Running A Landscape Business – Part 1

Finally, I arrive at the nuts and bolts in my semi-autobiographical rendition of a life in the landscaping business. I apologize for taking such a long break in posting, but – hey – it’s my blog and I’ll blog if I want to.  😉

Another miscreant – John Bufton – and I were working for the largest maintenance business in Vancouver, BC in 1978 – now known as David Hunter Garden Centers. While together, we had long talks about the world around us and, among other thoughts, we found a mutual interest in trying to go off alone in a business. John, in fact, already had a few “side jobs” where he spent his “off days”, working his butt off for a couple of wealthy contacts, courtesy of his Mother who was in Real Estate. As we spoke, we realized we brought mutual strengths to the idea – John with a local connection and existing contracts and a deep history of lawn and garden maintenance, and me, with abundant experience in estimating and installing landscape construction projects. We made a business plan of sorts – believing a Spring start and the abundant work involving “power-raking” – the removal of thatch and moss built up through the cool, damp Winters of the Great Northwest – which was highly profitable – could supply our financing. From that, we would attempt to form a “base”, a ‘bread and butter’ aspect of the business in the form of maintenance contracts for homes throughout the city.

John’s mother co-signed for a loan to purchase a beater pickup truck, we invested our pay into purchasing hand-outs, prime for Spring labor, which we would distribute door-to-door to likely customers. In February we began, quitting at Hunter and venturing out on our own, dazed but explosively hopeful. Our handouts were a complete success – actually far beyond what we had imagined. In fact, John began complaining about the radical numbers of calls. Nevertheless, it was what we had asked for and so commenced a fairly robust season. After one day we were able to buy our very own weedeater and in ensuing days, we purchased all the maintenance machinery and tools we would need for the entire year. After a week, we were on our way! We were bursting at the seams, happy, tired and full of optimism.

It wasn’t long until we had some landscaping to look at. Over the course of the first month of business, we acquired a $28,000 contract to upgrade a series of apartments managed by one of our newly-acquired maintenance contracts. It required designing and a small hand-drawn idea of our intentions relative to the places and was impressive enough to please the client. Suddenly, we were a 2 crew operation and we purchased yet another beater truck. We entered the Federal and Provincial Era, where we began complying with the standards of employment in general, submitting taxes and deducting them from wages. Within 3 months, we had become “Bona Fide”. It was a heady period, to say the least.

We pretty much did everything right and we certainly could not be faulted for effort. We worked constantly. However, in this success, we encountered the beginnings of our eventual dissolution. The landscaping end of the business had encountered a subdivision of one acre lots during the period of serious economic expansion, house-flipping and people making humongous money as house prices skyrocketed locally. Fortunes were being made and lost over the housing bubble of the late 70’s in British Columbia and we experienced our first loss. Someone decided not to pay – or actually, could not pay. And this after an incredibly busy season. The timing was dreadful inasmuch as we had plowed our money into the business itself. Suddenly, the landscaping end of things realized its inherent risks, certainly compared to lawn and garden maintenance, which was sufficient unto itself, easily done and very predictable.

We found ourselves at odds over directions and John – who had 3 beautiful baby boys – was feeling pressure not only from his wife and family but from himself over realizing the inherent risks in the trade of landscaping. We became poor again, quickly enough, and John expressed his willingness to separate. Aside from it being a literal study in what can go wrong in business, it was somewhat heart-breaking. It felt sloppy and depressing, and this after a year where we were as busy as anyone in the entire town.

I spent most of that Winter in a funk. It was difficult resigning myself to going back to work for someone else, but it seemed the only way to survive. I felt alone and despairing. And then help came from a surprising source.

I got an offer from someone who wanted to help some small business as a silent partner. Our efforts had not gone unnoticed and he lived in the neighborhood of one acre homes which I had had such a difficult time leaving, since literally everyone there hired me as they moved in. He called a mutual friend who highly recommended me as someone who he might be interested in investing in. It was serendipitous, strange and relieving. As a former IRS (Canada Version) agent and an accountant, he was set up to be the most incredibly apt person to help I could have found. As we spoke, I suddenly understood he was dead serious. My heart was a’ flutter.

