Before becoming the men they are today, many young boys spent their summers at the ballpark dreaming of becoming big leaguers.
When most of those big league dreams didn’t quite come to fruition, they found out the real secret of youth baseball. The real success stories came long after the Little Leaguers had hung up their gloves and cleats.
When those Major League hopefuls turned into doctors, lawyers and preachers, they may not have been worried about knocking a fastball out of the park. However, the life lessons they learned along the way helped mold them into what they eventually became.
For almost the past 40 years, David Ditsworth has been the man many of them called coach, his labor of love that extended well beyond the baseball diamond.
Even with a record that included plenty more wins than losses, his greatest accomplishments came long after his players weren’t spending their summers in the heat at Morris Frank Park.
“The thing I love most about the game has always been coaching these kids,” Ditsworth said. “I’ve coached great ballplayers and I’ve coached kids who won’t ever make an all-star game.
“When those kids love the game and give it their all, they’re some of the players that learn the most. I think one of the best parts is just looking around town and seeing how many of these kids from the ballpark have grown up to be the leaders of the community.”
While looking back at the good old days, Ditsworth recalls stories that span several years in which he coached his sons, grandsons and youngsters across the area.
The stories rattle off effortlessly as if they had happened the week before.
He recalled with a laugh the time he called for Sunil Cherry to steal home.
“They told me that was a little daring,” Ditsworth said. “I remember he went in head first and beat the throw home. I told them grown men don’t get grown unless you ask them to do something challenging.”
Cherry is among Ditsworth’s success stories as he eventually went on to get his medical degree and is now a neurologist.
He also remembers coaching Jacob Fitzgerald and Shane Wiggins, two former players who are now preachers.
“If it’s possible for a grown man to look up to people that are 20 years younger than me, then that’s what I think about a bunch of the kids I’ve coached,” Ditsworth said. “When you get old and look back at it, you realize baseball is all just a game. I’ll be the first one to tell you that if there’s a scoreboard out there, then I wanted to win. I still do.
“But everything else—– your wife, your kids, your impact on those that are around you — that’s what really matters.”
After 35 years of coaching youngsters in the East Texas heat, Ditsworth admits that 2017 was the best summer of his life.
That’s when one of his grandsons, Hunter Ditsworth, was an integral part of the Thundering 13’s march to South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
David was the one in the background with the squeaky toy in the stands. He was also the one who had to live up to his end of the bargain in dying his hair when the local youngsters delivered a national title to Lufkin.
“That was a time that dreams really did come true,” Ditsworth said. “I can’t even tell you how proud I was and how much I appreciate Hunter and all the kids on that team. They’re just some boys from the country and this is what they can do? To me, that was pretty incredible.”
Hunter and the Fierce 14s made it back to the Junior League World Series the following year, bringing home yet another U.S. title.
Bud Maddux was the coach of the 2017 title team and an obvious part of the success of the 2018 squad.
Ditsworth remembers days of competing against him at various levels while admitting Maddux was the perfect coach for the team.
“I spent plenty of days with him on the same field,” Ditsworth said, “but I’ve got to admit he was the perfect coach for that team. He deserves all the credit in the world
Recently, Ditsworth has had to take a step away from coaching.
After years of leading youngsters onto the baseball field, Ditsworth is in a battle of his own, this time with the stakes much higher.
While watching his grandson Gunner play a game in Tyler, he coughed up blood. When he went to the doctor, he discovered the cancer he had beaten 12 years earlier had returned.
Ditsworth is currently undergoing treatments for Stage 4 colon cancer in what he admits is an uphill battle.
“Twelve years ago, I had colon cancer and went through all the treatment,” Ditsworth said. “All the scans came back clean and I thought I had it licked. But I guess with this, do you ever know if the cancer is ever really gone? I’ll tell you, this time around, it’s been tougher than anything I remember.
“There are so many people going through the same type of thing and I’m not special. I appreciate all the support and help I’ve gotten because it would be even tougher to go through this alone. My family and friends have been great.”
Apparently, one of his former pupils thought his Little League coach was indeed something special.
Jed Morris, a hitting coach in the San Diego Padres’ organization, recently took notice of Ditsworth’s situation. Ditsworth had coached Morris in youth baseball.
He started a Facebook campaign of his own called “I hear ya babe!”
It was a tribute to one of Ditsworth’s sayings he would call out when a player made a nice play on the field.
Those wishing to show their support can go on Morris' Facebook page and make a video with that saying. They are also encouraged to make a donation to the cause of helping Ditsworth with his medical expenses. His page can be found by searching for Jed Reardon Morris.
“He’s influenced hundreds of young players with his positivity and love of the game of baseball,” Reardon said on his page. “Coach Ditsworth just turned 61 in March, and it’s time for all the support he’s given over the years to come back to him in his time of need.”
He set a goal on the website of $76,000. The number is in honor of Tim Ditsworth, the late son of David who wore No. 76 for the Panthers’ football team.
In addition to that fundraiser, the family is also raising money at an upcoming event.
On June 28, they are selling ribeye sandwiches with grilled onions, chips and a drink for $10. The following day, they are selling pork butt sandwiches with grilled onions, chips and a drink, also for $10.
Those will be taking place at the Ditsworth Fireworks Stand, which is located just past Carpets by Curiosity on U.S. Highway 69 south. Money from firework sales will also go to help with medical costs for Ditsworth.
To pre-order meals, contact Noelia at 671-2307, Keri at 465-7942 or Veronica at 465-7695.
They will deliver orders of five or more plates. There will also be raffles available at the event.
“I hate not being able to do everything I’ve always done, but Adam (Ditsworth) has really stepped up to the plate,” David Ditsworth said. “I don’t like all of the attention. But really my whole family has been great.”
In his fight with cancer, Ditsworth chooses to reflect on the positive times rather than dwell on the every day that comes along with his treatments.
His grandson Conner is currently on the Lufkin Minors All-Stars that will be playing for the District 10 title this week. Hunter is going through another summer in preparation for his sophomore season.
Even when David can’t make it to his familiar spot in the dugout or in the stands, he is never far away.
And he admits that above all, family and baseball have been two things he can draw upon in his most recent round of treatment.
“I’ve told everyone that Lufkin is really a special place, and the boys the last two summers have really put it on the map,” Ditsworth said. “If you don’t have a heart for these kids, then something must be wrong. I can’t say enough about what this place has meant to me. No matter what comes out of this, I’ve been blessed.”