By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Three years after being drafted and quickly rising the ranks to take over the closer’s role for the Atlanta Braves, Craig Kimbrel is still in a Wallace State of mind.
Whether the bases are empty or loaded when “Welcome to the Jungle” appropriately ushers him out of the bullpen, the former Lion is rarely rattled and always confident that his best is better than his opponent’s — and he has Randy Putman to thank for that.
“I feel like Putman does a really good job of recruiting players who have the desire to not only play ball but want to go to the next level,” Kimbrel told The Times in 2011 of Wallace State’s longtime baseball coach. “He definitely puts you on the edge of, ‘Are you going to be mentally strong enough to do it?’ And he does that without you even knowing.
“After you play for Putman, everything else is easy. It’s true. That’s the one reason I went to Wallace State — I wanted to be pushed, I wanted to become better, and he definitely did that.”
Though Kimbrel is by far the most heralded player to come out of the Hanceville-based community college, he’s certainly not the only one. In the past seven years, Putman’s regime has also cranked out big-league ballplayers Derek Holland, Graham Godfrey and Jake Elmore.
After helping player after player earn their call to the big show, it’s about time the coach receives his promotion to the biggest stage the local level can offer. This Saturday at the Civic Center, Putman will be one of 11 folks inducted into the Cullman County Sports Hall of Fame.
“Going into any hall of fame is prestigious, but I think going into your own hometown’s is very, very prestigious,” said Putman, who was previously inducted into the NJCAA (2006) and Alabama Baseball Coaches Association’s (2009) hall of fames, as well as the Alabama Junior College Hall of Fame as a player in 1991. “I know some of the ladies and gentlemen going in this year, and that makes it even better. It’s a tremendous honor.”
When Putman dishes out instructions and advice, his players generally listen — as they should considering the baseball career he enjoyed at the prep, college and professional levels.
An All-County baseball and basketball player at Erwin High, the 1972 graduate inked a scholarship at Calhoun Community College to play baseball under coach Fred Fricke. From there, Putman transferred to Jefferson State Community College under the late coach Don Green and once more to Jacksonville State University before being drafted by the Kansas City Royals his senior year.
While at JSU, he broke the school record for most doubles and was selected to the 1977 All-Gulf South Conference Team. Putman was eventually named to the Gamecocks’ 1970-2001 All-Time Baseball Team under legendary coach Rudy Abbott, who won more than 1,000 games at the school.
The close of Putman’s three-year professional career with the Royals and San Diego Padres opened the door for Putman’s illustrious coaching career to begin.
He led Tate High, located in Cantonment, Fla., to state baseball championships in 1984 and ’86, as well as a national championship in ’84.
Putman brought his winning tradition to the Wallace State campus when he arrived in Hanceville in 1990. By 1992, the Lions’ baseball program was already on the national scene, winning the Alabama Junior College State Championship and earning their first appearance at the Alabama Community College Conference World Series in Grand Junction, Colo.
Wallace State has gone on to add six more state titles and five more ACCC World Series berths under Putman’s watch. As of Monday, this year’s Lions were 25-19, raising the coach’s overall record to 886-363. In almost 24 seasons with the team, Putman has recorded winning seasons and advanced to the playoffs in 22 of them with a chance to tack on one more in each category in May.
“I’ve always said you don’t have to have the best ones. You have to have the right ones,” he said of one of his coaching philosophies. “If they’re willing to put in the time it takes to develop, you have the chance to be successful. It’s a matter of believing in yourself and believing in the people you associate with.”
The first person to believe in Putman as a baseball player was his late father, Larry, whose legal blindness progressively worsened throughout Randy’s childhood.
Without T-ball as an option back when 6-year-old Randy first put on a baseball uniform, Putman, now 58, claimed he was the “worst hitter,” failing to register a single hit by the end of the season. His luck took a turn in the opposite direction the following year, however, after his father noticed he was opposite side of the plate. The switch was a success, transforming Putman from the league’s worst player to its best.
“I miss him a lot. He was tough, but at the same time, he was fair,” Putman said of his father. “He was one that always demanded perfection out of me when I played, and that’s the way I am as a coach. No one can be perfect, but I demand them to try to be.”
Whether as a player or coach, Putman has had baseball in his blood going on 52 years now. After six weeks of being married, he said his wife jokingly told him she was pretty sure he was more in love with the sport than he was with her.
“I didn’t,” he said of the jest. “But, baseball, other than the good Lord and my family, has been a top priority as far as my life goes.”
Putman could’ve never imagined he’d spend a whopping 24 years — and counting — at Wallace State, but he sure is glad he has. Despite receiving plenty of offers from four-year schools with enough resources to offer him far more than he makes as a Lion, the coach hasn’t had to think long before turning each one down.
“I love the Cullman County area and what the people here stand for,” Putman said. “I’ve made it my home.”
The most important aspect of coaching to Putman has — and always will — centered on helping young men become not only better baseball players but better citizens, husbands and fathers. Now that he’s been rooted for so long, he said it seems like at least one former Wallace State player comes back to see him every weekend.
For all those who know Putman, it should come as no surprise he cherishes each and every visit.
“I love to see their success, not only the Craig Kimbrel’s, but the ones who work in the business world or the one who drive a truck,” the coach said. “I’d like to think what we do at Wallace had a positive impact on their life.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.