JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A talented team that dominated the opposition, familiar teammates and large, raucous home crowds that averaged close to 4,000 made for a summer four Johnson City Doughboys players with local ties won’t soon forget.
“This team was special,” catcher Caleb Berry, who plays at Milligan University, said in the Doughboys clubhouse less than 24 hours after the team’s 4-1 win over the Burlington Sock Puppets in the Appalachian League championship.
“I felt like every night that we came to the park, if we wanted to win, we would win.”
Berry, who attended high school in Knoxville, sat with first baseman Braden Spano, left fielder Colby Backus and center fielder Caleb Marmo. All agreed that even with the team’s talent — they had a plus 94 run differential in a 36-10 season — a consistently electric atmosphere at TVA Credit Union Ballpark added an extra boost.
“Coming to the sold out crowds every single night makes you want to get up and play, and you never have an excuse not to be excited,” said Spano, a Milligan teammate of Berry’s who played high school ball in Greeneville. “You’re always pumped up to be out there, you’re always ready to play. It’s awesome playing in front of these (fans).”
Backus said the stadium atmosphere was “unlike any other experience I’ve ever had, especially in summer ball … I feel like you don’t normally get crowds like that where every night it’s a sold-out crowd or the fans are going crazy every night. It’s made the summer an awesome experience.”
Marmo, who played at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, called it “nostalgic.”
“It’s exciting seeing familiar faces coming out to support us and all that so can’t really ask for anything more,” he said.
Big contributors, friends since childhood
While his relationship with Berry is just a year old, coming after Berry’s transfer from Lincoln Memorial, Spano’s ties with Marmo and Backus stretch back to elementary and middle school at Providence Academy.
Backus wound up attending Daniel Boone, where he and Marmo met on the diamond numerous times.
“It was always fun and competitive,” said Backus, who went straight to Walters State Community College as a freshman.
After a year at Wake Forest, Marmo transferred to Walters State, where he and Backus helped lead the team deep into the 2022 Junior College World Series.
“Getting to play with an outfielder of that caliber, it was great,” Backus said of the speedy center fielder.
The local trio and Berry were huge contributors to the Doughboys’ regular season success. They accounted for 11 of the team’s 29 home runs, with Appy League’s June Player of the Month Backus hitting eight.
The four supplied more than a third of the team’s RBIs, stolen bases and runs as well, knocking in 88 runs between them, scoring 101 and stealing 37 bases.
“It was one of the craziest teams I’ve ever been a part of,” Spano said. “Talented beyond belief. Every single person one through nine, every single pitcher had an opportunity to do something special every single night.”
That included the championship game against a Sock Puppets team that had won the East Division with a 29-19 record and handed the Doughboys two of their three home losses in a campaign that saw them go 21-3 in front of those large crowds.
While Spano managed only a walk, Berry and Backus each went three for four, with Backus hitting two doubles and Berry one. Marmo had a sacrifice fly to score the team’s first run, which was set up by Backus’s one-out double that sent Danny Infante to third in the bottom of the second.
“I wanted to elevate something to at least give the guy on third a chance to tag,” Marmo said. “That’s what I did and just stuck with the approach up the middle and it worked out.”
Backus and Berry would both score in the 4-1 win, and Berry also had an RBI. Backus and Berry each added a stolen base.
4,000 people on a random Tuesday
While the players all agreed that talent and chemistry carried the team a long way, 36-10 is a remarkable record. They credited the Doughboys’ program and the crowds it drew for helping get them over the hump some nights.
Catching is hard on the body, and Berry did a lot of it.
“You get in those dog days and you’re tired, your body hurts and you don’t want to go out there as much,” he said.
“But when you walk out of the clubhouse and you see that you already have 2,000 people in the stands and it’s 30 minutes til game time, it’s so much easier to go out there and give your best.”
Berry certainly wasn’t expecting consistently large crowds, having talked to Spano about the wood bat league’s first season of 2022.
“It was like every night,” he said. “You know, it’s dollar days on a Tuesday, you don’t expect anybody to really like show up to a baseball game on a random Tuesday, but we would have 4,000 people out there. So it was crazy.”
“Having a loud crowd and them yelling and screaming, the other teams I think get a little bit intimidated,” Spano said. “And it gives you the upper hand because you play in front of it every night.”
Marmo lauded what he called the culture that general manager Patrick Ennis has built.
“It just kind of brings people together and it’s really good for the community.”
Berry said the home advantage probably made the difference in at least a few games.
“It just gives you that extra like boost of confidence that you need to get over whatever hump you’re going through,” he said. “If you’re going through a slump and you have 5,000 people cheering you on and you’re in a big spot, it’s so much easier to do well. You just trust yourself in that moment.”
Future plans? Baseball for as long as possible
All four teammates said they hope to continue playing baseball beyond college.
Spano is hoping to eke out an additional year of eligibility after what will be his senior campaign next spring, and after that, he hopes to get picked up and play some independent league baseball.
“The Appy League really helped me prove to myself that it’s very possible and it’s very realistic,” said Spano, who hit .347 and was third on the team with 28 RBIs.
Berry, who hit .328 and was second on the team with 16 steals, agreed, saying the league “gave me a glimpse of what I could possibly do … I hope that I play until somebody tells me I’m not able to.”
Marmo also hopes to play pro ball somewhere, and is getting a degree in finance with plans of owning his own business someday.
Backus is the most visible prospect currently. He transferred from Walters State to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville last year but had to sit out with a broken hand as the Vols made it to the College World Series.
He recovered to hit eight homers and drive in 37 runs for the Doughboys while hitting .281 and stealing 10 bases.
He’s got at least two years of eligibility left and hopes to contribute to a Volunteer squad that’s made it to two of the last three College World Series.
“I’m hoping that leads to pro ball and just take baseball as far as I can,” Backus said. “Like Berry, I want to have to be told and I think I will have to be told that I can’t play baseball anymore. I don’t think it will be a choice that I just stop on my own.”
Once he does, Backus, a kinesiology major, hopes to attend medical school. Spano is interested in sales in the orthopedic device market after doing an internship with Stryker.
As for Berry, he wouldn’t mind being around baseball even when his playing days are over. He’s a business major and is interested in both coaching/managing and facilities.
“There’s good money around facilities and so baseball is definitely an option for the future,” Berry said, adding that he learned a great deal both from field manager Kevin Mahoney and GM Ennis.
Regardless of how much longer their playing days last, though, the four know they may never experience another season quite like the just-concluded one – certainly not one in which a beloved dog would bring their bats back to the dugout.