(Originally written in 2009 on the silver anniversary of East Carter winning the 1984 state baseball championship)
Kevin Bair sometimes wonders what would have happened if that hanging curveball had fooled him.
But it didn’t. Bair got all of it, and then some. The towering home run with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning capped a miraculous four-run rally that made a state champion out of East Carter.
Thirty-six years later, they still talk about the home run in Grayson.
“There’s a lot worse things to be remembered for,” said J.P. Kouns, the Raiders’ coach that season.
They probably remember in Cynthiana, too, the hometown of Harrison County, the stunned victim in the 10-9 state championship game loss to the Raiders in 1984 at Johnson Central High School.
With one mighty swing, Bair made history.
While it hasn’t exactly defined his life, it does give him a bit of celebrity status, especially in Carter County.
Bair will always be the player who hit the home run that won the state championship for the Raiders in ’84.
“I think about it, I’m not going to say I don’t,” he said. “It comes back when I drive by the field. My son (Kyle) plays basketball for East Carter. I’ve been to Paintsville several times and always point out that Johnson Central field, which they’ve changed. He’s not near as interested as I am but I make sure he knows about it. He doesn’t want to talk about it as long as I do.”
It’s more than that magical home run that Kevin Bair remembers. The Raiders were a team built on good hitting, great fielding and crafty pitching.
They were improbable champions, having entered the 15th Region Tournament as a district runner-up to Rowan County. East Carter outscored three foes, 22-1, in the regional tournament.
But the Raiders got on a roll, winning seven consecutive postseason games to claim the only team state championship in school history.
“It’s definitely a blur,” Bair said. “I remember bits and pieces of it. If I see a photo, I can remember that.”
East Carter trailed Harrison County 6-0 in the fifth inning, but rallied for four runs to get back in the game. Then Harrison County scored three in the sixth to make it 9-4. Again, the Raiders rallied, this time for two runs, to make it 9-6.
But could they keep coming back?
“I know we thought we had a chance,” Bair said. “We had the top of the lineup (coming) up.”
Bair was the No. 6 hitter in the lineup, the designated hitter with a looping left-handed swing.
With one out, Cass Hall reached on an error and then Jamie Swanagan walked. A popup to second base brought the Raiders down to their last out.
Steve Lambert laced a two-run double to right center field that barely eluded the diving center fielder to make it 9-8.
Then it was Bair’s turn to bat.
With the count 1-1, pitcher Billy Fisher tried to get ahead with a curveball. Bair didn’t blink. He made him pay and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I can still see the pitch and remember hitting it,” he said. “Hanging curveball. I knew when I hit it it was gone.”
Bair was a junior on the senior-dominated team that included Art Daugherty, the best three-sport athlete in East Carter history. Daughtery was the shortstop and Hall the second baseman, a keystone combination that led to many double plays.
The pitchers were the durable Swanagan, who won three games in eight days over the regional and sectional tournament, freshman Craig Collier and senior Joey Thomas. At least, that’s the only pitchers they needed in the postseason.
The rules were different in those days and it’s a good thing for the Raiders, who finished the season 29-8.
“It was one of those special teams,” Kouns said.
Those Raiders grew up together, played on the same Little League, Junior League and Senior League teams. They played other sports, too. Daughtery was the quarterback and Bair the center on one of East Carter’s best football teams in 1983.
Others on the team were basketball players. It was just a good collection of athletes who came together.
“Those guys were close-knit because they played together for years,” Kouns said.
Kouns considers himself lucky to have won a state championship. He’s in the Kentucky Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame but the state title is the major achievement.
‘‘It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal when you can win that thing,” he said.