So with Spring approaching and a couple of small projects underway, John went onward to his life’s work without me. In a year, so incredibly much had happened no one had time to remind ourselves of the actual events – a miasma of happenings complete with small stories, a lot of success, some tragedies and an amazingly eventful series of events.

Ray soon showed up at my place with a brand new 1980, dual wheel 1 Ton Ford truck with a flatbed which raised and lowered by electric motor. It was a dream machine, the envy of the city dump! (Let it be known here and now that the girls liked it too!). Clean and sleek, it could handle the landscaping chores in ways which shot our productivity through the roof.

We moved back into the famous one acre lot territory, this time taking no prisoners and designing stuff like mad. We also acquired a couple of small commercial contracts which I had estimated for and with an eye towards moving towards a much larger commercial side of the business. There was big money there. Little did we realize we were attracting attention from larger fish. Well, we worked hard and met some amazing people.

(We did a project for Leslie Nielson’s older brother, redoing his entire back yard and fence, patio and raised bed planters. This was the pre-Airplane, pre- Detective Frank Dubbin Leslie Nielsen, whose other brother at that time was the head of the New Democratic party in the national capital – a major political player. I only name drop like this to mention that each man – who we met – was an absolute gas of a person – just nice as could be and warmly appreciative of our efforts.)

It became this sort of highlight of the season because the entire year was composed of such small successes and this project was a minor one financially but not without major fun. It was a great year and we did about $384,000 in total volume, in 1980 dollars. Extrapolated to now, that’s about $750,000. People were noticing and our reputation had become excellent.

Winter in Vancouver is a fairly bizarre thing. While I spent later years not missing one day of week day work, generally we shut down the landscaping during December to mid February. Say 2-3 months. It is actually welcomed by owners and planners as it gives a period to take a breath and assess directions and processes. Oh yeah – and have a beer.

During this down period, I got approached by another interested party who had money, bulldozers, back hoes and whose home I had worked on laboriously dynamiting trees, scraping 10 acres of land and then decorating it up in my own trademark ways. Mario – an Italian with toys and attitude – approached both Ray and I with a deal: Bid on the largest work in the Province and he would help finance the delayed payment schedules, provide machinery for the work and actually attend work every day like a working partner. Inasmuch as he was a home builder and a successful one, his record was pretty impeccable for profits. To Ray and I, it was a near no-brainer. Onward and upwards. So we two became 3. The only caveat was that we would need projects to work on, lol. If I could supply a contract, Mario would join. Suddenly my onus became clear. I had to acquire contracts.

For the next 45 days, I spent every waking hour in front of blueprints, estimating them. I would visit literally every major construction company in Vancouver and surrounding towns, asking to be put on their bid lists and begging for blueprints from which to draw and submit estimates. Finally, I got a call.

I visited this business – a $20 Million a year construction firm who was looking at new landscaping companies because of some unfortunate events with others. My price interested them but my approach interested them more. They allowed me to explain my history, assessed my principle partners and awarded us an $84,000 contract to begin in a few weeks. I drew up a contract, showed it to Ray and Mario and suddenly we were a viable business. We began the contract the day we could start, with Mario unloading his bulldozer and us pushing dirt which was partially covered in snow. For the next 60 days, no one took a day off and we put in 12 hours per day whereupon we finished to an immensely-pleased client. We hired one other person and no more, lol. We did it all.

In the meantime, I was still fielding calls and bidding projects. We were awarded another one – this one far larger – which I failed to even look at. In fact, the day we were to begin, as we were toting our equipment jobwards, I suddenly realized – along with my partners – that I hadn’t the remotest idea where it was! Both the other guys were shocked – I had been so thorough with the other ones. I became nervous, lol, as we approached the place. But as we arrived, the project supervisor came out and introduced himself. Word of our competence had spread and he was asking if we felt we could somehow manage to take on some extra work, prior to the landscaping.

“Duh”, was my reply. 😉

He wanted us to build retaining walls out of pressure treated 6″ x 6″‘s, at 5 different locations on the site, each of them over 100′ long. Each location required 3 walls of 3’ high apiece. It was an enormous undertaking. He asked for a price and we huddled. Between the 3 of us, we came up with a figure and he gave the go ahead after a brief call to his office. Suddenly, we had 3 months of very profitable work ahead of us. It was a dream.

