Name: Mike Ritz
Born: March 31, 1948
High Schools/Colleges: Ervinton, Lynn View/Lincoln Memorial University, Union College, East Tennessee State
Then: Nine-year-old Mike Ritz was fishing on the banks of the McClure River when he learned which Little League baseball team had chosen him in a draft.
Johnny Ritz, his father, had been a standout semipro player. He taught the youngster a textbook swing that six years later would start bringing him a steady flow of headlines on sports pages around the region.
Ritz played football as a freshman at Ervinton but there was no baseball program. Instead, he became the only boy on a men’s semipro team.
At the urging of Ritz’s grandmother, the family moved in 1963 to Lynn Garden. She had convinced Johnny that his three sons — Mike, Bobby and Jim — might be tempted to take dangerous mining jobs if they remained in Clinchco.
When the coal industry slumped, Johnny sold his interest in a trucking company and accepted a factory job in Hawkins County.
Mike made an impressive debut at Lynn View, getting a pinch double off a reputable pitcher in his first time at bat.
After that, he started every game for coaches Carl Matherly and Jim Fleming and helped lead the Lynxes to three straight conference championships. He batted over .500 as a junior and senior.
His long-distance hits were the talk of the town. There were few outfield fences. Some of his tape-measure flies were limited to triples because of his slow feet.
“Don’t run on the grass,’’ Fleming once told him. “If you’re there too long, you might kill it.’’
One of Ritz’s homers on the Lynn View field traveled so far in left field that it rolled through an open door in the gym. At J. Fred Johnson Stadium in 1964, Ritz got a tremendous hit against Dobyns-Bennett — estimated by the groundskeeper at 500 feet — and was held to a triple by hustling left fielder John Penn.
Ritz regards Tennessee High’s Eddie Hill as the best pitcher he faced in high school, with Sullivan’s Alvin Sells and D-B’s Larry Kiser and Larry Overbay right behind.
Ritz was an outstanding tackle on the football team but his future clearly lay in baseball. After he signed with Lincoln Memorial, his father helped him make the move to Harrogate. They carried baseball equipment, fishing tackle, golf clubs, a tennis racket and a bowling ball into the dorm.
“Heck,’’ his father told Mike, “I think I’ll go to college.’’
LMU’s starting catcher for four years, Ritz broke into the lineup with three hits against Western Michigan. He batted a hefty .458 and twice was recognized as an All-America player. He got hits off future major league pitchers Bert Blyleven, Clyde Wright and Tom Jones.
Railsplitters coach Dean Bailey detested passed balls and Ritz learned to block low pitches well.
Ritz had an opportunity to sign with the Cincinnati Reds organization but declined. By this time he was married. He and wife Sharon, whom he’d met in college, discussed the situation and figured a sore shoulder likely would mean a short-lived career.
“My grandmother wanted me to become a priest but that wasn’t for me,’’ he said. “Other family members thought I should be a doctor and I spent a year and a half in pre-med. I decided against that when I realized it was taking me two days to solve one problem.’’
He settled for a major in health and physical education and a minor in biology.
Ritz remembered that J. Craft Akard, the superintendent of Sullivan County schools, had promised to keep him in mind for a teaching job if a position came open.
Ritz decided to teach and coach. He spent one year at a junior high before joining Benny Compton’s high school football staff at Ketron. Ritz served as defensive coordinator and when baseball coach Dale Burns offered to step down, he jumped at the chance to share his passion with others.
Thus began a record-setting trend of baseball victories at three different schools. Ritz’s success got him in the Tennessee Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He also is enshrined in the halls of fame at LMU and Lynn View.
Ritz turned Ketron into a powerhouse. When the Sullivan North consolidation opened, he was the odds-on choice to organize the program. Within five years, the Golden Raiders won two Class AAA state championships and were second another time. Dobyns-Bennett came calling and Ritz became its coach in 1986. The trail of victories continued there.
In 1996, D-B came oh so close to winning a state title against Germantown Houston. The Indians lost the championship game 3-2 in eight innings. Ritz had three state runners-up — one at North (1984) and two at D-B (1994, 1996).
He is the state’s all-time winningest coach, with nearly 900 victories over 40 years.
Ritz took pleasure in coaching his sons, Brian and Tony, at D-B.
A master motivator, he was tabbed the state’s coach of the year twice, in 1983 and 1984, and received the TSSAA’s A.F. Bridges Award in 2004.
Now: “I’ve had the same wife and same telephone number for 42 years,’’ Ritz said. “I’ve gotten the best I could have out of coaching. I don’t make a lot of money, but it’s been gratifying. I’m lucky to have been at good schools.
“I’ve enjoyed the kids. It’s made me feel young being around them. I’ve always believed a pat on the back is much better than a kick in the rear. I still have good rapport with the players. Occasionally, you have to show them your dark side, but I haven’t done much of that in recent years. There’s no secret to baseball — you just have to catch and hit it right.’’
Mike and Sharon have four grandchildren. He is retiring after this season and plans to golf and fish a lot.
Bill Lane is a Times-News sports writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.