By BOB LUTZ
The Wichita Eagle
Frank Leo began coaching the Hays Larks before he and his wife, Barb, had kids. They were high school teachers in those days and the Larks, really, were their family.
Now, 39 years later, Frank and Barb have three grown daughters and five grandchildren. And they still have their Larks, even though both have retired as teachers.
Leo is 64 and won’t be returning to Hays High to teach math this fall. His wife has retired, too, from her job as a middle-school math teacher. But Leo doesn’t know how he’ll ever escape baseball. The game has him cornered.
“Somehow it got into my blood,” said Leo, a Flushing, N.Y., native who arrived in Hays, by way of the University of Albuquerque, to play baseball at Fort Hays State after Albuquerque dropped its athletic program. “And once it does that, man, you’re hooked.”
Leo is as recognizable now at the NBC World Series as anyone. He and the Larks have finished second in the tournament four times, most recently in 2008. They lost an amazing championship game to Team USA in 1995, 9-6, after leading most of the game. Mark Kotsay hit a home run late to give Team USA the lead, then played 17 big-league seasons.
In 2001, a late error that resulted in two runs cost the Larks in a 3-2 loss to the Fairbanks (Alaska) Goldpanners. Hays lost to the Liberal Bee Jays in 2000 and to the Havasu (Ariz.) Heat in 2007.
Hays has been a loyal and successful NBC franchise for decades. But a championship has been elusive.
“Everybody says it would be nice to win one,” Leo said. “But is it really going to change anything if you do? I doubt it. We’ll just continue to do the things we’ve always done. It would be nice to win a championship. But if we don’t, we’ll keep fighting. We’re not going to give up if we don’t win one.”
Hays is one of six teams remaining in the tournament after Wednesday’s 12-7 loss to the NJCAA national team.
Leo took over the Larks in 1975, but for just one season. He returned in 1980 and stayed with the Larks through 1987. He returned from 1989 through 1992 before taking another year off. He’s been with Hays every year since 1994.
“What drives Frank is the desire to take a bunch of kids who come together for a summer and mold them,” said Larks pitching coach Keith Harper, one of Leo’s closest friends and his assistant coach at Hays High, where Leo has coached 40 years. “To see them come together as a unit. And this tournament here in Wichita is where we get to show it off. There are always going to be a lot of ups and downs, but we always try to put it together at the end. The ultimate goal is to win the World Series.”
Harper, who has been the Larks’ pitching coach for more than a decade, said he senses that the Larks might be destined to finally win the tournament this year.
“We’ve had 14 guys who have been injured this year and have gone home,” Harper said. “I can’t explain the whole destiny feeling I have. I don’t know what it means. But when you have 14 guys get hurt and go home, it’s hard to believe. The most I can ever remember losing before this would be five or six, maybe.”
Leo, who handles the bulk of the recruiting, had to scramble to find replacements for all of the wounded. There were times he wondered who the night’s starting pitcher would be.
Yet here the Larks are, contending again in the NBC World Series.
“I think Frank wants to win this thing, he really does,” said Larks radio broadcaster Gerard Wellbrock of Eagle Radio. “He probably feels a little snakebit here, especially with that loss to Team USA. And he’s probably had some other teams that didn’t advance as far in this tournament as he thought they should.”
For the first time in four decades, Leo won’t have to scurry around after the World Series to prepare for the start of school. He’s relieved to be retiring from the classroom, but happy that he’ll still be able to coach the Hays High baseball team. And, of course, the Larks.
He was beaming after Hays rallied from a five-run deficit to knock off the four-time champion Santa Barbara (Calif.) Foresters on Tuesday night in a battle of unbeaten teams. It was a huge win for the Larks and perhaps part of that destiny thing Harper is feeling.
“Consistency is a big thing for us,” said Leo, who still makes occasional contact with the Larks’ two most-famous alums, Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman. “Every year, we want to put on a good performance for our people who follow us from Hays. People in Hays love the Larks. They like us to do well.”
They’ve come to like the New York transplant pretty well, too. He wound up in a place he had never heard of and never left.
“Frank is liked a lot,” Wellbrock said. “He’s coached the high school team for so long. He played at Fort Hays. And he’s really the face of the Larks now. I think everybody expects the Larks to be good nowadays, so hopefully not taken for granted. Because it’s not that easy.”
Reach Bob Lutz at (316) 268-6597 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.