National baseball award winner Dusty Rhodes always kept Palm Beach County kids first in mind

Been trying to catch up to Dusty Rhodes for a long time now, ever since the news broke that he was the 2016 winner of the prestigious Lefty Gomez Award presented by the American Baseball Coaches Association for outstanding local, national and international contributions to the game.

For a while there he was out fly-fishing in Montana, where cell service is spotty. Then he was rambling around the Midwest catching up with former players of his at the college and minor-league professional levels. Oh, and there was that banquet in Nashville last month where Dusty had to drop by to accept the same national honor that in the past has gone to giants like 11-time College World Series champion Rod Dedeaux, University of Miami legend Ron Fraser and Peter Ueberroth, former commissioner of Major League Baseball.

(FILE PHOTO) -- Several baseball celebrities were at a recent baseball benefit dinner for the Palm Beach Junior College Pacers. Seated from the left are Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees star, with the new Yankees' manager Dick Howser and Atlanta Braves' manager Bobby Cox. Standing from the left are Dusty Rhodes, Pacer coach and PBJC president Dr. Edward Eissey.  The dinner raised $2,500 for the Pacers.

LAKE WORTH – Baseball celebrities at a 1970’s-era baseball benefit dinner for the Palm Beach Junior College Pacers. Seated from the left are Mickey Mantle with the new Yankees’ manager Dick Howser and Atlanta Braves’ manager Bobby Cox. Standing from the left are Dusty Rhodes, Pacer coach and PBJC president Dr. Edward Eissey. The dinner raised $2,500 for the Pacers. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

Finally this week, on a day when he had just driven back home to Jacksonville after a volunteer-coaching session at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Dusty stopped long enough to pick up the phone.

“You know, you chase this game all over the world,” said Rhodes, a 1989 inductee to the Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame. “You’re never in one place for too long.”

Well, that’s not entirely true. For all of Dusty’s formative years, both as a player and a coach, he was a West Palm Beach fixture, known by all who wanted to learn to play the game right, or wanted their kids to learn.

It’s a little-known fact that Jeff Wilpon, the chief operating officer of the New York Mets, once played for Dusty at Palm Beach Junior College. Team owner Fred Wilpon, Jeff’s father, sought out Dusty to help lay down some guidelines on discipline and drive.

“His dad brought him on campus,” said Dusty, who rattled off 303 wins in seven seasons as the Pacers’ coach beginning in 1975. “Jeff had been at Miami but he got into a run-in with Ron Fraser. Ron told him ‘There’s a guy at Palm Beach Junior College who can straighten him out.’

“We had some rough times early but Jeff finally figured it out. He was supposed to be a catcher. He struggled a little bit but he could hit so I put him at first base. Ended up getting drafted by the Montreal Expos.”

Everybody has a Dusty story like that. He’s 69 now, but friends from his childhood days at Northmore Elementary in West Palm still can see and hear in him the scrappy kid who played on the Little Major League’s 1959 state championship team at Phipps Park. Old coaching mentors, the ones who are still around, picture a natural leader on Palm Beach Post 12’s state champion American Legion team, and at Palm Beach High School.

Then there are all the players who grew up with Dusty as their exacting coach, the man who made them get the fundamentals right or they wouldn’t play, and part of those fundamentals always involved showing up to rake and water and mow the diamond.

Future major-leaguers Robbie Thompson, Randy O’Neal and Andy McGaffigan played for Dusty at PBJC, now known as Palm Beach State College. The first two are in the Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame and the third, McGaffigan, will be inducted next month.

Dusty never really left Palm Beach County behind either, even after he headed to Florida as an assistant coach and to North Florida to start from scratch the program he ran for 23 years. Our local kids could always be found all over his rosters, and the reasons were obvious. Our kids are good, which is part of the reason Rhodes’ PBJC program reached No. 1 in the national rankings and his North Florida teams regularly advanced to the College World Series in the NAIA and Div. II categories.

If you’re still reading it’s probably because Dusty was a part of your life, and a major factor in how it turned out. He knows so many people throughout the industry. St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, for example, played for Rhodes as a 20-year-old catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers’ Rookie League affiliate in Helena, Mt.

Dusty plans to pop in on Matheny during spring training. Wants to tell him about some kids he knows from coaching the 2004 Olympic team from Greece, plus a prospect from Flagler who might be worth a look for a spot in somebody’s minor-league organization.

This is how it works with Dusty, and always will work. He remembers toeing the line for Palm Beach High coaches Jim Maynor and Joe Ceravolo, who applied the same detailed techniques to multiple sports. He remembers being an assistant to Bob Shaw, a former World Series pitcher, on a Post 12 team that finished third at the American Legion national tournament.

He remembers, too, his first trip to the American Baseball Coaches Association convention, a much earlier version of the 6,500-member meeting where he was just honored.

“The first time I went to the convention, Bill Adeimy took me,” Dusty said, referring to the area baseball benefactor whose name is on the field at Palm Beach State. “Ted Williams was one of the guest speakers. Now there were hundreds of top baseball coaches there, but we all went to hear Ted Williams.”

If Dusty wasn’t hooked on baseball by then, that would have done it, but you get the picture by now.

He was hooked from the moment he pulled on the uniform of Arnold Construction and stepped onto the green grass of Phipps Park, a Little Major Leaguer with a million extra innings already on his mind.