Sting Nightly

Jan. 22, 2012

By Jon Cooper

– The Atlanta Braves know quality baseball and quality people.

It’s no surprise that on Saturday night, when the Braves held an event recognizing both, that two members of the Georgia Tech family, Baseball Head Coach Danny Hall and pitcher Mark Pope, were honored.

The event, the 46th Annual Eddie Glennon Gamboree, held at the Atlanta Marriott Century Center, is sponsored by the Braves 400 Club and salutes the Braves organization’s finest personnel at all levels as well as the best of high school, college and metro Atlanta baseball.

Saturday was a celebration of the 1991 and 1992 Atlanta Braves National League Champions, the teams that started the Braves on run of 14 consecutive division championships, but there also was a definite Georgia Tech feel to the night.

Pope took home the Jason Varitek Award, given to the “Most Outstanding Scholar Athlete in Georgia” for the previous year, while Hall received the Ivan Allen, Jr. Mr. Baseball Award, more of a lifetime achievement award given to the “person who has contributed significantly to the promotion of baseball in the Atlanta area.” The latter is the final award of the evening and is kept a secret until the “mystery envelope” is opened.

While the award may have been a secret, the Hall’s body of work, as revealed by former 400 Club President, 400 Club Presidential Advisory Council member and award presenter Wayne Coleman, is anything but.

Coleman ran off the impressive list of Hall’s tangible achievements — he admitted that revealing Georgia Tech as the place where Hall had done so much of his work since 1994 gave away the mystery — and concluded by saying that “early this season he will record his 1,000th win as a college head baseball coach and the entire nation will learn more about him.”

Hall graciously accepted the award.

“I’m very humbled and certainly honored to get this award,” Hall said in his acceptance speech. “The first person I’ve really got to thank is my wife, Kara. I think everybody knows that behind a good man there’s a good woman. I’ve certainly got a great one. I’ve been very blessed my whole career, but particularly at Georgia Tech to have great players like Mark Pope and great coaches, I’m at a great school that cares very deeply about its baseball program.”

In typical fashion, Hall unselfishly dedicated more than five minutes of his eight-minute acceptance speech to recognizing others around the room — Braves President John Schuerholz, Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, former Braves pitcher and college teammate Charlie Liebrandt, former Braves outfielder Otis Nixon and other award winners on the night, including Pope — before mentioning himself.

He proceeded to tell a funny story about how he deserved some credit for the Braves signing John Smoltz. It went back to his days as a coach at Michigan, and a summer league, where Smoltz, who had recently committed to Michigan State was pitching back in the late ’80s.

“Every Sunday we would have a doubleheader at the University of Michigan. George Bradley, who was the scouting director at that time for the Detroit Tigers would come every Sunday,” he recalled. “We’d always have a conversation. One day, I asked him, ‘Are you going to sign John Smoltz?’ He said, ‘Well, you know we’re doing this and we’re doing that. He wants some money but I think we’re going to get it done.’

“At the time, Smoltz had signed to go to Michigan State. If you’re coaching at Michigan, you don’t like Michigan State much. So, obviously, I didn’t want John Smoltz to go to Michigan State,” Hall continued. “I looked at George and I said, ‘George, if you sign John Smoltz, he will pitch in the big leagues before he is 21 years old.’ I think I was wrong by about a year. I think he was up there when he was 20 years old because he was part of the great trade for Doyle Alexander. I think that worked out pretty good for the Atlanta Braves. So I’ve got to take a little credit for that. I convinced George Bradley to sign John Smoltz.”

While his contribution there may have been something of a stretch, his contributions to the Tech program and to kids in the area are quite real, quite important and something in which he rightfully takes quite a bit of pride.

“I enjoy it. I enjoy watching those young kids come out and run around Georgia Tech and get on our field,” he said afterward, while holding the exquisite trophy. “We can make them feel like Georgia Tech athletes for a day. So it’s part of it and I enjoy doing it and I think the kids get a big kick out of coming to Georgia Tech and running around down there.”

Hall also talked about a different kind of running that he did, especially last year. That was running Pope from shortstop during pregame batting practice.

“Every day I would look out at shortstop because I hit a lot of ground balls during BP,” he said, “I kept thinking ‘I’m done hitting ground balls, our shortstop is hitting now.’ I’d look out and there would be somebody at shortstop. It was always Pope. So I always had to chase him out of there.”

Hall preferred running Pope out to the mound and talked about how proud he was of him.

“I kind of equate him to a Labrador puppy,” he said of Pope. “He’s going to play all the time and when he puts his uniform on and gets on the baseball field, he’s there to play, have fun but also, as you heard about his accomplishments, he’s one of the greatest competitors that I’ve ever coached. So congratulations, Mark.”

Pope had quite a night Saturday as well, not only having his name mentioned in the same sentence as former Tech legend Varitek, but also to future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, for his superb fielding.

“I’m not really too sure about where Greg Maddux came in,” said Pope during his acceptance speech. “Coach Hall kicked me out of shortstop quite a few times in practice. He obviously wasn’t THAT big a fan of my fielding.”

Pope thanked Hall, Tech Pitching Coach Tom Kinkelaar, team physician Dr. Frank Pickens, as well as his parents, who were at the event.

Pope, who will soon be headed to Peoria, Ariz., for Spring Training with the San Diego Padres, joined Mark Teixeira (2001), Kyle Bakker (2003), Andrew Kown (2005), Lee Hyde (2007), and Luke Murton (2010) as Yellow Jackets winners of the award. He was proud to win it and, especially to take it back to The Flats after Georgia’s Zach Cone won it last year.

“Anything that Georgia Tech can take over Georgia I’m happy with,” he said, with a laugh. “But it is definitely a thrill to win the Jason Varitek Award, especially since he’s the best player to come from Tech.”

It capped off a memorable night not only for him but for Georgia Tech.

“It was a fun night in general,” he said. “The Braves 400 Club was awesome. It was everything I expected it to be. It was just a fun time with a lot of pro guys here.”

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