Sawyer, John (2016)
“Baseball has created many wonderful opportunities for me and it has been a great part of my life. There have been so many individuals who have helped me grow and learn through my journey of life and baseball. I was blessed to have had so many great coaches, teammates, and players during my career. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who made this unbelievable honor possible.”
“Well if you followed baseball in the 80’s and 90’s, you knew where Narraguagus was. In short order, with John Sawyer at the helm, Narraguagus High School Baseball was on the map. Games were where we were able to utilize our skills. I can remember the confidence Coach Sawyer had given us. We were taught to own our mistakes and to pick each other up when they were made.”
Having lunch in a restaurant in the Columbia / Columbia Falls area with John Sawyer is a lot like having lunch with LeBron James in downtown Cleveland; you are dining with a celebrity. Everyone stops by your table to say hello and that. They are all warm and friendly. It is a good bet that John is ahead of The King on that score. It does not take long to see the degrees of respect and affection John is held in Downeast, and both are well deserved given his record as a coach, teacher, athletic administrator, elementary principal, and high school principal. So, how did a young man from Belgrade, Maine, end up a fixture among the lobster traps on that beautiful piece of the Maine coast? Well, read on.
Life for John began on November 27, 1954 in Augusta. His parents, the late Oral Sawyer and Katherine Bradley, supported his athletic endeavors from a young age. John shared the house and his parents’ attention with three siblings, two sisters and a brother. All were older than he.
A retired Maine wildlife biologist named Ron Joseph, who was a childhood friend and teammate of John’s at Messalonskee High School, painted a detailed picture of young John when he wrote an online piece entitled, “Maine high school baseball in the sixties; it was a different time,” in April of 2014. Those of us “of a certain age” will find plenty to smile and reminisce about while reading the piece including the absence of dugouts and batting cages, the presence of a badly shedding moose ensconced in left field at game time, and an ill fated ring-billed gull which fell victim to a vicious line drive off the bat of Tommy Bragg.
Mr. Joseph saved some of his best descriptive work for a certain pitcher. “ Our best pitcher was a boisterous character named Johnny Sawyer, a 5 foot 10 inch Belgrade farm kid who weighed a mere 120 pounds. Johnny’s rangy physique belied his baseball skills. He was a crafty left hander who froze overconfident hitters with a deadly accurate slider and a slow, Major League curveball.” Well, you can see the makings of the rest of the story. Joseph points out that there was much more to the whole package, “A consummate teammate, Sawyer kept players loose with colorful homespun metaphors. From the on-deck circle, Johnny often called timeout to offer advice during a teammate’s at bat. ‘Work a walk’, he’d say in a downeast accent, ‘Their pitcher can’t hit the broadside of a barn with a pitchfork.’ During a tense playoff game, as I approached the batter’s box, Johnny walked along side with words of encouragement. ‘Take him deep and make him weep.” Mr. Joseph also points out that John was quick to temper wild enthusiasm with insightful logic. A farmer might say the seed was in the ground and growing well. And the seed did prosper. At Messalonskee, John was a four -sport athlete participating in football, cross country, basketball, and baseball, the latter two for four years each. It was in baseball he made his mark. Messalonskee won the Mountain Valley Conference title three consecutive years during his stay. In 1972 he was named Best Pitcher on the squad. The following year he was named Co-Best Pitcher and Best Hitter. His 1972-73 overall record was 14-2 with 191 strikeouts and 39 walks in 109 innings. His ERA was 0.39. As a co-captain he also hit .410 (23 hits in 56 at bats) had 15 stolen bases, 14 RBIs. The 1973 team won a state championship against Orono 2-1 in ten innings. He also threw a no- hitter against Leavitt that season and defeated Telstar in a game in which he struck out seventeen and walked one. No wonder the Waterville Elks Lodge named him Messalonskee Athlete of the Year that year.
Then it was on to the University of Maine where from 1974 to 1977 he played for three hall of fame coaches: Jack Butterfield, John Winkin, and Stump Merrill. You could say he picked up a few things there. In 1974 UMaine was Yankee Conference Champions, likewise in 1975 and runner up in the Northeast Regional. In 1976 the Black Bears won the new England Championship, the Northeast Regional, and placed fourth in the College World Series. John’s complete game versus Seton Hall decided the regional and sent the Bears on to Omaha. He pitched the opener in the Series, losing 3-2 in spite of surrendering only five hits. John also played in the Portland Twilight League (outstanding pitcher in 1975), for the Farmington Flyers, the Machias Bruins in the Quoddy League, and for the Woodstock Shiretowners in New Brunswick where he was Outstanding Pitcher and League MVP with a record of 11-1.
In 1979, John married Pamela (Rankin), his wife of 37 years. They are the proud parents of Douglas, age 33, who lives in Belgrade with wife Chelsea and daughter Evelyn; and Allison who lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband Roel Verhaak and twin sons Benjamin and Olivier.
In January of 1978, he also began his teaching career and subsequently his coaching career at Narraguagus. And coach he did. His career from 1983 to 1995 record is 167-46. His teams won Downeast Athletic Conference titles in 84, 85, 86, 87, 89, 91, 94 and 95. The Knights won a State Championship in 1986 defeating Oak Hill. They were Eastern Maine Runners Up in 1985 and 1989. In 1995, they won another Eastern Maine Championship. Like Mr. Joseph who spoke to us earlier, John’s players had some things to say. Dan Curtis, Baseball Coach at Ellsworth High School - “Well if you followed baseball in the 80’s and 90’s, you knew where Narraguagus was. In short order, with John Sawyer at the helm, Narraguagus High School Baseball was on the map. Games were where we were able to utilize our skills. I can remember the confidence Coach Sawyer had given us. We were taught to own our mistakes and to pick each other up when they were made.” Todd Emerson - “We have always held that we were not the best athletes, but rather Coach Sawyer had done such a great job of teaching us the game and building a cohesive unit that we were able to overcome that...” Jeremy Ray, Superintendent of Schools, Biddeford – “These lessons in coaching, leadership, and life have continued to be valuable to this very day.”