Motivator. Inspirator. Innovator.
Ken Frank is certainly all of those. But, amid the swarm of family, friends and players, both past and present, that practically engulfed the field within the stadium that bears his name to share in his historic moment, it was abundantly clear that the revered Toms River South coach is most admired for being an educator.
So, it seemed only fitting that on a night that Frank surpassed the late Tony Ferrainolo of Memorial of West New York to become the state’s all-time leader in career wins with 755, he was the one learning just how much he has touched the lives of the gathering on hand to salute him.
“I guess it means more than I thought it did. It’s like a wedding out here,” Frank said, having stood in acceptance of congratulatory hugs and handshakes from a procession line of admirers following Toms River South’s 7-1 victory over Southern on Wednesday night in Toms River. “There’s a lot of alumni that played for me here. I wish I could spend time with every one of them. Without them, I wouldn’t be standing here. I can’t get over this.”
But that’s the thing. Sure, they returned to witness Frank, in his 35th season, run his ledger to 755-233. Yet, it was also their way to pay homage to a man whose distinct way of nurturing his players wasn’t just related to baseball but to what awaited when their playing days were past.
“He is a class act,” said Southern coach Tom Natoli, a 1995 South grad and right fielder on Frank’s 1994 Group 3 state championship squad. “The thing I remember most was he got the most out of me. He got the most out of every player that played for him. He’s always stressed (the importance of) family and what you learn on the field take with you when you leave and its life lessons I’ll never forget.”
Beyond the achievement, what makes Frank stand out is his devotion to tradition. The vintage uniforms that would have given any first-time observe of Toms River South reason to believe it was wearing throwbacks to mark the occasion have never varied from their original design, one reminiscent of the Cleveland Indians’ jerseys of the 1970s.
“The kids buy into it,” Frank said. “They still have the stirrups up when everyone is wearing them down below their shoes. We are a tradition team and they love being a part of it. They feel good about it.”
Players aren’t the only ones to be influenced by Frank’s line of thinking.
“The most I’ve learned from my brother was the psychological end of coaching baseball,” said his brother, Bill Frank, now in his 28th season at Toms River East, where he has fashioned a mark 484-250-2. “How do you get a kid motivated? How do you get them to give you 150% all the time?. That’s what coaching is all about. And teaching them life lessons on the field, so when they get out in the real world, they can handle life.”
The milestone was made possible by just the kind of gritty Toms River South performance that has long been its trademark. Pitcher John Leiter went the distance on a six-hitter that was accentuated by 12 strikeouts. Russ Messler snapped a 1-1 tie with an RBI single in the third and Andrew Hourigan extended the lead with a two-run homer to center in the fifth. And, all that came after Southern jumped out to a 1-0 lead in first, only adding to Frank’s anxiety.
“I was actually a little nervous,” Frank said “I felt like I just started coaching. I felt bad for the kids. I thought we were going to come out a little nervous and we did but they settled down. John Leiter pitched a heckuva a game. We was on a mission to do what he had to do. He’s part of history for winning this.”
Gregg Lerner covers baseball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner