They say a bad day at the ballpark beats a good day at the office.
It’s a notion many baseball fans swear by. The words also are ones St. Joseph’s Academy softball coach Billy Stears lives by each day.
“I’d never had any health problems until about a year ago,” Stears said. “First, they put a stent in, and then I had triple (heart) bypass surgery. That was in December. It didn’t seem to help.
“I’ve been to doctors and more doctors. I’ve had tests run. There are vascular problems. Some days are good and others, well not as much. But anytime I can get to a game to watch and encourage the girls, it’s a good thing.”
Stears’ heart is currently working at about 10 percent of its normal capacity. He has been turned down as a heart transplant candidate because of the vascular issues. Medication and oxygen help. But there’s no medicine quite like being at the ballpark for the 62-year-old. And it’s been that way for years.
“I started coaching summer softball back in 1979,” Stears said. “I got into it because I had a daughter who pitched. She played for Northeast High. She went on and did other things, but I stayed with it. I fell in love with it.”
Stears, a 30-year employee of Dow Chemical, is in his fifth year at St. Joseph’s, serving as a certified nonfaculty coach. He also is a summer coach who has tutored some of the state’s top talent.
During one local hospital stay, players from SJA and other area teams, including Live Oak, were among the visitors. Members of the top-ranked LSU softball team were there, too. LSU standouts Bailey Landry and Baylee Corbello are among Stears’ summer alumni.
With the help of his wife, Sally, Stears has made his way to every practice and game when not hospitalized or confined to home. He exchanges texts with players and discusses strategy with assistants BJ Romano and Shelli Sumrall.
Stears sat in the dugout wrapped in as many as four blankets during more than a few chilly tournament games this spring. The young Redstickers squad features LSU signee Elyse Thornhill and has experienced growing pains. SJA (15-10) plays East Ascension on Tuesday to close out the regular season and will make the playoffs as a high seed.
On the same day that Stears received the news about his heart transplant status in New Orleans, St. Joseph’s lost a District 5-5A doubleheader to undefeated St. Amant by a combined score of 32-2. Predictably, each player got a text from Stears. It reminded them to keep their heads up and to never give up. Stears said he had no plans to give up.
Two days later Stears was released from the hospital. He figured there was no way he and Sally could get to Patriot Park in time for SJA’s game with another 5-5A power, Dutchtown.
Soon the texts started coming. The teams traded the lead. The Redstickers scored twice in the sixth inning to tie it at 3. Stears followed the game as his wife navigated through traffic.
Nobody scored in the seventh or eighth innings. After the Redstickers held the Griffins scoreless in the top of the ninth, the players and coaches heard a roar from the crowd of Dutchtown and St. Joseph’s fans.
The ovation was for Stears who arrived, still attached to a heart monitor with one arm in sling.
Thornhill walked, stole second and sacrificed to third by Corynn Major. Alexa Lonibos singled to bring home the winning run.
Players from both teams huddled around Stears’ afterwards. Pictures were taken in front of the “BS” chalk marking on the field. In his postgame texts, Stears praised both teams.
“But I also had to tell my team that if we could play like that more consistently we’d have more wins,” Stears said. “That was special … a special memory.
“And I reminded them I have no plans to give up. Yes, I’m already thinking about this summer. I want more days like that at the ballpark like that.”