By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON – A microphone on the blink hardly deterred Tony Kirkland, who didn’t want to stand behind a podium anyway and sure didn’t need a microphone to be heard.
Kirkland, often credited for building the baseball program at South Effingham High School, stood before thankful former players, fans, and local dignitaries last Saturday and gave thanks right back.
Thanks for his first head baseball coaching job.
Now, thanks for placing his name atop the baseball stadium’s press box.
South’s field of dreams will now be called Tony Kirkland Field.
“I’m a worker. I don’t know what else I’m good at but I’m a worker,” Kirkland said. “I was raised that way.”
Kirkland took over the Mustangs baseball program during the 2003-04 season and in six years won 138 games, three region titles and made four Final Four appearances at State.
He finished with 311 wins during his coaching career and was inducted into the Georgia Dugout Club’s Hall of Fame in 2018.
Kirkland now owns a baseball and softball training facility in Moultrie called Fundamental Factory.
South Effingham’s athletic director Justin Merritt coached with Kirkland and Mustang baseball coach Jesse Osborne played for Kirkland.
The tales about Kirkland’s tough love are endless.
But, said Merritt, Kirkland never let a downtrodden player leave the field without a hug.
“We’re here because of the impact Tony Kirkland had on the lives of everyone here,” Merritt said. “It’s said that the people around you are your blessing. Coach Kirkland is one of them.”
Former major leaguer and SEHS alum Josh Reddick called Kirkland one of his best friends for 20 years.
“I called him all the time if I needed his help baseball-wise and non-baseball-wise. He’s talked me through countless hitting lessons and countless therapy sessions,” said Reddick, who flew in from Houston to attend Saturday’s event.
Reddick recalled one of his first meetings with Kirkland.
“The first time he saw me play I was catching and playing first base and he came up to me, “You’re my right fielder,” Reddick recalled. “I told him, I don’t play the outfield.
“When Game One of the season came around, I was in right field. … I guess he knew what he was doing. It worked out for me.”
Reddick played 13 years in the Major Leagues as a right fielder and won a World Series ring with the Houston Astros in 2017. He retired in 2021 and now is a full-time dad to four-year-old twin boys.
Kirkland’s vision for Reddick paralleled the vision he had for South Effingham baseball.
Kirkland said he had looked into the Houston County baseball head coaching job before coming to Guyton. Then he looked at the grassy plot of land with pines lining the backdrop where South was proposing to build a stadium.
“I truly saw how beautiful this place was going to be,” said Kirkland, who manicured the field as if it was a golf course putting green.
It wasn’t long before the Mustangs had the best stadium in the Coastal Empire.
And they had a coach, who wouldn’t let a downtrodden player leave it without a hug.
“All of you who played for me, I love you,” Kirkland said.