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Baseball coach Billy Reed lived a life of courage, integrity

TAMPA

As a teenager in the late 1940s, when Jim Crow remained the South’s two most notorious syllables, Billy Reed had to walk past Hillsborough High’s baseball field to get to all-black Middleton.

"Those (Hillsborough) students would hurl racial slurs, throw rocks and spit at him," recalled Dori Reed Blanc, one of Mr. Reed’s two daughters. "My father could have easily been bitter and harbored ill will. Instead, he persevered and focused on his goals."

Today, that same field is named in his honor.

"So the lesson here is if something bad happens to you … learn from it," Blanc said told a congregation of roughly 350 on Saturday at St. Lawrence Catholic Church. "Find strength from it, and one day in God’s time, there will be a positive outcome."

Blanc’s story highlighted a 90-minute "Home Run Celebration" for Mr. Reed, who died in a Tampa rehabilitation facility Dec. 30 at 86. A multisport athlete at Middleton and Florida A&M, Mr. Reed returned to his hometown and evolved into one of the most revered high school baseball coaches in bay area history.

In addition to coaching at Middleton and Hillsborough, Mr. Reed co-founded Belmont Heights Little League, which produced four World Series teams from 1973-81 and a handful of future big-league players.

Saturday’s mourners included former major-leaguers Gary Sheffield, Carl Everett and Jason Romano, all of whom played for Mr. Reed at Hillsborough, where he coached for roughly a quarter-century before retiring in 1997. Tony Saladino, whose 38-year-old Hills­borough County prep baseball tournament has earned national acclaim, also attended, as did Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

They were joined by dozens of Mr. Reed’s former coaching peers and school administrators, as well as several members of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, to which Mr. Reed belonged. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Carl Hinson, a statistician for Mr. Reed in the mid-1970s, was among four eulogists.

"The rules were for everybody. He didn’t care if you were a superstar, third-stringer, second-stringer," Hinson said.

"I mean, this is the 1970s. John Travolta’s hanging out doing Saturday Night Fever. We all wanted long hair, but we didn’t have long hair, we had short hair. No short hair, you didn’t play. He was a firm believer that we were a team."

Father Edward Lamp drew a parallel between the passing of Mr. Reed and the recent death of Sister Mary Antona Ebo, believed to be the only African-American nun to participate in the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala. Both, Lamp noted, died peacefully after noble lives spent pursuing justice.

"The Coach Reed that I knew was very much like Sister Antona," Lamp said. "Very much a man in the background but a man who knew what justice was … and a man who died peacefully."

Blanc, the final eulogist, added the nuanced brushstrokes to the portrait of her dad.

In addition to being a devoted grandfather (of three), devout Catholic and fair-minded coach, she said her father also possessed an insatiable appetite for sweets and soap operas (Ryan’s Hope, Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest).

Mr. Reed also traveled extensively (including trips to Jerusalem and Alaska) with Dorothye, his wife of 56 years.

After retiring as a coach and teacher, he indulged his passion for golf, remained a fixture at his grandkids’ dance recitals and sporting events, and launched an indefatigable quest for the area’s best cinnamon rolls, Cuban sandwiches and barbecue ribs.

"He was a granddaddy first, and not a baseball coach, to his grandson," said Blanc, referring to her son, Eric Blanc II (a FAMU baseball player).

"He encouraged him to be a multisport athlete but instilled in him the same principles as he did for his own players. And those were life skills that were molded on and off the field and in life."

Those skills: be humble, have a good work ethic and be of good character. Applying those traits as the bedrock for all his teams, Mr. Reed molded five playoff clubs, won two Saladino Tournament titles and led one of his teams (1980) to the state tournament.

They also helped Romano become the last of Mr. Reed’s players to be taken in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft.

Romano noted that he was selected in 1997 by the Texas Rangers, the only club that didn’t pay a visit to his house or require him to take a predraft test. When Romano asked a Rangers scout why the team had showed no prior interest, he was told team officials had seen all they needed to see of him at a Terriers game.

Those officials had been impressed by Romano’s punctuality, the way he wore his uniform, the way he helped rake the field before the game, the effort he displayed during the game, and how he treated his parents and girlfriend afterward.

"I now realize that was what the legend (Mr. Reed) instilled in everyone he coached," Romano said, his voice cracking. "Be on time, work hard, prepare, wear your uniform with pride, respect the game and your elders.

"We are all blessed to have known the legend. Love you, Coach."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

 
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Baseball coach Billy Reed lived a life of courage, integrity