Few people in life are fortunate enough to catch the proverbial “lightning in a bottle”; to have that special time where everything seems to fall in place for them to be able to make an indelible mark on history and one that is recalled with ease decades later. McMurry University baseball head coach John Bynington is one of those lucky few.
For Byington – who played collegiate baseball at Texas A&M University from 1987-89 – 2014 is the 25th anniversary of what may well have been one of the most electrifying, and memorable, moments in Aggies’ history…if not in all of collegiate baseball. Before “Johnny Football” was even born there was, on April 16, 1989, “John Baseball” for A&M.
Byington, an all-American third baseman at Texas A&M, is best remembered by Aggie fans for his clutch hitting, especially in the 1989 season. That, Byington led A&M in total bases (163), runs batted in (89), doubles (20), triples (5) and batting average (.442). For his career, Byington still ranks among the Aggies’ all-time leaders in RBI (2nd/225), home runs (3rd/47), total bases (3rd/480), doubles (3rd/63), hits (4th/260), runs scored (4th/198) and batting average (3rd/.372).
In 1989, A&M ran up an overall record of 58-7, to this day the school standard for victories in a season, winning a share of the Southwest Conference championship and advancing to the NCAA regional championship game.
But nothing was as big in 1989 as that Sunday twinbill in April versus the nation’s No. 10-ranked team at the time – the University of Texas - when he hit a pair of walk-off homeruns (a grand slam in Game 1 and a three-run shot in Game 2), solidifying A&M’s claim to the SWC crown. A frenzied crowd at Olsen Field, and a national television audience on ESPN, bore witness to history that day. And, 25 years later, watching the replay still gives even the most casual of observers, goose bumps.
“Texas had had our number for a long time,” Byington explained. “Coach (Mark) Johnson, who was a very reserved coach and personality, gave us a very good pep talk that got us going in the right direction that day. Our whole offense did well; we were a good offensive team.
“The first home run was a little different because it was a tie ball game and one out (with bases loaded). I was really just trying to get a sacrifice fly. I wasn’t thinking ‘home run’, just ‘get the run in.’ Of course, I got enough of it – and the wind was blowing out – and it got out of the yard. A grand slam is more dramatic.
“The second game was a little lower scoring game and that was with two outs. I needed to get a base hit (to keep the game going). I sat on a slider. I really hit that one; I got all of it. The first one was great, but we were so focused on winning the series, we really didn’t celebrate until after the second game.”
Texas A&M honored that 1989 team this past season – its Silver Anniversary - with a weekend of special activities. Byington was given the honor of tossing out the first pitch on May 17 versus Ole Miss as a part of that recognition. To this day, Byington still has people bring up his late-game heroics from time-to-time.
“It’s amazing,” Byington reflected. “Especially this year, because of the 25th anniversary, it gets brought up, it gets brought up now and then still. Because I’m still in baseball that helps (remind people about it).”
After that famed 1989 season with the Aggies, the Milwaukee Brewers selected Byington in the third round of the Major League Baseball Draft, an organization where Byington spent six seasons. He reached the Triple-A level with the Brewers before closing out his professional career with the Texas Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate, the Oklahoma City 89ers, in 1995.
For his seven-year minor-league career, Byington hit .279 with 54 homers, 473 RBI and 177 doubles.
But for all the fanfare that is forever linked to Byington for his heroics that day for A&M, he feels his greatest contributions to the game are in the present: guiding and influencing the lives of young men as the mentor of McMurry’s baseball team.
Byington just completed his 16th season as a part of the McMurry baseball program, the last six as its head coach after 10 campaigns as an assistant under Lee Driggers. Byington’s McM teams have taken on the scrappy personality of their coach, playing what is, arguably, one of the toughest schedule of games year-in and year-out, and still finding success. The War Hawks finished as the National Christian College Athletic Association Central Region runner-up in 2014.
“Coaching is more important in the long term,” Byington said. “It was a blessing to have something like (the home runs) because it gives me a little bit of a platform that maybe someone else doesn’t have. But being able to help others, being able to transfer knowledge, skills, wisdom and insight to others – whether it’s baseball or just life lessons - is more lasting.”
Information for this story provided by McMurry Athletics.