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Mark Brookes: 42 Years Coaching HKHS Baseball

By Clark Judge.

I first met Mark Brookes in the spring of 1977 when I was a reporter for the Middletown Press, he was the coach of Haddam-Killingworth’s first-year baseball program and the two of us discussed how he planned to make something out of … well, nothing. I can’t tell you what was said then, but I do know what was done. After an 8-10 finish that year, Brookes never again experienced a losing season.

Honest.

Now in his 42nd year of coaching the Cougars’ varsity, he is working on a streak of 40 straight years without missing the state tournament, has appeared in five state championships and 12 state semifinals and has won 10 Shoreline Conference titles. But that’s not all. He’s a three-time finalist for National Coach of the Year, was named New England baseball Coach of the Year (2004) and Connecticut Baseball Coach of the Year (2002), has a place in the Connecticut Coaches’ Hall of Fame,  the Middletown Sports Hall of Fame and the H-K Hall of Fame and has a career record of 660-292 (.693).

But I’m not sure what’s more remarkable: The dazzling resume or that he’s still at Haddam-Killingworth as the Cougars’ only baseball coach. What I do know is that, with Haddam-Killingworth off to a 5-0 start this spring and Mark Brookes headed for a 41st consecutive state tournament, it’s time to complete our conversation from 1977 and find out just how he made something … and something extraordinary … out of nothing.

Q: In the 41 years since we last spoke what have you learned about yourself, either as an individual or as a coach?

BROOKES: I don’t know that I’ve learned a whole lot about myself. The game to me is something I’ve always tried to make consistent and predictable. Of course, it isn’t. It can’t be, and probably never will be. But I keep trying anyway. I’m always trying to make it consistent with the kids. We spend a lot of times with practices and repetitions and all that stuff. I guess it’s just part of my personality. I like teams coming together and being successful. It keeps bringing me back.

Q: It’s unusual for anyone to stay in one place, at one job, for 42 years. How have you done it? What keeps you going?

BROOKES: I love everything about the game itself. I played it, and I started coaching very early – I was 24 or 25 years old – and I was a teacher for many, many years. I like working with kids, especially high-school age. I always remember how much fun it was playing … and being successful. I guess I’m trying to relive my teenage years or whatever it is. It keeps me young, and I like being around (the players). I like seeing them improve year after year, and it just seems that every four years … even if I say, ‘Well, maybe I’ll take these kids to the end of a four-year cycle’ … that at the end of those four years there’s another group you try to develop. They just keep coming, and I don’t want to leave them.

Q: You must have had opportunities to move on. Have you?

BROOKES: No. Sometimes I think that’s a misconception. If I had had opportunities to move on I would have tried to move on – maybe hook up with a college program. But you have to start as an assistant and work your way up. I like being in control of a lot of things, and this allows me to do that.

Q: What is it about baseball that’s so appealing to you?

BROOKES: Trying to make it as consistent as possible. For instance, 1978 was our first winning season, and we haven’t had a losing one since. So that really spurs me on. I think if there’s one thing I like that I’ve done over the four decades it’s that I’ve been able to produce a winner even though talent comes and goes. So what we’ve been able to do is draw a line straight across, and it’s worked out.

Q: How have the kids, the players or the game changed over 40 years?

BROOKES: The game’s changed a lot. The kids don’t change, which is another reason I’ve wanted to stay for so long. But the game’s changed, and, as coaches, we have to adapt to it. There was a change to aluminum bats after we started with wood. And then it got to a point in the ‘90s where aluminum was so lively it was becoming dangerous. So you have to adjust your coaching style accordingly to that. Plus, a lot of times kids are ready earlier than ever before. The last 15 or 20 years we’ve had many more freshmen ready to play at this level.

Q: So if you’ve adapted, is your coaching philosophy today different than it was when you were as a young man?

BROOKES: No. I don’t think so. We still rely heavily on ‘small ball,’ bunts and runs. There’s a tremendous concentration in practice on bunts, hitting behind the runner, fundamentals and defense. All that stuff. It’s fun to teach it.

Q: Do you consider yourself more a teacher than a coach?

BROOKES: Yes. Much more.

Q: The list of accomplishments is overwhelming. Which gives you the most satisfaction?

