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OPINION | REX NELSON: Mr. Baseball

by Rex Nelson | February 28, 2021 at 1:57 a.m.

March begins this week. It was Mike Dugan's favorite time of the year.

March means baseball spring training, you see. It means the start of baseball season is just around the corner. And it means that our long cold winter is about to conclude.

Winter was in its early days when I received a text from one of my closest friends that was like a punch to the face. Mike wrote at 8:32 p.m. on the evening of Monday, Dec. 28: "I've been waiting for the right time to text you tonight. They found two brain tumors near my stem this morning. Looks like the bottom of the ninth."

Mike would use a baseball analogy, of course. He was Arkansas' Mr. Baseball. But he was so much more. He was the premier historian on the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference and Cotton States League of professional baseball, both of which are gone. Mike refused to let either of those organizations be forgotten.

Despite the heroic efforts of surgeons and other personnel at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock, Mike died on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 4, at age 66. He had been born July 17, 1954, into a proud Irish family with deep roots in that endlessly fascinating city of Hot Springs. He grew up in an era when the Spa City was still among the country's top tourist attractions.

Mike had dozens of stories about the town and colorful characters who inhabited it when he was a boy. His father managed the city's airport, allowing Mike to meet celebrities who were flying in to gamble or appear as entertainers at the Vapors.

After college, Mike's love of sports led him to return to Hot Springs to coach tennis at Garland County Community College (now National Park College). In addition to coaching the Lakers, he gave tennis lessons to area residents who considered him not only an instructor in the sport but also in leadership and life.

Mike later served as sports information director at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, establishing a reputation as one of the country's best SIDs. He made friends easily and soon had relationships with those in his profession from coast to coast.

In addition to his duties as SID, Mike broadcast Reddie football, basketball and baseball games on the radio, resulting in countless late-night drives home to Hot Springs from locations across Arkansas and surrounding states. He sometimes would arrive back on the Henderson campus as the sun was rising and go directly to work.

He was a young SID at Henderson, and I was an even younger sports editor of Arkadelphia's Daily Siftings Herald, focusing my coverage on Henderson, Ouachita Baptist University across the street, and the AIC.

Mike and I began to bond in the fall of 1980 on a drive to Seguin, Texas. I did play-by-play of Arkadelphia High School football games in those days in addition to my duties at the paper. I had to go to the newspaper office after our radio post-game show and write a story.

I wanted to cover Henderson's game the next afternoon against Texas Lutheran in Seguin, but that meant an all-night drive. Mike graciously agreed to pick me up at the newspaper office in downtown Arkadelphia at about 1 a.m. as long as I would stay awake and keep him company.

A tropical storm had blown the glass out of the press box windows. We swept away the broken glass that Saturday at Matador Stadium and I did my best to help Mike keep the radio equipment dry during a contest played in heavy rain.

Our Mexican dinner afterward at Chapa's Matador Restaurant never tasted so good. And no bed ever felt as good as the one in the cheap motel where we had reserved a couple of rooms.

On those long drives to Seguin and back, we discovered that we had the same interests. In the four decades that followed, Mike would become almost like the big brother that I lost when I was 4 and my brother was 9.

Like my late brother, Mike was five years older. I can't even begin to count what we attended--college football bowl games, PGA Tour events for golf, and so much more. Mike was a regular at Arkansas Traveler games and Oaklawn Park, and I tried to join him as often as possible at those venues.

We even shared a love for the masterful on-air work of hockey announcer "Doc" Emrick. Mike had already given a hearty endorsement of Emrick's new book. It was the subject of baseball, though, that most animated Mike. When I think of Mike Dugan, I think of the title of a book by baseball writer Thomas Boswell that was released in 1984: "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."

"The crowd and its team had finally understood that in games, as in many things, the ending, the final score, is only part of what matters," Boswell wrote. "The process, the pleasure, the grain of the game count too."

Mike was all about process and the pleasure that came from studying it. Watching a baseball game with him was a lesson in the history of the sport. Years ago, Mike dedicated himself to making sure that the rich baseball tradition of his beloved hometown would become something more people knew about.

Boswell also wrote that baseball is "diffracted by the town and ballpark where it is played. Does baseball, like a liquid, take the shape of its container?"

Having heard stories from his father about professional baseball players who would come to Hot Springs to train, Mike became convinced that his hometown was the true home of spring training. He enlisted the help of the most knowledgeable baseball historians in the country and of Steve Arrison, the talented head of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Arrison, a man I like to refer to as the P.T. Barnum of Arkansas, is always up for ways to promote the Spa City. The result was the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a series of markers throughout the town. Those markers now draw visitors from across the country.

"Hot Springs is well known as a health and recreation resort that attracts the rich and famous," the trail's website notes. "That was certainly true in the late 1800s and well into the 20th century. The city had the finest hotels, lively nightclubs, a beautiful mountain setting and the famous hot, healing water. In 1887, Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) to Hot Springs.

"This bustling turn-of-the century resort was the perfect place for something no one had ever heard of; annual spring training for professional baseball. In time, five fields were built. Each spring as many as 250 players came here to train, including the legends of the game."

Dugan, Arrison and the historians didn't stop there. In late 2018, a 160-foot mural depicting five baseball legends who helped make Hot Springs the birthplace of spring training was completed downtown. The mural by Texas artists Chris Arnold and Jeff Garrison depicts Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Lefty Grove, all of whom had ties to Hot Springs.

The city also began an annual baseball weekend. Outside of the wedding of Mike and Susan Dugan's daughter Mary Kate, the happiest I ever saw Mike was in March 2018 when descendants of Babe Ruth came to Hot Springs to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Babe's 500-foot home run during spring training at Whittington Park.

The weekend also included the dedication of baseball training markers honoring Arkansas-born catcher Bill Dickey and pitcher Lefty Grove. Mike emceed those events.

It was March. The weather had warmed, baseball season was about to start, the horses were running at Oaklawn, and huge crowds had descended on Hot Springs for the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration.

Mike's dream of a revitalized Spa City was coming true. It's hard for me to contemplate a March without him.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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