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Heritage players honor longtime coach with special memorial

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Follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blakesebring and at his blog, www.tailingthekomets.com.

Patriots beat Central Noble 11-1 behind Knapke home run

Tuesday, May 7, 2013 - 9:25 am

Maybe there should have been a much larger obituary after Don Grabner died on April 22 at age 90. The Monroeville baseball legend certainly deserved one. For seven decades in general and 24 years as an assistant coach of the Heritage baseball team, he guided ballplayers into manhood.

He deserved a fitting memorial, but he got something even better on Monday.

The day after Grabner passed, Heritage junior Landon Harris was talking to teammate Conner Sheehan during their first-period class about what they could do to honor the legend. They were talking about maybe a patch or special T-shirts, when Harris came up with another, better idea. Maybe the players could all wear one of Grabner's jerseys, similar to how all Major League players wear No. 42 for Jackie Robinson on April 15.

``I had three brothers play baseball here, so I know how much coach Grabner meant to this place,'' Harris said. ``I've known him as a a baseball coach my whole life so I knew he had enough jerseys.''

The boys asked Heritage coach Dean Lehrman what he thought about the players wearing Grabner's jerseys in a game, hopefully a contest around his birthday on May 5. Lehrman thought it was a wonderful idea and suggested the boys talk with members of Grabner's family.

The players talked with Grabner's great-granddaughter Ashton Castle in school, and she talked with her grandmother Jody Linder, Grabner's daughter, about the idea.

Harris was right that there were more than enough jerseys hanging in Grabner's closet, one from each year he coached the team. The only problem was that the Patriots usually alternate every other year with red or navy road jerseys so there weren't enough of one color for everyone to wear in Monday's game against Central Noble.

The seniors wore the red jerseys and the underclassmen the blue jerseys with the coaches wearing the white pinstripe uniforms with Grabner's No. 24 on the back. It probably would have been good enough if the players had simply gone to the local sporting goods story and gotten ``Grabner'' glued onto the back of their jerseys, but this was even better. Though some of the players needed twice the shoulder width to fit comfortably into Grabner's 2X uniform, wearing the real thing was so much better than just the name.

``He was a great influence on all of us and on the team,'' Sheehan said.

Some of Grabner's favorite sayings were ``No one ever drowned in his own sweat,'' ``If you are not careful, this game will pass you by,'' ``We play this game with real bullets'' and ``We teach more than just baseball here.''

Along with a decent-sized crowd, 15 members of Grabner's family watched the game, and every time a player was announced his name was Jacob Roop Grabner, Collin Evans Grabner. The starting pitcher was Cole Gerardot Grabner and Wil Knapke Grabner cracked three-run homer in an 11-1 win over Central Noble.

It was a fun day for everyone but the Cougars, and a lot of people got to remember Grabner.

``He coached a lot of these kids' dads,'' Linder said. ``I've had more kids come back and tell me it was more than about life they learned from him. It was always nice to hear kids come back and say thanks,''

These kids got their chance on Monday, a day after what would have been Grabner's 91st birthday. Now, the jerseys will be washed and given back to Linder, but maybe this should be something the Patriots consider doing every year. It'll be a chance for Lehrman to tell the new players about his friend and to stress the fundamentals.

``I think we might start a new tradition,'' Lehrman said. ``The man definitely stood for a lot of good things.''

And he'd be especially pleased that there's proof the current players all heard, understood and respected him. They are carrying his message on, and that's the best memorial any coach can receive.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Blake Sebring at bsebring@news-sentinel.com .