NEW PORT RICHEY — On the empty nights when there were no games, Larry Beets would go back to his field. He’d sit alone in the bleachers and gaze at the stadium he built, brick by brick, thinking about the program he built, boy by boy.
Beets hadn’t been around here much lately, but the former Ridgewood, Hudson and Gulf head baseball coach returned to the Rams’ field Friday night to watch his jersey be retired at the stadium that bears his name.
“It’s been a special place,” Beets said.
Beets had mostly stayed away from the school where he spent 28 years and won 565 games since the Deferred Retirement Option Program caught up with him in May. He sneaked into the stadium occasionally, but he didn’t go to games to avoid being a distraction.
He said he missed the people and the memories, and he stays busy throwing batting practice as a volunteer assistant at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
“You don’t just turn it off,” Beets said.
Beets was back Friday night before Ridgewood’s senior night game against Zephyrhills, with a Rams cap on his head and a glove on his hand. When an announcer called his name for the pregame ceremony, he trotted out of the dugout and, as he always preached, hit the top step running.
Beets got a plaque, a gift bag and hugs and handshakes from current players. Then they all looked to the outfield, past the seven images on the outfield wall for professional players he has coached, past the scoreboard with the sign that reads 2002 Class 4A finalists. A blue curtain fell, and his No. 14 looked onto Beets Field.
Moments later, the 61-year-old took a baseball and fired a first-pitch strike to current coach Julius Matos.
“I was actually nervous,” Beets said. “I’m just hoping I didn’t bounce it.”
Beets walked off the field, out of the dugout and held court along the fence he helped build years ago. He shared stories with former players — including three men from the Gulf team he coached almost 40 years ago.
“When Lincoln was president,” one of them joked.
He posed for pictures and pointed out the lefty who beat an unbeaten Dunedin team ranked No. 2 nationally. One family introduced him to their dog. Another showed him his wife’s baby bump.
Inside the fence, balls pinged into the outfield and dirt flew under cleats. Outside, Beets talked with player after player and occasionally took a peek at the action.
“I’d do it all over again,” Beets said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”