I made the trip to the Hub City a couple of years ago to cover South Jones playing Hattiesburg in a winner-take-all Game 3 of their Class 5A baseball playoff series.
When I made my way around the first-base dugout and onto the field at Smokie Harrington Park, I was immediately thrust back in time to over two decades ago when I played on that field, a place where I (we) never lost a game.
After a half-inning, I was filled with optimism that the Braves would also be able to conquer the home team inside the mammoth old ballpark the same way we were always able to do.
South Jones jumped out to a 4-0 lead after an inning and, midway through the fifth inning, the Braves led 5-2.
Then the half-inning from hell occurred as Hattiesburg commenced to send 15 batters to the plate with 12 of them coming around to score. In about an hour, the Braves’ postseason was dwindled down to just a few more outs before it was painfully over.
For those of you who have never had the great fortune of making it to Smokie Harrington Park, named after William Patrick Harrington Sr., who put together a group of locals who built the park in 1949-50, you must catch a game there if the opportunity arises.
The park opened in 1950 with a Negro League game between the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox. In the 1950s the New York Yankees sent some of their farm teams to the park for spring training.
The park, then known as Greater Hattiesburg Park, hosted USM and William Carey baseball games in the 1960s and, in 1980, the movie “Don’t Look Back” about Satchel Paige was filmed at the park.
In 1981, the park was renamed in Harrington’s honor.
While I was at Laurel High, from 1992-95, we played a home-and-home series with Hattiesburg High every year. We also played them two other times in those four years and we were a perfect 10-0 against the Tigers. That even included beating the Class 5A state champs of HHS in 1994 … twice. We also played a playoff game against Petal High at Smokie Harrington Park in 1993, which we also won.
One of things that makes Ol’ Smokie so special is just how massive it is.
From home plate to the centerfield wall is 445 feet. No Major League park in the country is that deep. Down the lines it’s 340 feet. The outfield wall is about eight feet high and the blocks that make up the wall were handmade one-by-one onsite when the park was originally constructed.
In 2013, the tornado that wreaked havoc throughout the Hub City in February did a number on Smokie Harrington Park as well. The twister ripped off most of the roof that covered the grandstand, tossed many of the hand-made limestone blocks throughout the park and severely damaged the structure where the team’s fieldhouse, press box and concession stand were located.
It took some time, but in 2016, after more than $2 million in renovations, Smokie Harrington Park was reopened and the Hattiesburg Tigers were reunited with the field they had called home for most of the past 50 years.
As long as I live, I will never forget the ball that my teammate Chad Dozier hit out of that park when I was a sophomore. It cleared the wall just right of centerfield and caromed off the top of a school bus out in the “bus barn.” It had to travel nearly, or more than, 500 feet.
It was one of the longest home runs I have ever witnessed in person at any level.
Standing out in front of the first-base dugout on that evening in May a couple of years ago, during a break between innings, I had a flashback. I could see Coach Blackwell (my head coach at Laurel) standing over in the third-base coach’s box and Coach Pittman (our assistant coach) in the box over at first, both wearing their cardinal caps with the gold-cursive L on the front. My Tornado teammates and I were over in the third-base dugout, while the boys in purple and gold were in the first-base dugout.
It gave me chills having a flashback to more than 20 years ago, but it was such a great feeling, because I knew it didn’t matter which game it was that we were there for, I already knew that it was one that we had won.
Unfortunately, on this night in May, the same couldn’t be said for the other team that also calls the Free State home.
There’s just so much that you can do with memories. Good or bad, it doesn’t take much to get lost in a moment.