BYU baseball coach Gary Pullins is poised on the dugout steps looking like a Rockwell painting: lean and tan, with just a few spider lines around the eyes, etched by years of squinting against the summer sun. His pitcher is down on the count. "Throw 'em old Uncle Charlie," Pullins calls, in a vague baseball reference to a curveball. Of course, Pullins has no intention of announcing the next pitch; the admonition is merely for effect. The pitcher throws a high fastball. "Way to challenge him!" Pullins shouts.
Despite falling behind early, the Cougars mount a rally in the late innings. They're down by a run with two men in scoring position. Pullins is back on the dugout steps. The pitcher draws into the stretch. "Let's go, True Blue Cougs!" Pullins calls.Does he really say those things? Uncle Charlie? True Blue Cougs?
With all the feeling of his true blue heart.
If Steve Garvey could wake up tomorrow morning and all his image problems were gone, he'd look in the mirror and see Gary Pullins. When Roger Angell wrote The Summer Game, he must have been thinking of Pullins. When Lou Gehrig said he was "the luckiest man alive," he was saying what Gary Pullins thinks. When Roger Kahn wrote of the Boys of Summer, he was writing of boys like Gary Pullins.
Kathy Pullins, Gary's bride for nearly 18 years, is the first to admit Pullins came on a little strong with the gee-whiz baseball routine. She met him when she was an 18-year-old BYU freshman cheerleader and he was a 27-year-old assistant coach and graduate student who had broken his leg in a flag football game the day before.
"At first I thought, `Is this guy for real?"' says Kathy. "In fact, I thought that for the entire first year of our marriage. There were no lapses in his enthusiasm. I thought, `This man enjoys playing this boys game and it looks like he is literally going to make his living at it."'
And so he did. His first year as head coach the Cougars went 35-17. The next year it was 37-15. In 12 years at BYU Pullins has compiled a 508-230-12 record and never had a losing season. The Cougars have been to six NCAA regional playoffs and won five WAC championships. Pullins ranks in the top 25 active baseball coaches (.685) and has been named regional coach of the year four times. This year's team is 34-12 and has been ranked in the Top 20 and stands a good chance of returning to the NCAA playoffs.
What struck Kathy most was Pullins' undying belief in baseball. To him the tired lines have life and application. When Pullins yells, "Put some mustard on the next pitch," he means it. He wants a thunderbolt from heaven. And when he says, `You gotta love this game,' he means wind sprints in the heat and running out infield dribblers and diving for foul balls.
"Gary always believed that if you gave something to baseball it would give you something back," says Tuckett.
Sometimes his Frank Merriwell act doesn't play well with everyone. To today's video-generation players, he can come on like a hot rash. "I try to forget those things he used to yell," says one former player.
The 1983 BYU team that went 54-11 and had four future major leaguers - Cory Snyder, Scott Nielsen, Rick Aguilera and Wally Joyner - seemed to be driven by quiet fires. The players listened to Pullins, but didn't get involved in the rhetoric. "Sometimes you just had to chuckle at him, but that was Gary Pullins," says Nielsen, who went on to pitch for the New York Yankees. "He talked about the big Cougar in the sky being happy when we won. He talked about bleeding Dodger Blue and Cougar Blue. But it was a good personality to have in that position when you have got younger kids. He's probably the best cheerleader they have there."
Because Pullins is enthusiastic doesn't mean he can't get angry. He lambasted last year's team for not being ready to play every game. He benched one player for not running out an infield hit, then suspended him for talking back. "No question with Gary, if you wear the Cougar blue, you go by the standards he requires. And what Gary requires, he takes very seriously," says Nielsen. "A few things are in black and white, they're non-negotiable. If you tamper with those issues, he'll let you know."
Other times, Pullins is as carefree as a teen-ager. One year at Fort Collins, Colo., a wet snow fell the night before a game. During batting practice the next day he yanked off his uniform top and half-sleeves and pitched bare-chested, to demonstrate that the weather was nothing to worry about. He wore a Cougar blue cowboy hat on road trips until players protested so loudly that he quit. And ever the country and western fan, he once took a guitar on the road so he could torture his players with a medley of Willie Nelson songs. BYU lost five of six games on the swing, so he never brought the guitar again.
The Pullins home reflects his passion for country life. He has a room they call the "John Wayne Room," filled with rustic ranch articles and, naturally, numerous photos and posters of The Duke. "He's a drugstore cowboy," says Kathy.
Pullins developed another love during his youth in Arizona besides baseball and country music: a love of pickup trucks. He drove a 1936 orange International to practices until he switched to a '65 Chevy he called the "White Knight." Working on cars and trucks is his most cherished hobby.
Even his family seems to take Pullins with a grain of salt. He occasionally rails on his teenagers for listening to "Communist music." Kathy has to share Gary's attention with an old Porsche 912 he is rebuilding. "Sometimes I give him a hard time and say, `Hey, Gary, we're here, too,"' she says.
But baseball, she says, is really no sacrifice for anyone in the family. She learned early in their marriage how to keep a scorebook. She understands the game well enough to insist on Gary telling her the coaching signals so she can spot them ahead of time.
And when spring nears, they know what to expect. The coach starts looking longingly at the baseball field ("He calls it his yard," says Kathy) for signs of grass. He sings baseball songs. He asks his sons if they want to play catch. "It happens every year," she says. "No one else is thinking about baseball, but come January when they have their first scheduled practice, the man is skipping out the front door. I say, `Gary, you're not supposed to enjoy your job so much. But he loves it - he really still loves it. He doesn't have to gear up for it or psyche up. He even coaches our 14-year-old in little league. He loves the game. What can I say?"