 

Brick Pavers As A Product and Installation Issues

“Pavers”, in the sense we refer to here are compressed concrete bricks, perfectly formed to interlock initmately, forming a non-moveable structurally road strength surface. The “compression” comes from the manufacturing process, where the paver forms are filled, then shaken to void out air holes and to better distribute the cement itself. They end up being somewhere in the vicinity of 8,500 PSI (pounds per square inch). To get an idea of how hard that is, your standard concrete walkway downtown is about 4,500 PSI. A patio out back in your yard will usually be in the vicinity of 3,500 PSI. Thus, these are harder than ‘normal’ cement products. They are being used in many newer applications, including city streets. 5 million square feet of the Honk Kong Airport’s entire runway and general tarmac is composed of these little beggars, as well.

The concern in Hong Kong dealt with the massive rains of the Monsoon Season and the tendency to flood. Brick pavers offered a drainage solution which intrigued the planners, who still produced plans containing ample numbers of catch basins to conduct water throughout the airport’s tarmac. Later tests revealed the incredible infiltration of water between the actual cracks of the pavers themselves, producing very nearly zero work for the planned catchments.

Pavers, simply by their segmented nature, allow water to pass directly down between one another, as this picture shows in more detail.

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Another recommendation they carry with them is the fact that they are somewhat flexible. In this, I refer to the component factor: it takes a lot of brick pavers to contribute to a driveway. Whereas a cement driveway will develop cracks atop shifting bases, or can collect water underneath and thus heave, where the concrete structure will crack and split and then deteriorate further with time, pavers will heave just like the cement, but will not have some monolithic break. They will ride the heave and stay intact. Thus freezing and cracking may well be the least of worries. The actual fact is, those who prepare the base are the stars of this particular show. Proper preparation below any surface yields much less trouble, later.

PREPARATION

Under any surface, cement, asphalt, or brick pavers there needs to be a compacted base consisting of some sort of compactable material. Typically a mix of small rocks and “fines” from the same rock created at quarries do the trick. The fines do what we indicated above with the forming of pavers in the mold: they fill in totally and thus ensure, upon being squished with some titanic and compressing machine, that the subbase is going absolutely nowhere. When covered, there should be no voids to collect water where freezing can affect the ultimate size and cause breaks or heaving. A compacted base would also solve a lot of cement problems regarding breakage and deterioration but it seems not all contractors take the time for this hard and time-comsuming work.

Depending on the soils underneath, the base material should be at least 6 inches thick for drivweways and 4 inches for patios and walkways. In the absence of base material, or Class II Base as we call it, washed sand can actually be used as a base material.

In any event, for truly muddy or expansive type soils, one should overexcavate appropriately and add this completely new material. I once had a project, in Vancouver, B.C. where we were scheduled to install pavers aside a parking garage. The only problem was, there was this hole from earlier excavations about 12 feet deep and some 50 feet wide and it was full of water. This was exactly where the pavers were supposed to go.

I backed a line of trucks holding washed sand up and dumped them, pushing them in, finally, with my trusty Bobcat, bit by bit, allowing the water to escape from the rear of the hole, and succeeded in filling the hole in a day. Two days later, we were compacting and constructing and, 5 days later, we had made ourselves a brick fire lane, 20 feet wide, coursing over this former hole. It was actually sort of amazing, really, but I swear, that drive is at nearly the same level it was when we constructed it, today, some 22 years later. Here’s Nature’s bottom line: Nothing compacts like water!

SAND LAYER

For pavers, an extra step is typical at the end of the compaction drama: a one inch layer of sand is put in place at the exact level one desires the pavers to go. Eventually, this sand bed will allow a bit of movement as the pavers get compacted into place and grouted with yet more, and possibly other decorative, color coordinated, sand. What this achieves is some allowance for error, as well. Artists with a plate compactor can literally change a grade where necessary, by adding water and worrying a hump into submission by whacking it until it conforms. While this sounds inexact, the best operators can achieve a perfect grade. It’s what they are paid to do.

LAYING THE BRICK PAVERS

The job is almost done. I am being serious. There is some darn hard work, toting pavers over for placement and all, but establishing the base is always the big achievement. By the time your sand is screeded (levelled into place), laying the pavers is good old brainless work, in most cases. I advocate hiring the high school student for this phase, lol. (You know that saying, “Hire the high school student….while they still know everything?” oops, sorry, honey). I could not resist, sorry……now, where were we?

