Wayne Vickery’s baseball coaching career came full circle Friday night with the throwing of a ceremonial first pitch prior to Gainesville’s matchup against Stephens County.
Vickery’s No. 18 jersey was officially retired by the Red Elephants baseball team on Friday, joining the No. 25 of Micah Owings and the No. 10 of Cris Carpenter on the right field wall at Ivey-Watson Field.
But as Vickery tossed out the first pitch, his thoughts were more on the beginning of his coaching career than the end of it. On the receiving end of the throw was Gainesville catcher Baxter Wright, the grandson of former Madison County football coach Ken Davis, who gave Vickery his first coaching job at Madison County 42 years ago.
Vickery was working with University of Georgia athletics at the time, and when he saw the Madison County baseball coaching job was available, he asked then UGA defensive coordinator Erk Russell if he would write a letter of recommendation for him to Davis, a former player of Russell’s at Georgia who worked at Madison County and was in charge of making the hire.
“(Russell) said I’ll do better than that,” Vickery said. “He says I coached Ken Davis. I’ll just pick up the phone and call him.”
Although it happened over four decades ago, Davis still remembers the call like it was yesterday.
“Coach Russell called and said he had a young fellow working as an intern working for him that needed a job,” Davis said. “And he said and you owe me Ken. And that’s why I hired (Vickery), because Coach Russell said I owed him.”
Now, 42 years later, it’s looking like Davis made the right call by giving Vickery a chance.
After spending two years with Madison County, Vickery came over to Gainesville, where he has served in coaching and/or athletic administration for the last 40 years.
In that time, he won five state championships at the helm of the Red Elephants baseball team, including three in a row from 1996-1998. Vickery recalls that first title in 1996 being perhaps “the most exciting time” he had at Gainesville, mainly because it was so unexpected. With only one senior on the roster at the time, Vickery was expecting to have a good shot at winning it all the following year, but when his Red Elephants hung 14 on Lovett in the first two innings of Game 3 of the state championship at Ivey-Watson Field, he knew it was meant to be.
After the game, Vickery and the entire team jumped into Lake Lanier in celebration.
“I can remember being sick for about a week after getting dunked in that lake, but it was all well worth it,” he said.
The next year, Gainesville beat Lovett again, this time on the road. Since Lake Lanier wasn’t nearby, the team decided to jump into the Chattahoochee River instead.
“I thought they were all going to drown, because that river was moving pretty doggone fast,” he said.
The Red Elephants won the state championship again the next year, and again under Vickery in 2001 and 2002.
As the years passed, Vickery’s passion for Gainesville baseball, and Red Elephants athletics in general, only grew.
“My heart bleeds red,” he said. “I’ll be a Gainesville Red Elephant until the day I die and a hearse comes and picks me up.”
In addition to throwing out the first pitch and having the image of his jersey put up on the right field wall at Ivey-Watson Field, Vickery and the spectators at Friday’s game were also shown a video of former players and assistant coaches congratulating the long-time Gainesville coach on his achievement. He was also presented with a commemorative jersey by Gainesville City Schools superintendent Jeremy Williams, who said Vickery’s impact on Gainesville athletics has been evident since the moment Williams started with the school system four years ago.
“Coach Vickery, is one of those that when you hear his name, everybody knows who he is,” Williams said. “Not just because of longevity in Gainesville City, but because he always brings that winning, championship attitude to everything. His legacy here within the city has impacted so many generations.”
As the game began, Vickery looked back out to right field, reflecting on the countless games at Ivey-Watson field he has been a part of and hoping his impact on the program is felt for many more to come.
“Hopefully 50 years from now that jersey is still going to be hanging on the wall,” he said. “I won’t be around, but hopefully it brings back a lot of memories.”