Josh Bailey’s baseball life took off in Angels Camp. Then, it was on to Stockton, Pikeville, Kent., and to San Andreas. And like a grand slam to win the game in the bottom of the ninth, Bailey is now rounding third and heading back home, as the 2012 Bret Harte High School graduate was recently named as the school’s new head baseball coach.
Bret Harte’s baseball field hasn’t been used since the season was shut down in March because of the COVID19 pandemic. The dirt infield now has weeds growing at a rapid rate and the grass appears to not have been mowed in a while. The diamond does not reflect many ideas of the perfect field of dreams.
But for Bailey, the unkempt field is a piece of land that brings back warm memories and hopefully future victories.
“Truth be told, a lot of my high school standout moments occurred on this field, or at least in the Mother Lode League on a baseball field,” Bailey said while looking at Bret Harte’s field through the chain link fence near the first-base dugout. “Any time I get to see grass and a cutout of a diamond, I think I’m at peace. It’s exciting that as I walked up (to the field), I could say that this is basically mine. I’ve distanced myself from my playing days. Now it’s about guiding these young men the best I can out here on this diamond.”
Bailey spent three of his four high school baseball years playing on that field. As a three-year varsity player, Bailey went from being a young sophomore playing with older athletes, to finishing his senior year as the Most Valuable Player of the Mother Lode League. In his three varsity seasons, Bailey posted a career batting average of .403 with a .498 on-base percentage.
During his MVP season, the southpaw batted .521 with 26 stolen bases, legged out seven triples and smacked two home runs. He also spent time on the mound, collecting 54 strikeouts in 29 innings pitched.
After graduating from Bret Harte, Bailey attended San Joaquin Delta College. Heading into his sophomore year, he suffered a torn labrum, which required season-ending surgery. Bailey redshirted his sophomore year and then transferred to University of Pikeville, where he played for three years and was a three-time, all-Mid-South Conference, first-team player.
Bailey spent some time playing in the Cape Cod Baseball League and even got a couple of looks from major league scouts. However, his baseball career was unable to reach the next level and he had to hang up his cleats for good. Bailey had a difficult time adjusting to life without baseball.
“Those that know me, know that in every moment and every opportunity, I see competition,” Bailey said. “There’s a winner and a loser in every moment. Once baseball ended, it took me a long time to find that energy and drive in other facets of my life. For a long time, it did hurt that I had to walk away from the game. You never feel like it’s over. There’s always the ‘what ifs’ in everybody’s mind. Once I started to root myself back here, I was able to refocus and rededicate myself and find those competitions within myself and with others that really put the baseball itch at ease.”
Bailey didn’t leave Kentucky empty handed. Not only did he have three years of baseball memories, he also had a degree in math from Pikeville and a master’s degree in teaching with an emphasis on single-subject math. Upon returning to Calaveras County, Bailey found himself in the classroom as an algebra teacher at Calaveras High School.
It didn’t take long for Bailey to learn that his Bullfrog pride must not be on display while at Calaveras.
“I learned really quickly from the front office as on my first week, I wore a purple colored shirt and I can’t really recall a day where I got more verbally hazed, outside of maybe wearing a (Bret Harte) letterman to school during dress up days,” said Bailey with a chuckle. “I learned quickly that the Bret Harte dreams and ideals died the second I walked onto that campus.”
Bailey’s teaching career began in October 2017. It was only a few months later that he found himself wearing a Calaveras uniform as a member of Calaveras’ baseball coaching staff. Although he was only a few years removed from playing, Bailey was right at home as a coach and felt that his time in the classroom made him ready for life as a coach.
“What helped was I had been teaching in the classroom for four months before I actually had to coach,” Bailey said. “I was helping out and opening up the weight room, and sure, there might have been some friendly competitions with me and some seniors at the time to see who could move more iron. By the time it was time to coach, I just naturally settled into the role. The athletes followed my lead and I took on the role of their leader and the one guiding them to hopefully success on the diamond. I’ve kind of blossomed into that role.”
Bailey remained at Calaveras as both a teacher and coach through the 2020 school year. But at the end of the year, Bailey heard of an opening for a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at Mark Twain Elementary School and he quickly applied for the job. After receiving the position, Bailey quickly shifted his focus to the Bullfrog baseball program, knowing full well that former head coach Mike Avecilla had recently stepped down.
“It was a perfect storm,” Bailey said. “I know that COVID-19 times have been really weird for job vacancies with money being allocated places. I applied for the Mark Twain job and I accepted it in late-May. Within two days, I reached out to Bret Harte’s principal, knowing there was a vacancy and I asked him about the situation on the matter. Within a week after that, there was a posting for the job.”
On Aug. 24, the job was officially his. While he was thrilled to be the head coach of the program he once played for, Bailey knew that this season will be unlike any other. With three sport seasons being condensed into two (beginning in December), Bailey will have to share players, and have a shorter season, if there’s even a season at all. And he’s taking over a program that only had a handful of games in 2020, so there won’t be a lot of experience returning to the diamond.
“I don’t think this year is going to be pretty by any means, as far as being ideal,” Bailey said. “I think that most of us who read the paper and watch the news know that we are rolling with the punches every day. We know that nothing right now is granted, and nothing is given to us without possible repercussions. I knew walking in that it wasn’t going to be as if I was taking over a Division I winning program. I saw it from the outside-in for three years. I know that COVID19 is going to shorten my season and limit the amount of athletes on the field, but I’m still going to invest every bit of blood, sweat and tears into this program. I think the student-athletes will follow and hopefully the community will follow, and we’ll make the most of the situation.”
The pressure on Bailey to produce a winning club might be a little more, given he was once a Bret Harte star, but he knows that the familiarity he has with the program is echoed by many in the community.
“What might help me in regards of being a Bret Harte Bullfrog again is there is familiarity with some of the faces that you see every day just walking around and coming to games,” Bailey said. “With familiarity, you build culture. With the people who I still see out here, they are people who want to see this culture change. It’s helpful to know there are people who will root for this program day-in and day-out, year-in and year-out.”
One thing that Bailey has going for him is his youthful excitement. However, there are some that might view that as a disadvantage. Aside from two-and-a-half years of coaching at Calaveras, he has never been a head coach in his life. The first-year coach knows he still has a lot to learn, which is something he relishes.
“I’ve always been a student of the game, and when it comes to coaching, I don’t think anyone should ever say they know everything about the sport because we are all still students of the game,” Bailey said. “But now as a coach, the role that I need to take on requires a little more responsibility. I wear the hat for a lot of kids now.”
Bailey is taking over a program that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2017 and has not won a league championship since 2009. He knows that a turnaround won’t come overnight, but Bailey is ready for the challenge of bringing the Bullfrogs back to greatness.
“When I think about Bret Harte baseball – as somebody who once played for Bret Harte – I think I was on the backend of a golden era,” Bailey said. “Bret Harte had five or six consecutive playoff years and I think they might have had one or two since 2012. I don’t know if next year is going to be the year where I can say we went back to the playoffs, but I hope I can give my kids an opportunity to at least play some competitive games at the end of the year where they know they have a shot or a chance. I want to know that I’m giving them an opportunity to fight for something at the end of the year. If I can’t give them that, I think it’ll be a letdown on my end in regards to my expectations for myself and for the team.”