job, and on opening day, there he was, squatting behind home plate. Nine innings later, his career would never be the same.
In the ninth inning, Dave Parker of the Pittsburgh Pirates stood at third base when the Pirates’ batter flied out to left field. Parker tagged up and broke for home, the left fielder cranking the ball in Oates’ direction.
Parker, who was thick and outweighed Oates by probably 50 pounds, put his shoulder down and ran over Oates, breaking his collar bone. Oates missed the next six weeks, and in his absence, Boone solidified himself as the Phillies’ catcher, earning a spot in the All-Star Game that July. Boone’s career would end up spanning 18 years.
Oates was relegated to the back-up role, and he’d never be a starter again for the Phillies, who traded him following after the season. His playing career lasted until 1981, and in 1989, he returned to the majors as a first base coach and later manager with the Baltimore Orioles.
In 1996, he guided the Texas Rangers to their first playoff appearance, and Oates was voted American League manager of the year. The Rangers and Virginia Tech inducted him into their halls of fame.
Oates passed away in 2004 at the age of 58, more than three years after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Hal Baird, a 1967 graduate and baseball player who pitched at East Carolina, reached Triple-A of the Kansas City Royals farm system and was Auburn’s head coach from 1985-2000.
Jackie Bradley Jr., a 2008 graduate and baseball player who won a College World Series with South Carolina and has been a regular part of the Red Sox’ outfield since 2014.
Larry Brooks, a football player who attended Virginia State, spent 10 seasons with Los Angeles Rams, became a coach and helped the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl in 1997.
John McBroom, who played baseball at Air Force and still holds the NCAA record for hits in a game with nine, set in 1967. He became a major general in the U.S. Air Force.
Reggie Williams, 2004 graduate and basketball player who played at VMI, went undrafted but later played with five different NBA teams between 2010 and 2017.