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Painting job led Ritz to create masterpieces on diamond

Tanner Cook • May 14, 2020 at 10:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Two of the best local baseball programs year in and year out have a common thread: Mike Ritz was the man in charge. 

Ritz was the man who led Sullivan North to three straight Class AAA finals appearances from 1983-85, and he later took over the reins at Dobyns-Bennett. 

Over his 25 seasons at D-B, Ritz compiled a 644-244 record, which is the most wins in school history for “The Winningest Baseball Team in the United States.” The Indians reached the Final Four in the Class AAA tournament three consecutive seasons from 1992-94 coming away with runner-up honors in ’94.

“I was very lucky to do something that I love, watch the kids grow up, develop and get paid for it,” Ritz said. “In order to build a championship program, you have to have people that believe in what you are doing.”

ONE DAY PAINTING AT KETRON

Ritz graduated from Lynn View and was not set on going to college unless he played baseball. He came from a Navy family and thought he might be the next in line until Mary Hughes coach John McCaney introduced him to Lincoln Memorial baseball coach Dean Bailey — a 1975 East Tennessee State sports Hall of Fame inductee.

“Coach Bailey took us to one of the football games and said that if we weren’t going to come that we would probably get drafted into the Army or something,” he said. “Well, I ended up going and making All-American twice down there. They took great care of us down there and we had some good teams. I had the opportunity to play professional ball for Cincinnati, but I couldn’t run. 

“So I started looking into some jobs and Mr. (Craft) Akard said that I had a job in the Sullivan County school system when I graduated. I checked back in with Mr. Akard when I graduated, and he gave me a teaching and coaching position at Blountville Junior High as a football and track coach.”

Ritz said that one of his summer jobs was helping with painting at the local schools. One day in the summer of 1969, he was on the job at Ketron and a bunch of the coaches walked out, having quit their jobs. Bennie Compton, the athletic director at Ketron at the time, asked Ritz if he was interested in a coaching position at Ketron. 

“We went into the principal’s office and I could hear them talking and one of them said, ‘Can’t you get anybody better?’ ” he said. “So I got one of the assistant football coaching jobs, and then I just happened to luck into the baseball job. Dale Burns was the baseball coach, and he really wanted to coach basketball, so I got that one by default.”

One day painting in the summer turned into one of the most storied baseball coaching careers in Northeast Tennessee. 

GLORY FOR THE RAIDERS

Ritz remarked that when Sullivan North first opened in 1980 there was no baseball field at all. He, his players and the physical education classes built the field by hand except for the fencing, backstop and lighting. 

“It was a rough start to that season and we didn’t play very many games back then. I think we were like 7-16 my first year at North,” he said.

In the 1983 playoffs, North made quick work of Bradley Central in the first game, winning 3-1 and faced off with Mt. Juliet in a best-of-three championship series. 

“Back then, everything was different and you had to win everything to get to the state. It was single elimination,” Ritz said. “We were I think either fourth or fifth in the conference that first year. We had two seniors starting — our No. 1 pitcher and our center fielder. Everyone else was an underclassmen.

“I’ll say this: Baseball in the ’80s around this area was probably the best it has ever been. There were so many good athletes and so many good teams. We had state champions in Knoxville, Sullivan North, J.J. Kelly, Virginia High, and it wasn’t just one every now and again. It was multiple and sometimes in a row.”

The Raiders won the first game 6-0, but fell in the second game 5-4. The deciding third game the next day on May 25 was not close, as North won going away 8-2. 

North scored three runs in the top of the third, four runs in the fourth and held Mt. Juliet scoreless after the opening frame. 

“Our senior pitcher Darren Nottingham had gone to graduation the night before up at North and didn’t play in that second game when they beat us,” he said. “We brought him in in the third game in the second inning and he pitched a shutout the rest of the way.”

The defending champs got back to the title game the next season, but went up against powerful McGavock. McGavock needed only two games to win the title, winning 5-1 and 6-2. 

“We didn’t even get to get on the field to take infield practice when we played down there in ’84,” he said. “With the travel, not having practice time and everything else, it was overall not a very good experience.”

North, however, got some payback in 1985 by beating McGavock in two-of-three (3-7, 3-1 and 7-0) to claim its second title in three seasons. 

“It felt really good to beat them in 1985,” he said. “What happened was they used an illegal pitcher. The kid had already thrown that day and he came back out. I pointed it out to the umpire and we ended up winning by forfeit even though we were trailing in the game.”

That is also the last time the Raiders made it to the state tournament. 

CROSSTOWN MOVE

Having led and built a strong program at North, Ritz took the job at Dobyns-Bennett in 1986 following three straight sub-.500 seasons and having not been to the regional tournament since 1979. 

His first season was not the best — finishing 10-19 and fifth in the Big 9 Conference — but the Indians began to get rolling in 1987 with a conference regular season title and a district tournament runner-up. 

“We were not good that first year, but we had some good, young kids and we won the conference the next year,” he said. “That was a good group that first year, and it went back to having people on the team that were believing in what we did and what were trying to do.”

That sparked a run for the Tribe of not finishing outside the top 3 in the conference from 1988 to 1997. Some of the best teams of the day were the state runner-up 1994 and 1996 teams. 

The ’96 team is widely considered to be one of the best teams in school history, finishing with a 32-5 record and No. 24 in the national rankings. 

“If there was one downfall of that team is that we did not do well against left-handed, junk-throwing pitchers, and that’s what Houston threw out against us in that second game,” he said. “We couldn’t hit him and then they threw their ace in the third game the next day and beat us on a walk-off. That was a really good team.”

The Tribe lost on a walk-off 3-2 to Germantown Houston in the winner-take-all championship game. The Mustangs had come back from losing to the Indians in the winners’ bracket semifinals and needed to beat D-B twice to win the title. 

LEAVING THE PROGRAM IN GOOD HANDS

Ritz decided to retire in 2010 and left the program in the hands of Ryan Wagner, an all-state player on the 1994 team that finished runner-up. Wagner has since gone 266-87-1 through the 2019 season, winning a share of the conference title four times, the outright title three times and finishing as high as third place in the state in 2017.

“I’m glad Ryan took it over. I didn’t want to leave the program in a mess when I left,” he said. “I wanted to leave the next coach some good underclassmen and have them be successful in those first couple of years. I hate that these kids that have been out there since they could pick up a bat and a ball aren’t getting a season. 

“I’ve known a lot of these kids for a long time coming up through youth leagues. We were going to have a good baseball season in this area.”

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