Growing up, Wayne Larker liked playing sports like basketball, football and golf, but baseball was his birthright. And having just retired after a 35-year career as Coastal Alabama Community College's head baseball coach for the Sun Chiefs, and more recently its athletic director, the American pastime is now his legacy.
Larker came to Bay Minette via St. Petersburg, Fla., and Long Beach, Ca., where he won a state high school baseball championship playing first base. His dad, Norm Larker, played professional baseball for 18 years, primarily for the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
Wayne was born in Cuba, where his father was playing winter ball, and grew up in and around the clubhouses and base paths that defined the elder Larker's career. So when his son took the helm as Sun Chiefs coach in 1983, it seemed predestined, despite the fact that Wayne was only in his mid-20s.
"I still don't know how I could be so lucky to be hired over here," Larker said. "We have the best administration, the College is very well supported by the community, and I fell into an area that's so rich in baseball."
Larker still has the card Dr. Gary Branch, the president who hired him, sent on the occasion of his first win.
"He was such a good mentor of mine, and that meant everything in the world, for my first win I had here at the College with our players," Larker said.
He said he has always admired how Branch, who retired as Coastal Alabama Community College's president in 2018, stayed dedicated to the principal that athletics is complementary to the academic climate of the College. Branch's advocacy helped spread that concept throughout the statewide community college system, Larker said, and there has not been a step lost in that regard under Interim President Patty Hughston's tenure, either.
Working somewhere athletics were valued, and the job security associated with that, helped Larker be successful as the Sun Chiefs' coach. His baseball teams have won five state championships, and in 2010, he took his team to Colorado for its debut in the Junior College World Series, where it opened with a decisive victory against Temple College of Texas.
But don't be fooled into thinking that team, or even his championship teams, are Larker's ultimate favorites when he looks back on his career. Considering the amount of grit it takes to win at that level, he can pull great memories from just about every year he's coached. And in fact, he fishes in Montana and North Carolina with some of his former players, and even goes lobster diving every year in the Florida Keys with the second baseman from his 1990 squad.
"I see those guys quite often, and hang out with them still," he said. "We go on vacations, and I have even babysat their kids."
Spending so much time with players over the course of seasons, and off-seasons, has always given Larker an insight into who the young men are as individuals. And some times, after they've moved on from the College, friendships form. It's something he said he's very grateful for, especially as he begins his retirement and looks to fish and travel even more.
"When they come back to see you after they've grown up and gone through college and started families and lives, it's almost like they wanna thank you for the times and the discipline they had to go through when they were here," he said. "And they wanna know you on a different level.
"It's kind of a unique relationship that coaches have with players."
The roots of Larker's coaching style reach back to the guidance and experiences his father shared, but he also learned a tremendous amount from his high school and junior college coaches in California. He says his dad taught him the game, and Long Beach City College Coach Bob Myers taught him how to enjoy it.
And then Larker played for the legendary Eddie Stanky at the University of South Alabama, "who taught me how to get after a little bit, and really play the game with a lot of intensity."
A few years after leaving South Alabama, Larker played pro ball for the Idaho Falls Angels, under first-time manager Joe Maddon. Maddon would go on to have a long career in the big leagues, and most recently led the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series title in over a century.
Larker's stint playing first base for Idaho Falls helped him achieve a lifelong goal of playing professional baseball. But it also illustrated to him the harsh truth that he didn't quite have the stuff necessary for a long career in the majors. So he went back to school and earned his master's degree, which led him to an opportunity at then-Faulkner State Community College.
He was initially an assistant coach and the dorm director, which came with a free meal ticket. So as a young graduate, he had room, board and meals covered, with the rest of his time being spent on the diamond. Soon he was the head baseball coach.
At the community college level, Larker says you sometimes get players who might have the natural talents for baseball, but haven't necessarily had the pedigree growing up.
Maybe they were led by football coaches crossing over into baseball, or played where the sport wasn't a priority and the opportunity to play wasn't a constant.
Learning that taught him patience, and the need to instill the same in his players. And also, he understood the universal truth that you can run all the drills you want, but "there's no substitute for experience."
"One thing that players have to do, is they have to play the game," Larker said. "That's why we play practice and squad games all the time, because the more games you play, the better you're gonna get."
"That's the best way to learn."
And learn they did, so much so that his skills as a coach have earned Larker entry into the Alabama Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and, most recently, the Alabama Community College Conference Hall of Fame.
After three decades as a coach, Larker found himself wanting more. And a few years ago when he heard that longtime Athletic Director, and head basketball coach, Jack Robertson was going to step down as the AD, Larker sought out and won the job.
He credits his Assistant Coach Nick Singleton's leadership guiding the Sun Chiefs baseball team when administrative duties took precedent because, "I have nine teams to be concerned about, not just one."
In addition to baseball, his focus had to be on basketball, tennis and other sports, too. "It was my job to give all those sports their due, also," Larker said. And he's satisfied with the improvements to facilities and other areas he was able to make as AD.
"But there's a whole big life after 60," he said. And so he retired at the end of 2018, and is looking forward to more time on the water and in other climes, alongside some of the very same faces who were with him in the trenches of his career. In the end, Larker said, it's the players' opinions and memories that mean the most to him.
"If they can say the Sun Chiefs baseball program at Coastal Alabama and Faulkner State was something they'll remember for a lifetime, that's what I care about," he said.