Last Saturday’s 22nd annual Friends of Baseball Breakfast of Champions at the Island Grove Events Center in Greeley, Colo., turned out to be a reunion for three Napa High School graduates and their coach.
Warren Brusstar traveled from California. Bill Buckner came in from Idaho. Jim Buckner made it from Arizona.
They were there as the guests of Clarence Tye, their baseball coach at Napa High, who helped organize the festivities that featured a speaking appearance by former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, a Hall of Famer. It also served as a fund-raiser for Greeley/Evans Youth League Baseball, area high school baseball teams and the University of Northern Colorado baseball team.
They were also there to talk baseball, to tell stories and share their experiences in the game, and to sign autographs.
Most importantly, they were there to thank Tye for all he has done to shape their lives and to offer their support as he fights a battle with cancer of the bile duct.
“It was one of the highlights of my life, to have all three of them here, to stay at the house overnight and visit and renew friendships,” Tye said from his home in Gill, Colo., a small, unincorporated town in Weld County that sits at 4,682-foot elevation. “It was fantastic that way.
“It was an absolutely fabulous morning. Tommy Lasorda was in rare form — he had those people on the edge of their seats.”
Tye also coached American Legion baseball, and had the three players on his teams.
“They were talented and gifted,” said Tye, 79. “But the thing I am most proud of is not their baseball accomplishments, but what kind of outstanding human beings all three of them are today.”
Bill Buckner played 21 years in the major leagues as a first baseman/outfielder/designated hitter and is a former National League batting champion who had a .289 lifetime batting average that included 498 doubles, 174 home runs and 1,208 RBIs. He was also a featured speaker.
Brusstar was primarily a middle relief pitcher during a nine-year big league career. Jim Buckner spent 10 years in the minor leagues, advancing as high as Triple-A.
“The most fun I had was just sitting there with Clarence and listening to Bill Buckner talk about Clarence and Tommy Lasorda,” said Brusstar, Napa Valley College’s pitching coach. “Those two people had the biggest influence in his career.”
Tye, who founded the Vintage High baseball program and served as the Crushers’ coach from 1973 to 1984, worked with Northern Colorado coach Kevin Smallcomb to organize the weekend program. Similar to a hot stove event, it drew 1,400 fans and included a raffle and auction.
Tye, Napa’s coach from 1967 to 1972, and Smallcomb get together for lunch every month or so. It was Smallcomb who reached out, asking for help with this year’s event.
“He said, ‘Coach, we need you involved in this,’ ” said Tye. “That’s how it started. It was through him, grabbing me by the arm and saying, ‘Let’s go. We need your help.’ I’m just a citizen who tries to help out in any way they can. That’s my role.
“I support his programs as much as I possibly can, because he is doing a great job.”
After a 27-year teaching and coaching career, Tye retired from the Napa Valley Unified School District in 1986 and began a new life in Colorado. He grows alfalfa on an 80-acre spread, located about 13 miles northeast of Greeley. He has also been involved with cutting horses as a trainer, having worked with Phil Rapp, one of the world’s all-time best riders, at a young age.
“Phil is one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever been around,” said Tye.
Tye was one of the most successful coaches in the Napa Valley. He coached Vintage to five straight Monticello Empire League championships (1980-84) and six league titles over a seven-year stretch until his resignation following the ’84 season. He led the Vintage program for 12 years.
“It was a lot of fun, I enjoyed it,” he said of his years at Vintage. “My heart was in it.”
He won 272 games while coaching at Napa Valley College, Napa High and Vintage. The Crushers owned the best record in the MEL through the first eight years of the league (66-30). They tied for the league title and took second in the Southern Division of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Class AAA playoffs, going 20-8 in Tye’s last year with the Crushers.
In an interview with the Napa Valley Register in 1986, Tye said: “My basic philosophy was that we pull together as a unit, everybody makes a contribution, even the bench.”
Fourteen of his players whom he coached in high school or in junior college signed professional baseball contracts.
“He laid the foundation for us as far as baseball is concerned,” said Brusstar. “It’s where we got our start in baseball. He gave me the opportunity to develop my senior year. I learned the little intricacies and nuances of the game.”
Through his support and involvement with the Friends of Baseball, Tye is giving back to the game that provided him with so many great friendships and memories.
“It’s a grand game as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “We support it every chance we get. That’s one of the things that people can do — take a look at the youth and do whatever they can to promote them through their life, to try to keep them involved.”
Brusstar couldn’t get over the spectacular beauty of the area at Tye’s home. From Tye’s living room and kitchen, there are views of both mountain ranges and flat lands, he said.
Tye receives chemotherapy treatments in Denver. He said he’s fighting his illness with attitude, positive thinking, and prayer.
“I feel fine,” he said in a telephone interview early Monday. “I’m getting around fine. I think that involvement like this is part of my therapy. I think it helps. It helps fight the illness.”