TODAY’s column notes the recent passing of two remarkable men who had an impact on very different worlds: Former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles and former New York Yankees Major League Baseball player Jim Coates.
I was lucky enough to know both. I covered Baliles while he was governor in the late ’80s and I knew Northern Neck resident Coates because he was an acquaintance of my stepfather.
Baliles was a smart and driven politician, first becoming Virginia’s
attorney general and then winning the governorship in 1985 with more than 55 percent of the vote. He had a keen sense of history and Virginia politics that served him well as he approached critical decisions.
He’s remembered by many as “the transportation governor” for steering a $422 million-a-year revenue package through a special session of the General Assembly. He dared to raise gasoline taxes and advocate toll roads.
He also worked to ensure that the state could compete in world markets, and pushed successfully to raise salaries in higher education and make Virginia’s school system one that served workers of all types and in all regions.
I was as green as green could be when I first started covering the General Assembly, and Baliles helped by making himself accessible to reporters.
That access extended to political events that took state leaders to places such as Atlanta in 1988, where the Democratic National Convention was being held.
One evening during that event, I watched a Virginian—it may have been former Gov. Chuck Robb—give a speech on the convention floor.
Because it was a big moment, Baliles invited a slew of people up to his hotel room to watch the speech, including much of the press corps. There, with his dress shoes off and his feet propped up on a table, he talked politics and Virginia political history with a vigor and openness that you’d never see today.
For me, a rookie political reporter, and for Free Lance–Star editorial page editor Ed Jones, it was a special night. Jones, who knew Virginia politics from his days covering it in Richmond, jumped into the conversation and kept up. I pretty much just sat and listened, figuring the best way to avoid saying something stupid was to not say anything at all.
I saw Baliles often in recent years, often at the Virginia Film Festival, which he supported as governor and director of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. He was always pleasant and accessible, something you can’t say about all former state leaders.
My first time meeting Coates—who once held the records at the old Yankee Stadium for lowest earned run average and the highest win–loss percentage—was at a church softball game in my youth in Warsaw, where he was playing for a few innings as a lark.
He and his pal Billy Walker, a coach at Washington and Lee and Lancaster high schools who’d been a good college baseball player, had some fun on that particular evening seeing who could foul more balls off in a row.
They each got past three dozen before moving on.
During the ride home from that game, my stepfather, Clarence Sanders, talked in glowing terms about Coates’ accomplishments in the major leagues.
Indeed, the star—who was born in Richmond County and later lived in Lancaster County—played for the Yankees, the Senators, the Reds and the Angels during his professional baseball career and owned a 43–22 record, a 4.00 ERA, and piled up 396 strikeouts in 683.1 innings pitched.
He played alongside such legends as Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, and won a pivotal game in the 1961 World Series over the Cincinnati Reds. His first roommate when he later got traded to the Reds: Pete Rose.
He once won two games in one day for the Yankees, relieving both ends of a doubleheader against the Tigers.
I didn’t know it the night I watched him hit foul balls forever, but I was in the presence of a real major league star. But I knew it by the time I got home, given all the pertinent facts shared by my stepfather, who during the Yankees heyday would drive to New York and back in the same day to see a game.
Coates is sort of royalty to those in the Northern Neck who know about his career, especially his time with a Yankee team many consider the best ever.
Both he and the governor who was known for his scholarly approach to the job will be missed.