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A baseball family reunion

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ALBANY -- More than a coach, more than a mentor, Paul Eames was one of those people who always gave more than he needed, more than anyone expected.

That's just one of the reasons Eames has stayed in the hearts of all those kids who played for him, learned from him, and literally grew up in front of him.

Eames was a wizard on the baseball field, where he spent a good part of his life as a player and manager in Georgia's minor leagues back in a time when minor league baseball was something special -- a time when there were only 16 big league clubs and the climb to the majors was so much longer and harder than it is today.

But what Eames will always be remembered for -- and cherished for -- is the time he spent in Albany coaching American Legion teams. Eames spent almost two decades with those kids, and he touched them for a lifetime.

"I would have never gone to college without Paul Eames,'' said Rodney German, who is now an engineer with Raytheon in Massachusetts, where he is involved with the development of missiles and satellite systems. "I was about as poor as it gets, and I was not going to college. But I played for him, and he had scouts there to watch me play, and I got a scholarship.''

It's those very players, who have long since left the diamond, who plan on showing up Saturday at Paul Eames Park for a reunion with Eames, who at 83 still has the smile of a youngster and the quick eye of a man who could teach you a thing or two.

The reunion on Saturday is the highlight of what Eames' disciples hope will be an annual event, a staple for Southwest Georgia that will not only honor Eames, but -- like the man himself -- will give back so much more.

It's called The Paul Eames American Legion Tournament, and no name has fit better. Has there ever been a better marriage than the one between Eames and American Legion baseball? And at Paul Eames Park, no less.

The three-day round robin tournament is bringing in teams from Georgia, Alabama and Florida, including a team from Pompano Beach, which will travel 450 miles to be a part of today's first round of games.

Eames will be on the mound at 9:30 this morning to throw out the ceremonial first pitch -- a toss of a baseball that will span a lifetime and hopefully carry into the next generations.

The idea isn't just to have a tournament, it's to create the Paul Eames Scholarship, and anyone who knows Eames can appreciate the sweet irony of having a scholarship named for a man who had more to do with getting kids into college than he had in getting them from first to third.

Eames sent more than 100 kids to college on scholarships, along with the four players who made it to the big leagues, including Ray Knight.

"When I started coaching American Legion ball the No. 1 thing was to get them college scholarships,'' said Eames, whose first American Legion team played in 1956. "After the first four years I coached, there were 20 players on college scholarships. That's why I did it, to help them get an education.''

German played for Eames' final American Legion team in 1983, and he is the leadoff man for the idea of the tournament and the scholarship fund. German -- believe it or not -- lives in Worcester, Mass., the town where Eames was born.

German hadn't been back in Georgia in 20 years when he decided to make a trip a year ago last summer to visit his college coaches at Gulf Coast in Florida and Troy State in Alabama.

Of course, that trip brought him back home to Albany.

"I didn't know if Paul was still alive, but I looked him up in the phone book and got in touch with him,'' German said. "I couldn't believe I waited this long to see him. I thought it would be a great idea if we got some other players together for a reunion. So we had a birthday party for Paul at Darton. There were 175 people who showed up.

"That's what gave me the idea for this,'' he said. "We wanted to do something more than a reunion, so we came up with the idea for a tournament. American Legion baseball is dying, and we can help it, and also have a reunion with Paul. And we wanted to have a scholarship fund named the Paul Eames Scholarship.''

German said expects a large crowd of about 500 to show up for the reunion at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, when the city of Albany will have a proclamation honoring Eames.

"There will be about 200 former players and coaches,'' German said. "And about 300 of everybody else.''

The tournament begins this morning with the first game starting at 10 a.m., and runs through Sunday at the Paul Eames Sports Complex, where games will be played on different fields.

Eames knows it will be an emotional weekend, especially the reunion.

"It's fantastic,'' Eames said. "I'm not going to know how to act.''