Asking Russell Simmons if he’d like to meet at a ball park for an interview is like asking a golfer if he’d like a free round at Pebble Beach or Augusta National.
“Look, man, this is what we do,” Simmons said as he strode from the parking lot at Charles Henderson High School to the baseball field for a tournament in Troy this weekend.
He’d left work at Fort Rucker a little early to make Friday afternoon’s game to see his son, Slade Simmons, play for Troy Post 70. Turns out, Slade caught Post 70’s earlier game in the day and wasn’t in the lineup. It didn’t matter. Russell and his oldest son, Sloan, didn’t leave because Slade wasn’t playing. It was a baseball game. It was worth watching.
Simmons couldn’t begin to estimate the number of games he’s attended – mostly watching his five kids play. He wouldn’t begin to calculate the tanks of gas, the sets of tires, the cups of hot chocolate in early spring and late fall, the bags of ice that cooled things off in those scorching Alabama summers.
It’s not baseball in Skipperville. It’s just “ball.” School ball, T-ball, Rec ball, travel ball – summer and fall.
Ball is a hard game to play well, to play it the right way. He taught all his kids the game – Chelsi, Sloan, Ethan, Kole and Slade. They were all great athletes, he said. Chelsi, Sloan and Slade love it the way the way he does. What sets them apart is how they excelled at the game.
If Simmons couldn’t begin to figure the resources he’s put into his passion, he also couldn’t put his finger on how many wins he’s watched, how loud he has cheered or the pride he felt as Chelsi, Sloan and Slade added to the remarkable legacy of ball at G.W. Long High School.
So on this Father’s Day, Simmons will almost certainly be at a ball field watching his son play. At least, he hopes so. That’s where he’s most comfortable. “This is what we do.”
“I can remember at one time I had five kids playing at one time – from college to T-ball,” Simmons said. “I felt bad sometimes because I couldn’t be at everybody’s game. I’d have to share. Chelsi would be playing in college and Slade in T-ball and Sloan had travel ball and Kole and Ethan had Rec ball.”
They played a lot of weeknights, but weekends were spent at the park, too.
“We stayed at the ball field. If we weren’t in a tournament, we were on the practice field,” Simmons said. “I said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to practice if you want to be better than average.’
“I got lucky. They just always wanted to be out there. They were great athletes. Kole and Ethan were outstanding athletes. They wanted to go a different route.”
Chelsi, his oldest, is now Chelsi Jones, the former head coach of the 2014 state runner-up softball team at Zion Chapel. As far back as she can remember, her dad was in the stands if at all possible.
“If he missed a game it was because one of my brothers was playing, too,” Chelsi said. “It was a huge family thing. We were at the ball field playing games, but on the weekend we were at the ball field practicing. That was our family time.”
Chelsi recalls just how linked her family is to the sport.
“Slade was born right before one of my state tournaments, either my junior year or senior year,” she said. “He was four days old and I was playing for Long in Montgomery. I can remember him being there.
“We’ve always had a really good relationship. Ball, you know, that’s our common denominator. We’re brother and sister, but ball is the nucleus of our relationship.”
Chelsi is a 2003 G.W. Long graduate. Sloan was in the class of 2006. Slade graduated last month. Each of them left with a college scholarship – and each of them played on at least one state championship team for the Rebels.
Chelsi played on the 2000 slow-pitch state champion and was part of the original Rebel “sweep” of baseball and softball titles in 2000. That sweep has been upstaged a bit. Long’s baseball team just completed a three-peat and the softball program – now fast-pitch, as with all high school softball in Alabama – has won back-to-back state championships.
Sloan was part of the 2005 baseball championship as a junior. He played for coach Earl Miller that season. As a senior in 2006, Earl’s son and current Rebel coach Drew Miller took over as head coach.
It is a dynamic that Sloan has grown to appreciate over the years.
“It’s hard following in your dad’s footsteps. Can you imagine following in Earl Miller’s footsteps?” Sloan asked. “I’m sure it was tough on Drew. With a tradition like G.W. Long has, it’s a lot of pressure, that’s for sure.”
Slade is the youngest, but any time Chelsi or Sloan pushes too hard about what he should be doing or how he should be doing it – and they occasionally still do – he can always ask them how many championships they won.
Chelsi played at Southern Union and earned her degree at Auburn. Sloan signed with Darton College in Albany, Ga., transferred to Wallace of Dothan a year later and played his final two years at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa.
Slade will play junior college ball at Chattahoochee Valley. His last game at G.W. Long ended with a state championship. Even in that moment, it hit him that would be the last time he would play for his school. He tried to fight back tears.
“It’s the best day ever but it also sucks because it’s the last time I’ll ever put this on,” he said, clutching the front of his jersey.
Drew Miller said it’s never easy when that moment hits – even in the euphoria of a championship.
