There’s no doubt that John Sawyer’s accomplishments as a baseball coach are more than enough to be considered worthy of any Hall of Fame.
His 513 wins — tied for 24th all-time among all Georgia high school coaches — over 36 years at South Gwinnett, as well as his involvement in the Dixie Youth Baseball and USA Baseball and Junior Olympics programs have already gotten him inducted into the Georgia Dugout Club’s and Gwinnett Dugout Club’s Halls of Fame, and earned the respect throughout Georgia’s baseball community.
But if there’s one thing that many people who have come in contact with the legendary coach will agree with, it’s that his impending induction into the Gwinnett County Sports Hall of Fame will highlight much more than just his accomplishments in the game.
“In my induction speech that I (filmed) for the event, I mentioned three men that have totally impacted my life in a positive way — Jesus Christ, my dad and John B. Sawyer,” said Roger Parham, a former player and assistant coach for Sawyer and South, who also went on to a long baseball coaching career at several different schools, including serving as Sawyer’s successor at South for seven seasons after his retirement. “I graduated from high school when I was 17, so when I was 13 years old, I was a freshman and my dad brought me up (to South Gwinnett’s field) and said, ‘Here’s my son Roger Parham. Just let me know what you need me to do.’ My dad was a plumber, but he was (also) (South’s) booster club president for a while and helped him do stuff (working) on the field.
“Coach (Sawyer) would coach me in the summer and Miss Marjorie, his wife, they’re just outstanding people. He’s just been a huge influence, and not just on me. There have been thousands of kids he’s impacted over the years. I’ve always really felt like — you know what one of the things that really made him so classy? When there was a new coach that was just getting into the profession (at South Gwinnett), Coach Sawyer would go over and sit in the dugout and immediately treated them as an equal, even though he was this 500- or 600-win coach and a coach for USA Baseball and all these things.”
Parham, who currently lives on the opposite bank of a tributary of Lake Oconee from Sawyer, is just one of several of his former players who have formed a lifelong bond with him and are not shy about saying so.
What many of them have expressed to Sawyer and his wife Marjorie most is how much they learned from him that go far beyond baseball.
“They will come around here a lot, the ones that live in the area or even in Snellville,” Marjorie Sawyer said. “They’ll tell him how much they love him and appreciate him.
“He was always good at knowing who had talents to do what, and not necessarily on the ball field, but to help the program and get the parents involved. And he had so many firsts as far as baseball goes in Gwinnett County.”
One of the biggest lessons Sawyer taught his players has to do with values, and more specifically, to be true to one’s values.
It’s a quality that he would often lead by example on, whether it was one of the many legendary arguments with umpires, or a less confrontational, but memorable, discussion he had with Thomas Briscoe, then in his second term as Mayor of Snellville in the early 1970s.
“I remember Mayor Briscoe getting on to me one time when we had a water shortage,” Sawyer recalled. “I was watering the grass (at South’s baseball field) one morning and he said, ‘Do you know what the situation is?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m just going to water this grass in the infield.’ He walked off and he came back and said, ‘I like you. You stand up for what you believe in, and I like that. From then on, we became good friends.”
If there is one example of staying true to one’s values that stands out to Parham, it comes from a piece of advice he got from Sawyer when he first got into coaching.
It was a message that Parham said puts baseball, and all high school sports, in perspective.
“He always said — and this really carried me through my coaching career — he said, ‘These are high school kids.’ And he said, ‘If they don’t have time to go to church, go fishing and play ball, they’re doing one of those things too much.’ I’ve always thought about that when I’ve set practices,” Parham recalled. “They’re still kids, and not every one of them is going to go on and play at the next level. This is the highest level (many of them) will ever play at. They need to make sure and enjoy it. Baseball is a game, and that’s what he used to say. ‘Baseball’s a game, and if you’re not having fun, you’re not playing baseball.’”
After many years of fun in baseball, Sawyer is looking forward to another fun evening at the induction ceremony Wednesday at Sonesta Gwinnett Place in Duluth.
While he may enjoy hearing all of his baseball accomplishments recited and hearing good things said about him, there’s one thing he said he’s looking forward to most.
“It means a lot to me. I can’t tell you how much it means to me,” Sawyer said. “I’m looking forward to talking to a lot of folks I used to coach. Some of them I haven’t seen since the day they graduated.”