Establishing a laying pattern is mental. There are any numbers of patterns available, from Herringbone ones to Running Bond patterns and some extoic ones as well. Just the same, laying them becomes easier once the pattern is established and repitition becomes the norm. At this stage one fills in the blank area with bricks.

FINISHING

Finishing involves a few things: edges and retaining systems, grouting the pavers with sand and the final compaction. There is also sealing which I will also address elsewhere.

Edges and restraining: If curved, the edges of any paver edifice will require cutting. Many people use the “guillotine” method of pressing two sharp edges manually, thus cleaving the brick. I have seen projects done this way which worked well. Nevertheless, I always advocate cutting all pavers with a brick saw, using a diamond blade and water, thus getting a crystal clean cut at exactly the edge one desires. It just looks more professional, to me. Once in place, I restrain my bricks with either plastic or aluminum edging, complete with holes for knocking down some nice 8-10″ spikes and holding it tightly in place. The edges of all component structures are always the weak point, but with edge restraints, one can withstand tires and accidents alot better.

Grouting with sand: This implies spreading a layer of sand over the entire paver area, then sweeping and watering the sand into place inside the cracks of the pavers themselves. One also cleans when finishing with water. I like to compact the pavers one final time with a thin coat of sand over the bricks. The sand “lubricates” the passage of the compactor and the compaction process shakes the sand into those cracks. Then is when I typically wash, finishing the grout process and the project itself.

Essentially, that’s it. One can expect a lifetime’s worth of satisfaction from this stuff. Indeed, one may well expect generations to enjoy the fruits of this labor. Modern bricks are replacing city streets in many cities, especially those who experience rain problems, like Seattle, Portland or Vancouver, B.C. They add wonderfully to the resale value of a home, even aside from looking as good as anything out there can look. I will deal with the more artistic values of brick pavers elsewhere, but the color combinations, laying patterns and bricks themselves are mind boggling in their diversity and possibilities. They are a huge step forward in landscape technology and offer yet another wondrous and durable possibility for outdoor pleasure.

Bernheim Forest – A “Holy Cow” of Springtime Delights

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There is something nearly Supernatural about this splendid forest, located about 25 miles outside of Louisville, Kentucky, bearing south on I-65. Bernheim Forest can give you its own set of facts and figures and detail its own history from its website right here: Bernheim(in its own words). But I can tell you from first hand experience, what they have done in terms of preservation as well as in experimentation is truly remarkable.

The structure below is their “Canopy Walk” – a bridge to nowhere – which exists to allow a person to admire a truly “bird’s eye view” from high among the tops of the local trees in the middle of the forest. The picture below that one is the view in its current early, raw Springtime form. One can readily see that this is a country ripe with rainfall and plump fat trees and plants, all set into sustaining soils – a richness which has that rare and intriguing quality of just seeming incredibly fortunate and uncommonly beautiful as a result. This is what “Pampered” means in Nature!:  😉

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Kentucky’s forests, especially in this central state view, are a typical riot of deciduous hardwoods, comprising endless species from native Kentucky Coffee Trees (yes, lol) to the Hickory Trees shown here – and onward, to Maples, Oaks, ‘Gums’ of all sorts, Elms and then – wow! – to the SpringTime wonders of the local world – Dogwood Trees and the Native Red Buds. All are just getting underway in the deepst sections of the forest and Bernheim provides drives and alleyways which one can explore either on foot via the well-kept and fabulous trails or even by just plain old car. Here are a couple of “road views” my Mom and I took while coursing through there yesterday:

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There is a somehow “innocent” appeal in the picture below. The simplicity and the big fat lush background of this volunteer Dogwood tree, all scraggly but proud, shows Nature’s best qualities. Survival and beauty coexist in a riot of simple floral beauty, spackling the environment with simplicity but remarkable – nearly Japanese Garden/Zen-like – gorgeousness of form and function.

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Moving along from literary license, we encounter other wonders in this Natural Paradise. Isn’t this pretty?:

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And this? Disgusting, isn’t it? We had a laugh as I named some of these groupings and trees. I called this one, for example “Hot Shot”. He’s totally in his element, man.

