Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University and pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeye baseball team from 1971 through 1974.  He furthered his baseball career as a minor league league umpire for seven years, working in the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA).  He has written for numerous websites, and for eight years served as a regular columnist and photo editor for Gettysburg Magazine, published by Morningside Books, in Dayton, Ohio.  Widely knowledgable on that period of American History, Fulks is a frequent speaker on the Civil War at local roundtables throughout the country.  Involved with a number of writing projects, he and wife Mindy have two grown children and live in Covington, Ohio.

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Very few people know or recognize one of the area’s best coaches, who labors in the shadow of his school’s football tradition and the obstacles that threaten even the best of Ohio baseball programs.

Mitch Hirsch was bummed Saturday.  At 2 pm he’d gotten the call every high school baseball coach dreads receiving. 

The Dayton Dragons had cancelled all high school baseball action at Fifth-Third Field for the day, leaving Hirsch and his team without a game with DeGraff Riverside that they desperately needed to play.

Hirsch is the quietly successfull coach of the Covington Buccaneers, a school known for its football, and occassionally a blip on the radar from one of its other eight varsity team sports.  The girls fastpitch softball team, for instance, has earned regional respect.  The Lady Buccs qualified for the state Final Four last June, their second time in a decade.

Baseball, though, is another story.

And yet, to say that Hirsch is “quietly” successful says a lot more than something of his laid-back personality.  In his tenth year as head coach at Covington, Hirsch has never so much as won a tournament title, while playing the sectional final five times.  Four of the five times he’s lost to the same team…Lehman.

But he has won, nonetheless, 115 times in his ten years after taking over the program in 2002…a program that at the time barely had enough kids to dress for a varsity squad.

“I don’t remember how many kids we had that first year,” he said Saturday, lamenting his rainout in downtown Dayton.  “Fifteen, sixteen…eighteen at the most, I guess.  I had been at New Knoxville as coach for three years when the Covington job came open and thought it would be a good opportunity, given what I knew about Miami County baseball.”

What he knew about Miami County baseball came through his four years playing at Miami East…one year for coach Rick Gold, and three years for his successor, the ever-interesting and enthusiastic Fred Worth. After graduating in 1987 he went on to play at Findlay College for two years…and two years at Union College, in Kentucky, after transferring, where he graduated in 1993.

 

"We've never had that great player that was a great leader at the same time," says Hirsch. "Baseball's such a difficult game...you have to be a team to be successful."

“The weather was a lot better in Kentucky to play baseball in,”  he laughs.  “But what a great expereince to play for those two guys in high school.  “Coach Gold and Coach Worth made baseball as special in the spring as football was in the fall.”

But baseball, he found, was not so special at Covington.  Not since 1972,  previously, had the Buccs won a sectional title in baseball…this while turning out all-league, all-district, and occasionally all-state athletes in nearly every other sport.  Hirsch thought he could parlay 0ne tradition into a fresh, new one.

He started by selling, recruiting athletes from other sports, convincing them to lend their skills to baseball.  His success in that regard off the field is numerically obvious.  In this, his tenth year, there are now 30 kids in uniform.

Quiet success on the field?  There have been those 115 wins, plus. 

There are those five sectional finals appearances, albeit without a win.

And while there are no tournament titles yet, among his peers he’s become of the area’s most respected coaches in Divison IV.

“I love playing Mitch’s teams at Covington,”  says Bill Sturwold, the two-time state champion coach from Ft. Loramie.  “They play the game the right way.

“There’s never any ‘BS’ coming out of the dugout…they play hard, they compete, and his teams always exhibit a lot of class and character.  He does a great job.”

If you knew Mitch Hirsch you’d like him.  Quiet and unassuming, like the commercial says, he’s comfortable in his own skin…in many ways a mix of the two coaching personalities he knew at Miami East as a high school baseball player.

“I have so much respect for Coach Gold and Coach Worth,”  he says.  “They’d get after you pretty good when you made a mistake, but when you did something well they let you know about that, too.  I try to do the same thing.  I try to let the game be fun.  I want the kids to know that I respect them, but they need to know that respect goes both ways, too.

“You know, baseball is very tough for most Division IV schools because you have to share so many athletes.  Most of the kids play both football and basketball and by the time they get to baseball season they’re just plain tired.  They’ve been coached all year.  They’ve lifted, they’ve run, they’ve competed, and then you go outside and try to play baseball in the weather we usually have in the spring…40 degrees and raining sideways.  We’ve been lucky this season.  At least the weather’s been OK.”

But good weather does not necessarily portend success in baseball.  Hirsch’s 2012 team is young and inexperienced and going into Saturday’s game with Riverside their record stood at a not-so-impressive 3-8…including a 7-6 loss last week to defending state champion Minster.

“We’re not playing very good right now,” he admits.  “We have good kids, but hey, they just haven’t played very much baseball to begin with…ever.  We’ve really tried to improve our summer ‘rec’ program in Covington, to get more kids playing baseball…more kids with an opportunity to play on traveling teams.  We’re trying to let kids know that there’s another sport besides football and basketball.

“We’ve had some good athletes in baseball.  We’ve just never been able to get over the hump.  We’ve never had that one great player that was a great leader at the same time.  Baseball’s such a difficult game…you have to be a team to be successful.  You look at the standards in our area, teams like Ft. Loramie, St. Henry, Minster and Russia now with Coach Gold.  They all have that one intangible of having great team unity with a recognized leader.  That’s what we’re looking for.”

Recognition among his peers is nice, but Mitch Hirsch has played the game.  He’s a competitior.  He knows what it feels like to win and the importance of winning to sustain a winning program, the likes of what football has had in Covington for years…a standard on one hand, an obstacle at the same time.

“Right now I’d say we’re probably the third most popular boys sport at Covington,”  he says with a chuckle.  “Maybe fourth if you count track.  Counting girls sports we might be fifth or sixth.  But, we have the only two league baseball titles in the recent history of the school since I’ve been here, and we’ve been in the top three of the Cross County Conference every year.”

And he’s looking to build on those marks through the simple, pure attributes of the sport he coaches.  Mitch Hirsch is out to sell baseball!

“I really believe that you need to have fun and enjoy any sport you play,”  he shares.  “And I’m not taking anything away from football and basketball, but I think you can have more fun with baseball than any other sport.  I think it’s easier to relax and enjoy baseball.  We ‘re allowed to play 27 games, but I’d play more if we could.  You can play baseball every day,  and you can’t say that about some of the other sports.”

And so, yes, Mitch Hirsch was bummed to be rained out Satuday night.  It’s always good to play baseball, but even better to play in a venue like a professional ballpark.  At 3-8 the Buccs needed to play…they needed a win to get to .500, another “hump” in baseball vernacular.  Anything over .500 in baseball bespeaks success.  You can build on that.  Get to .500 and anything’s possible.

He’ll also tell you that baseball is the only sport where you can fail in seven out of ten at bats, still hit .300, and still make it to the hall of fame.

Like we said, Mitch Hirsch is out to sell baseball in Covington…115 wins and still looking to get over that other hump.  What a guy, eh?

If you knew him, you’d like him!

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