“This is never easy. We’re talking about kids who, even before they played T-ball, watched games,” the coach said. “It does hit you hard when you know that’s it. That’s the part that sucks and I don’t like it, but it is what it is. That’s why we want to do this (go out with a title).”
Sloan said knowing he was going to play college baseball took away some of that sting, “But it’s still bittersweet when you know you’ve played your last high school game,” he said.
“It’s better for Slade – he went out with a state championship. We got put out in the first round,” Sloan recalled. “It was when they still did single-elimination in the first round. They had one good pitcher and he beat us. I’m glad they went to best-of-three series in all the rounds now.”
Chelsi remembered pushing Slade as he got older and telling him, “You’ll understand what it means to wear that jersey.”
“My parents moved so I could play at Long,” she said. “A lot of people in high school sports will never know that feeling to wear that jersey. It’s hard to explain the tradition and the work you put in at that place, but it just gives you a sense of pride.
“I can remember the day I took that jersey off. Yeah, I know I was going to play ball in college and I wasn’t done, but it’s a huge part of who you are. As a woman, I feel like it taught me a lot of lessons. Being from Long gave me a mentality that I used when I coached at Zion Chapel. I feel like playing there gave me a mentality in my life.
“It taught me to never be OK with average, and if you don’t like the way something is then you’ve got to work to change it.
“It hit Slade hard, but it hit all of us that way. Slade paid his dues as an underclassmen. He never complained about having to wait his turn. I feel like when Drew gave him that handshake and told him that you’re my starting catcher, Slade never took dressing out and putting on that catcher’s gear for granted.”
The bond between Chelsi and Slade added another connection in the past few weeks. Slade, like his older sister, was named to the Dothan Eagle Super 12 team as a player. Chelsi also was the Eagle’s Softball Coach of the Year in 2014.
Russell Simmons was an outstanding baseball player at Carroll High. His mother’s family was from Skipperville and when it was time for his kids to go to school, he moved them to Skipperville.
“The Skipperville community, it’s just awesome,” Simmons said. “It’s a place you want to raise your kids and get them in the ball program down there. It’s important. It means something. I can’t even describe it.
“Looks, Drew does a fantastic job. He’s a great coach. Even if you don’t have the best talent in the world, he can get out what’s there. He’s helped Slade a lot and was a big part of his life. He taught Slade the game.”
Slade’s are fresh, of course. Like his older brother and sister, they center on Russell simply being there – in the stands, on the practice field, fueling his son’s passion for the game.
“He makes about every single game that he can,” Slade said of his dad. “Sloan comes to every one of them, too. He’s about my second dad. It for sure makes me play better, just having them there watching me.
“My dad’s been hard on me, but he made me better.”
Chelsi, a pre-K teacher who frequently makes it a threesome in the stands with her dad and brother, begs to differ.
“I tell Slade all the time that he has no idea how lucky he is because dad’s so calm now,” Chelsi said. “After he got through me and Sloan I think Slade doesn’t get it as bad.”
Sloan, who also works at Fort Rucker like his dad, remembers his dad showing up even at college games.
“I know Albany’s not that far, and, of course, Wallace was so close,” Sloan said. “But he’d come up to Tuscaloosa all the time on weekends when I was at Stillman. That’s 3½ hours.
“He even came to Southern Arkansas. We won the conference when I was in Albany. We went to Southern Arkansas where the regionals were. At the time I was a closer. But I started the second game of the regional. He was there.”
Chelsi takes the prize, though, with one of her first recollections of learning the game from Russell. She called it her favorite memory.
“I tell people this all the time – he was really hard on me,” she said. “I can remember learning how to catch the ball. You see most dads underhanding it to kids. I don’t think my dad ever threw underhand to me. My favorite thing is he gave me a black eye throwing to me when I was learning how to catch.
“He said, ‘What just happened is the worst thing that’ll happen to you,’” Chelsi recalled. “And then he said, ‘That’s why you have a glove on your hand.’”
Russell’s smile and nod confirmed her story. There are hundreds of them – probably thousands – and he relishes each one.
“I’ve been truly blessed,” he said. “They are outstanding kids. I wouldn’t change it for nothing.”
The next generation
Slade is done with high school baseball. Russell doesn’t know how many more years he will get to follow his son to parks that may or may not show up on Google Maps. He admits to getting sentimental at times this season.
“Yeah, it got to me a little bit,” Russell said. “I know he’s going to college, but it’s kind of sad.”
Well, there is action in the bullpen. Russell will welcome his fifth grandchild in August.
Chelsi has 12-year-old Bowen and 9-year-old Greer. Sloan has Kreed, who is almost a year and a half. Kole has a son and Ethan’s wife is expecting in August. Yep, it’s a boy.
Five grandchildren. Five boys.
“Five ballplayers,” Russell said.