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But of even greater impact to many, and I have to include myself to a degree, is the work Bernheim has done in cultivating a captivating environment not just for the Natural side of things – but as a “Garden”. They have featured Kentucky’s greatest products – (no, NOT Bourbon!  That’s later.) – these “great” items being natural Bluegrass and these wonderful trees and plants, together in ways which clear the mind and soul with devastating vistas of glorious color and, really, totally extravagant beauty:

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And in this regard they feature the ‘Margins’ of natural forest and cultivation.

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This beautiful grove at the back end of Bernheim’s cultivated park area is exceptionally special to me. It is the location where we spread my Father’s ashes following his passing in 1983, spread far to the left of the statue and among his favorite spots on Earth. He has a headstone of course, at my Mom’s family plot in Illinois, representing his military service and occupying the space among so many of his friends from those days. They are no doubt delighted by yet more of his fun-loving foolishness and charm. But it is here in Bernheim where I find him in my heart. Yeah, Bernheim is special to me for this reason. He was just a terrific guy and I miss him. Pardon the interruption. But you have to admit it’s a cool spot, eh?

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This meandering road leads up to the Statue Garden above. The placidity and lushness of all these forms and colors provide the utter uniqueness of this wonderful place, designed by this marvelous combination of Nature and rigorous planning. The split rail fences are of the type which were commonest for farms and properties back when Kentucky was settled. Those modern lines never seem to get old – in spite of their simplicity. Nice Sycamore to the left, as well.

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I’m closing it down for now – I have 100 or so pictures and have really just begun. Tomorrow – or next post – I will deal with a most revelatory discovery – an absolutely unique grove of Magnolia Soulangiana cultivars and hybrids – the range of blossoms was stunning – with colors from brilliant purple and white to yellow and even to – I kid you not – green blooms. Here’s one now.Bernheim Spring 095

Baseball Stories – Twice Told Tales

In late May of 1966, Owensboro Senior High School hooked up with a crackerjack Shelby County team in the semifinals of the Kentucky Boys State Baseball Tournament for what would end up being One For The Ages. It remains legendary for me and those who participated – as well as establishing various still-unbroken records, now some 50 years later. One would have to believe that, having won the State just 2 years prior, in 1964, Owensboro would be rated as a slight favorite. We had two absolute Ace pitchers in Wayne Greenwell and Danny Howes, each of which had ERA’s one needed an electron microscope to find, each under 1.00. Each had improved their games from “already very good”, to plain dominant.

In our first game, we played perennial competitor and tournament rival Paducah Tilghman and beat them 1-0 behind a perfectly awesome pitching performance by Danny. The ballgame had the standard key moments but, in the last analysis, it was a game for pitchers who grossly over-matched hitters on both teams. For ball players, these games have their own elements of fascination. Like Major League baseball’s World Series or Playoffs, every single pitch thrown is an epic story. Moments of pressure are completely constant. It is a game of nerves.

I recall a beautiful late Spring Kentucky day, a bit warm but sunny with little if any wind. To call it “baseball weather” would be insulting to the Perfection of the day. Played at the University of Kentucky’s home field in Lexington, the field itself was especially well-groomed and, for an infielder such as myself, very true, at least during early innings until the dirt got chewed up a bit by the spikes worn by base runners and crossed by players entering and exiting during inning changes. Predictable ground balls are an infielder’s dream, while the sordid realities of bad bounces plague a shortstop’s night dreams like a platoon of Steven King clowns.

Shelby County had won the state basketball championship that season, just a few months earlier. Featuring future college All American, Mike Casey, who played shortstop they also had speedster Bill Busey and Ron Ritter, a hulking big sucker who could throw BB’s. Inasmuch as Ritter had won their first ballgame, they went with lefty Tom Hayden for a while.

As soon as the game got underway, there was action. Busey was the ballgame’s second batter and he hit an impossibly hot, worm-burning ground ball by our third baseman, down the line almost immediately into foul territory and which diabolically kept rolling, even beyond the fence which ended around 5 feet to the left of the line. Well, the ball was ruled “in play” even beyond the fence, a curious and unique local rule we were not familiar with and which Jack admitted he felt guilty for not advising us of. Our left fielder, Landy Lawrence temporarily gave up on chasing it down until Jack began screaming from our dugout to pursue and play it. By the time he corralled it relayed the ball to me and I threw it home, Busey easily slid under the tag for the first run of the game, now 4 minutes old. It was frankly bizarre and just a singularly freaky score. But it sure would matter.

