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Innerviews: Former pitcher scoring on business mound

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Like many kids, he dreamed of playing professional baseball. He got as far as the minor leagues for the Texas Rangers. Everybody knows the odds of making it to the big leagues aren't good.

The likelihood of a boy from Mission Hollow making it in the business world isn't good either. But he's hitting this ball out of the park.

At 53, building on post-baseball experience in hospital promotion, Jeff Barnes runs a growing Teays Valley marketing firm, The Barnes Agency. Impressive clients include Marshall University and The Greenbrier.

Like his burly cousin, Olympic gold-medalist Randy Barnes, he's a bearish bulk of a man. A soft heart beats behind that imposing frame.

He chokes up when he mentions his mentor, the late UC baseball coach Tom Nozica.

Tears glisten when he talks about his son and the dire diagnosis that benched his dream of a future in sports. Despite worrisome odds, a delicate eight-hour operation has restored him.

Beating those odds felt like winning a World Series.

 

"I was raised up Mission Hollow, what they now call South Park Road. It's behind the old Watt Powell Park in Kanawha City.

"They say what makes a person is determined in many ways by experiences they have early in life. I had a wonderful childhood. Mission Hollow was a special place. Everybody left their doors open. We had a playground where all the kids congregated. Neighbors did things together.

"People didn't have a lot. My parents wanted something better for me. They focused all their efforts on making sure I had every opportunity to be successful. They moved out of Mission Hollow when I was about 7.

"I picked up new friends, but it was difficult to let go of my old friends. That has carried me throughout life, the diversity of my friends.

"My father taught me to play baseball. My first venture into baseball was in a T-ball league. My mother tells how I slept with my glove under my head and a baseball in my hand.

"My dream when I was 7 was to play professional ball. Everything I did was toward that goal. I played at Charleston High, but I would not consider myself a great baseball player there. After my senior year, Tom Nozica, a coach at what was then Morris Harvey College, saw something in me and gave me an opportunity.

"It was still Morris Harvey the year I started. The next year, it became the University of Charleston.

"I was a pitcher. Tom Nozica never gave pitchers an opportunity to play a position, but he played me on first base. I was drafted by Texas as a pitcher, but I was ranked in the top 10 nationally in home runs, batting average and RBIs.

"When I was notified that I'd been drafted, my first question was, 'As what?' I didn't know if I was going to be drafted as a pitcher or power-hitting first baseman.

"I am forever grateful to Tom Nozica for the opportunity he gave me to live my dream. I was inducted into their Sports Hall of Fame in 2005, the first baseball player. If Tom had not afforded me the chance to play college baseball, I would never have had a chance to play professionally.

"We lost Tom last year. The family asked me to perform his eulogy at Appalachian Power Park. That was a tremendous honor.

"I knew getting drafted didn't guarantee you a ticket to play professional baseball. It's a long climb to make it all the way through the farm system to the major leagues.

"I lasted with the Rangers until 1985 when they drafted nine pitchers. To accommodate those bonuses, they had to let go of personnel. I had the opportunity to experience something I had dreamed of all my life, so I have no regrets.

"At first, it was very painful. I moved back home with my parents, and I was lost. I had no idea what to do with my life. I thought I would be playing major league baseball one day.

"My parents allowed me to sulk and pout and mourn, and then my dad walked in one day and said, 'Enough. Your life is far from over. It's time to suck it up and move on.'

"My father was in health-care finance, so he helped me get on with a health-care organization in administration. My degree was in finance with a minor in marketing. My new dream was to be a hospital administrator, but it didn't take long to figure out that working in operations wasn't the best fit for me.

"I started focusing on marketing and public relations. I worked for three large regional health systems. In 1996, I got a phone call from Tom Jones, president and CEO of St. Mary's Hospital. I was hired as their vice president of marketing. We had a wonderful team and won a lot of awards.

"After they formed the Genesis Hospital System, an affiliation involving St. Mary's, Cabell-Huntington and Pleasant Valley hospitals, they appointed me vice president to oversee marketing and advertising. After a year or two, I sensed the system wasn't going to work. Each hospital had an identity they wanted to preserve.

"So I went to work for the Holzer Health System in Gallipolis. My son was starting kindergarten. I was commuting from Teays Valley to Gallipolis. People had encouraged me for years to start my own firm.

"I asked the Holzer people if I could do everything I already do for them under a contract instead of being vice president, an employee. They approved a three-year arrangement, which allowed me to springboard the start of my agency.

"I probably would not have had the courage to start the Barnes Agency without a client in my pocket. Holzer was the first quarter in the jar. That was 2003.

"I thought I would be immediately successful. It's not that easy. The process of becoming successful in advertising and marketing takes time.

"The best decision I made was six years ago in a random business development call to a lady named Susan Miller, vice president of marketing for Fifth Third Bank. When I met her during that call, I forgot about trying to get their business. All I wanted to do was see if she was available for a date the following Saturday.

"She is our vice president of client services. We are a husband-and-wife team. She's helping our agency go to the next level.

"We are getting on the radar of some highly respected organizations. We're doing a lot of work for Marshall. We got a call from The Greenbrier. They were looking at firms in urban markets out of state but wanted to give us a chance to bid.

"We have produced about six commercials for them that have been placed nationally on CBS, ESPN, the Golf Channel. They have received thousands of calls for reservations. People tell them they called because they saw our commercials.

"My son Trevor is the light of my life. He has had tremendous success in baseball and track and field. When my cousin, Randy, moved back to West Virginia, Trevor became intrigued with the shot put and discus, and Randy worked with him. Trevor was ranked nationally in his age class. We felt he had a wonderful future in athletics.

"In March, I received the most catastrophic news I'd ever heard. My son had scoliosis, and the curve in his spine was so severe it required surgery.

"I met an orthopedic surgeon, Charles Ted Shuff of Scott Depot, one of only two orthopedic surgeons in West Virginia who perform adolescent scoliosis surgery. When I told him how accomplished Trevor was in athletics, I thought it would scare him away. But he said he would be honored to operate on Trevor.

"The surgery was June 3. It was a very long fusion, an eight-hour surgery facedown under anesthesia.

"Now it appears that he will live a healthy, happy life. Dr. Shuff has cleared him for athletics with the exception of football.

"He wants to play baseball again. He realizes it will be a tremendous amount of work.

"The international Scoliosis Research Society heard about Trevor. They said they do not have a single testimonial from a kid who recovered from this surgery and went on to play baseball. They want to do a feature on him.

"If anyone can pull it off, this kid can. He's competitive and driven. He is now in personal training in preparation for sports.

"On Thanksgiving Day, he decided he wanted to go to Hurricane High School and practice with me. I watched him hit, run and field and throw and play his position, and he did it all very well. It was amazing.

"Me and two other guys raised $1 million to turf the athletic facilities at Hurricane High. I never dreamed my son would ever play on the new turf.

"He's overcoming something no one in America has ever overcome. I tell Trevor that maybe his story in life will be that he served as a testament to other kids for what you can do after scoliosis surgery, proof that it can happen.

"I can be pretty fiery. My wife has settled me down. She says I can seem imposing because of my size, but I'm a big kid at heart. I guess the message is this: You can take the boy out of Mission Hollow, but you can't take Mission Hollow out of the boy. Sometimes I have to get 'Mission Hollow' on people, but at the end of the day, I'm pretty compassionate."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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