Connie Mack managed in the American League for 50 years.
Alleghany High School baseball coach Gary Rice did Mr. Mack one better.
Rice finally hung up his spikes, fungo bat and Alleghany jersey No. 11 when he retired earlier this week after 51 years as a baseball coach, the last 36 with the Mountaineers.
For the first time since Alleghany County and Clifton Forge high schools merged into Alleghany High in 1983-84, the baseball team will have a new head coach next season.
“When you’re having fun, time just flies,” Rice said Thursday.
Rice, 74, authored a long list of accomplishments in the dugout:
- A total of 839 games coached.
- A career record of 565-269-5, good for No. 3 on the VHSL career victories list.
- A VHSL Group AA runner-up finish in 2008.
- Only five losing seasons in 40 years as a head coach.
- Induction into the Alleghany High School and Covington High School athletic halls of fame and the Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall of Fame.
All are just by-products of the way Rice ran his baseball programs for 36 seasons at Alleghany, two at Alleghany County and the first two at old Valley High School in Bath County in 1969 and 1970, according to longtime assistant Gary Burdette.
“Never compromised his principles,” said Burdette, who also is Alleghany’s head football coach. “You better be fundamentally sound if you think you’re going to have a shot to be in there. Over time, that really stands the test.”
Burdette played for Rice on Alleghany’s first post-consolidation team in 1984.
“It was an honor for me to work with him for the last 16 years,” Burdette said. “Coaching with him and playing for him, I learned so much about baseball and life.”
Rice graduated from Covington High School in 1963 and played baseball at Ferrum when it was a junior college.
He was the head baseball coach for two years at Valley before taking a job as an assistant at Bath County in 1971.
Rice served 10 seasons as an assistant at Alleghany County before taking over the program for two years starting in 1982.
When consolidation hit, he took over the Mountaineers’ program and kept the job for 3 1/2 decades.
Rice said he initially planned to step down after the 2018 season, which included a Three Rivers District championship in Alleghany’s first season after leaving the Blue Ridge District.
Instead Rice stuck around for one final season with the knowledge that the Mountaineers would have a young team in 2019.
With just one senior and three juniors on the squad, Alleghany finished 3-16, Rice’s third losing season in his last six years.
“I figured I would quit after 50 years, and I just [said], ‘Well, I’ll go one more year,’ ” Rice said. “I figured it probably wouldn’t be the thing to do to let somebody come in and get demoralized in the first year. We had a bunch of good kids, most of them should have still been playing JV.”
Alleghany will drop from VHSL Class 3 to Class 2 next season. Rice said the school has lost 40 percent of its original average enrollment, down now to 620 students.
“Things change,” he said. “You don’t have the jobs. You don’t have the people. You don’t have the kids in school.”
Rice said it has been more difficult to convince students in the school to try out for the baseball team.
“We’ve averaged about 31 kids coming out for varsity and JV baseball combined the last three or four years,” Rice said. “It used to be 60 to a hundred.
“This new generation of kids who like to sit inside and play video games and don’t get outside and do anything, we don’t have near the athletes that we used to have. It’s time for somebody new to come in and take over this new generation of athletes.”
Burdette said he might be interested in succeeding his colleague and former mentor.
“We’ll see,” Burdette said. “I’m definitely thinking about it for sure.
“That’s big shoes to fill. It won’t seem the same without No. 11 over there in the third [base] coaching box.”
Rice cited a few other favorite numbers related to his coaching career.
He coached five of his grandsons at Alleghany, where another member of the school’s coaching staff estimated “I had 2,200 practices and 375 bus trips which probably works out to 38,000 miles,” Rice said.
Alleghany did not qualify for a postseason tournament in 2019, which meant Alleghany’s May 17 home game against Floyd County was the last time Rice took the field.
His young team came through, as Noah Smith’s eighth-inning single drove home Jacob Clarke with the winning run in a 5-4 victory.
“We won our last game,” Rice said. “We actually played like we knew what we were doing.”