Irritated, Greenwell proceeded to begin what became an absolutely overwhelming performance, mixing his sharp-breaking and exceedingly accurate curve ball with enough speed to startle hitters into submission.

In our next at bats, I led off with a sharply hit single to left. I had learned to steal bases, having found more speed than ever my senior year and gauging pitcher tendencies to an extent that I was about 95% successful on my steals during the season. I think I was thrown out once and even then, it was because a second baseman literally blocked the base. That I “got even” later is another story.

So I stole second base early on in the count. With the lefty on the mound, I had always found it incredibly easier to swipe third base. Plus, many pitchers were simply not accustomed to players stealing third. I went ahead and did so right away, so we had the tying run in position right away. This would happen 2 more times. I got on base 2 times more by the 5th inning, stole second and/or third and waited there – for “Godot”. I never scored.

I remember being on second base after one of the steals glancing at Casey at shortstop who was smiling as if he had some hidden joke. It caught my eye.

“You’re stealin’ third, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Next pitch,” I smiled back. He laughed hard. I took off and made it. I looked back with a grin and he pointed at me. I think he swore, but I can’t be sure. (We met after the game and exchanged laughs and family introductions. Mike was a good guy.)

Meanwhile, both pitchers were excellent. While we hit their lefty hard, we could not group any hits together enough to even score a run until, finally, Greenwell hit a towering shot with a runner on second that bounced over the fence, 380 feet away. Alas, we had finally broken through and scored the tying run. But, with that blast, Wayne caused a pitching change, bringing the hard-throwing Ritter in who caused us no end of tribulation. He shut us down that inning – he shut me down for the rest of the game – and produced very little room for optimism. He was throwing aspirin tablets up there.

We continued on past the regulation distance of 7 innings with neither pitcher yielding anything whatsoever. Wayne was simply nasty, but so was Ritter. Each potential threat was usually disposed of with strike outs, in fact.

In the 17th, Casey hit this diabolical blooper between me and center-fielder Billy Wellman. We collided, grotesquely – the hardest “hit” I’d ever felt in baseball –  a total surprise –  and my worst collision ever. I had the ball in my glove but the collision jarred it loose and Casey ended up with a double. A sacrifice bunt on their part later which led to a bobble, then an uncharacteristically bad throw by Bobby Hupp, plated a run and they scored again on another error – we blinked first.  Speaking of my experience of tight games, these were games which we typically won. We had so often waited for another team to break. This time it was us. Jack;s comment after the game: “We usually win games like this, but this one was not in the cards.”

5 and a half hours after the first pitch, we departed the field darn near in tears.

We mounted a tiny rally in the bottom of the 17th with Tommy Jones getting a hit but Ritter did his work and struck the last 2 players out. Our deflation was total. It was an empty sensation, especially in view of what Greenwell had accomplished on a strictly individual basis.

In my lexicon of Impressive Baseball Accomplishments, I’m not sure anyone will ever top what Wayne did that game. He must have thrown 200 pitches, for one thing. But of primary interest is the fact that he struck out 27 batters in a State Championship ball game.

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Remarkably as well, he walked two batters – the same guy twice – Intentionally. No more.

(Actually, Owensboro has had a pitcher strike out more in one game, believe it or not, and it also came with Jack as head coach. Bobby Woodward once struck out 31 batters against Greenville in a massively ridiculous game where the opposing pitcher and a future Major Leaguer struck out 23 himself. It was a 14 inning game.)

The Shelby County game was the longest game – still – in Kentucky High School State Tournament History. The strikeout total is so overwhelmingly record-setting, there is no one close for second place. These days of 100 pitch limits so fashionable in the modern game, Wayne would have been gone in the 7th inning. I mean, 27 strikeouts is 81 pitches all alone!

The defeat was a bitter pill. Exhausted, Shelby County was beaten by Ashland in the Finals.

It’s somewhat ironic that the most iconic game I ever played in was a loss. The elements which took us so far over so many long years all played into the fact that we were there – vying for a State Championship at the highest levels – and with the amazing performance by Wayne Greenwell on a strictly individual basis which we now get to tell our grandkids about.

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