It’s possible there is no more influential hub for the sport of baseball in Oklahoma than the modest, cinderblock-constructed office of Owasso High School head baseball coach Larry Turner.
Turner’s office is sight for baseball fans to behold. Right down to a collection of chairs created from old Louisville Sluggers and foam bases, the hundred square-foot space acts as a reminder that baseball is one of the most storied of all sports.
Perhaps the only thing that can outshine the nostalgic images that hang on Turner’s wall of baseball greats like Mantle, Mays and Musial is the foundation for the space in which they exist. That foundation is Owasso Rams baseball, one of the most successful high school programs in all of Oklahoma, and Turner has been the program’s captain through most of it.
“It all started back in 1970,” said Turner. “Melvin Spencer had taken over as the baseball coach, and he’s the one who got this whole thing rolling. I had an opportunity to play for him and play on the first state championship team in 1973.”
Following college, Turner returned to Owasso, where he worked as an assistant under Spencer for the next four years. Upon Spencer’s retirement from coaching, Turner was the obvious choice as the program’s successor. Using Spencer’s methods as a foundation, Turner was faced with building upon an already rapidly growing legacy.
“Twenty games—that was always the mark,” said Turner. “I thought ‘Holy cow! How am I ever supposed to win 20 (of approximately 30) games? How am I supposed to equal that to keep this thing going?‘
“Well, the first year we had a bunch of rainouts and we only won 19 games. ‘Oh, great. Here we go’ I thought. From that point, we didn’t make the state tournament until 1987. We happened to win state that year.
“In 1997 it really got cranking, and since ’97 we’ve made the state tournament every year but two.”
Since the first state title in 1973, Owasso has won a state championship in baseball 11 times, most at the 6A level. Of course, no sports program can expect to be successful without the help of great athletes. In Owasso’s history, 11 players have gone on to the game’s professional ranks and countless others have played at the collegiate level.
Owasso’s two most notable players factored heavily into the success of a pair of Major League Baseball’s playoff teams this season, St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Dylan Bundy. While Bundy, the Orioles first-round draft pick in 2011, drew much attention in making his major league debut this past season, Kozma has found himself thrust to the forefront in this year’s MLB playoffs as the starting shortstop for the Cardinals.
After Kozma hit .333 in the final month of the regular season as a fill-in for the injured Rafael Furcal, the 24-year-old went on to be a key factor in the National League Divisional Series against the Washington Nationals. With two outs in the top of the ninth inning of the decisive fifth game, Kozma delivered a two-run, tie-breaking single, giving the Cardinals a 9-7 lead they never relinquished.
Following Kozma’s late-inning heroics, the lead story on mlb.com described him as a player who “just two months ago seemed to have no future in the organization”—a grossly inadequate depiction, according to Turner.
“I’m really proud of Pete,” Turner said. “(Other coaches and I) had talked that Pete just needed, in our opinion, a chance to play every day. You hate for anybody to ever get hurt (like Furcal did), but it was a blessing for Pete to be able to play every day.”
I asked Turner if he could pinpoint an exact moment when he knew Kozma was a bona fide major leaguer. Unlike most who have scouted Kozma in his four-year professional career, Turner never had any doubts.
“Not so much with Pete,” Turner said. “He and his brother came to baseball camp when they were little guys—seven or eight years old—so we were always exposed to them. You knew they were good players, and you didn’t know if other kids would catch up to them as they progressed, but that never did happen.
“We knew Pete was going to do well.”
Pointing to a picture near the entrance of his office that depicts a player rounding third base and high-fiving his coach, Turner continued.
“That picture is Pete—number 31. That was (taken during) his third home run of the game as a sophomore during the state tournament. I knew when he was sophomore and hit three home runs in a state tournament game to put us in the finals that he was pretty special.”
As Turner continued explaining the rich tradition he has built in Owasso, it becomes clear how this relatively small program has achieved such great success. At no time does Turner speak like a typical coach. There are no inspirational speeches referenced, and cliché phrases involving “blood, sweat and tears” never make their way into the conversation.
What Turner has created is a culture that emphasizes a way of life rather than a method for winning ballgames. The beauty of Turner’s program is that very little of it belongs to Turner, himself. Instead, his players are the ones who dictate the success of the program, both on and off the field. Community involvement is a staple of the Owasso program, as well as an adherence to maintaining a clean-cut image. Essentially, baseball is a character-building tool.
“We try to make it fun and (teach players to) know that baseball is not forever,” Turner said. “Teach them how to be good people and make the community proud of what we’re trying to do.”
Following the Cardinal’s NLDS clincher, Kozma was asked how the Cardinals managed to win that winner-take-all game in Washington—a game they’d trailed 6-0 at one point. In front of a national television audience, Kozma explained.
“We never give up,” Kozma said. “They teach us that from the very beginning.”
Evidently, Turner’s lessons have paid off.