By Jeff Hamlin
For now, the closest that Kevin Ladd will come to seeing baseball at Durham Athletic Park will be whenever “Bull Durham” pops up on basic cable.
Ladd, the baseball coach at Carrboro High, had more in mind for this summer than just re-watching Nuke Laloosh effortlessly lured in by Annie Savoy’s advances while Crash Davis scowls from afar. He wanted his Carrboro Jaguars baseball team to play in the historic park where “Bull Durham” was shot in the fall of 1987.
He also wanted to honor his mentor.
Pete Shankle coached Ladd for Southern Durham’s baseball team. Last November, Shankle succumbed to a battle with cancer at the age of 67.
Shankle won 502 baseball games at Southern Durham, Northern Durham and Voyager Academy. He led the Spartans to two state championships, and took Voyager to the 2012 1A State Championship series. During his stint as athletic director at Southern, Shankle oversaw a program that included David Garrard (who went on to an 11-year NFL career) and David Noel (a prominent member of UNC’s 2005 National Championship basketball team who also played wide receiver in high school).
The field at Southern Durham is named in Shankle’s honor. Ladd played for Shankle for three years before graduating in 2001.
“I had a great relationship with Pete,” Ladd said. “He taught me a lot in the coaching world. I went to coaching clinics with him.”
Ladd had organized the Pete Shankle Baseball Classic for March 21, a game between Voyager and his Carrboro Jaguars at Durham Athletic Park. The baseball programs at North Carolina, Duke and East Carolina, as well as the Durham Bulls and the Carolina Hurricanes, had already donated items that would be raffled off with the funds going to the Jimmy V Foundation.
But the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the entire spring sports season on March 15. Still, Ladd hoped that the event possibly could be rescheduled for sometime this summer, but various complications created by the coronavirus and summer showcase baseball in the deeper south (travel league games in Florida and Georgia recently resumed) have made it impossible.
“We were going to have a celebration,” Ladd said. “There were several people working behind the scenes. It was a bummer because we had to cancel it for this year.”
Ladd now hopes to have a bigger first annual Pete Shankle Classic in 2021. It would include also Shankle’s former teams at Southern Durham and Northern Durham for a multi-day event on the field where Chipper Jones, Joe Morgan, Dave Justice and Andruw Jones hung their hats before reaching the majors.
“We’d really like to make this a weekend tournament,” Ladd said. “We’d like to have all of Pete’s former teams involved next year once everything gets back to normal.”
As far as his own team is concerned, Ladd was in the midst of nurturing a Carrboro squad that was green as outfield grass before the season came to a surprise halt. Ladd, who works for his father’s private security business, had a roster of 20 players that included four juniors and no seniors.
The Jaguars won their opening games in the 2A Mid-State Conference. They were 3-3, including a season-opening win over Cedar Ridge, when the shutdown happened.
“We were anticipating big things this year,” Ladd said. “We had aspirations to win the conference. It wasn’t guaranteed, but we felt like we had a great shot.”
Previously an assistant at South Granville before going to Carrboro in 2017 for his first head coaching job, Ladd has filled the idle time created by COVID-19 like any other baseball coach would.
He’s worked on his field.
“We’ve upgraded the facilities and we’ve got a lot of good stuff rolling,” Ladd said. “We’ve made a lot of upgrades to the stadium. We had a lot going on and them bam! Everything just ended because of the virus. But this is bigger than baseball and our players know that. They’re all hurt for sure, but we’ll get through it. I’m trying to keep them positive.”