BROOKES: The fact that we’ve made a level through the years, every single year. I like that. Some people say, ‘Would he trade a state championship for anything else?’ And I say, ‘No, I wouldn’t. That’s not why I continue to coach. Not for state championships.’ It’s to be successful, work hard, have kids be successful and to continue to progress, talent wise. And that’s all teaching. That’s what I like.

Q: I’ve seen you referred to as “the baseball patriarch.” Aside from suggesting that you’ve been around a long time, what does that mean to you?

BROOKES: It means just that — that I’ve been here a long time and been able to stay in when a lot of people leave. But the other thing is that, in order to do it this long, you need to have support from your family, starting with your wife and your kids, and (my wife’s) been very supportive. And (you must have) a school that’s willing to hold on to you. There are a lot of places where they wouldn’t let me do what I’m doing to the field. A lot of the stuff here I built by myself, with help – the dugouts, press box, the shed. We put in the tunnels. We put in all the improvements. When I first came here, all it was was a flat playing surface and no fence. So it was quite a task. But I didn’t get any interference. Every time I wanted to do something, it was OK. And that means a lot. You can’t develop anything unless you’re given the liberty to take the next step.

Q: You must have hundreds of memories as a coach over the years. If I asked you which comes to your mind first, what would it be?

BROOKES: Probably coaching my son (Sean). I loved it. That was a great experience. He was (Class of) ’86, and that was the group where we went to the state finals his senior year. That would be my first pleasant memory.

Q: Wasn’t it hard coaching your son? I mean, there’s a very fine line between Father and Coach.

BROOKES: Very, very difficult. I was kind of young at the time. It wasn’t easy because I was really tough on him. But he responded well, and everything turned out fine. He threw a no-hitter. He set the school record for batting average in a season. He went on play for UConn a couple of years. But the years before ’86, he was always around (as a child). If I pulled a kid aside to tell him, ‘On the throw home, you really should’ve advanced to second base,’ he’d be standing there taking it all in. So once he got up to where I was coaching him, I really didn’t have to coach him.

Q: What has given you the most satisfaction? It has to be something more than just wins.

BROOKES: We have an Alumni Game every year (on Memorial Day), where a lot of guys come back, and I get to renew old relationships. Also, I’ve got some kids’ sons (who played for me) … some former players … quite a few have come through. I like what they’ve become – a bunch of good guys.

Q: What’s been the biggest challenge?

BROOKES: I’d say lately it’s the weather. Not just this year. But ever since I started going to Florida (where he has a winter home) and coming back here, I keep telling Rae, my wife, ‘It’s not going to be the kids, and it’s not going to be the administration; it’s not going to be anything but the weather. It’s killing me.’ Before Saturday (a 15-5 defeat of Windsor Locks), I hadn’t been warm at a game this year.

Q: You’ve been to five state championship games but haven’t won one. How meaningful would winning one be for you or this program? And is that something that keeps you up at night?

BROOKES: I think we keep knocking on the door, and eventually the door will open. If not me, then someone else. We’ve been close. We’ve lost five in just about every way imaginable. We’ve had leads. We’ve been ahead late. We’ve been behind by a lot. We’ve had bad calls and everything go wrong – including 2014 when I thought we had it. But it didn’t turn out. We had a call at the plate that they still talk about. But, no, I don’t think the program necessarily needs to have a state championship. I think we’ve established ourselves as a winning program year after year, and I hope it continues after I’m gone.

Q: How much longer do you see yourself doing this?

BROOKES: I don’t know. My former coach at Middletown High, John DeNunzio, told me, ‘You will know when it’s time.’ He didn’t say how I’ll know. He just said, ‘You’ll know.’ So I’m waiting for that time. I don’t know how much longer. I feel good. I have no physical problems that would force me to stop. But when you begin to disconnect with the kids – if that ever happens – I’ll stop. What I try to do is get young assistants that can kind of bridge that gap between me and them. So, I can still enjoy them, and they can still communicate with me or the younger guy, depending on the personalities. I’ve gone the cellphone route. I think you have to as a coach, and I’m adapting to the new things coming up. In fact, I’m going to try Instagram soon. So let’s see where it goes.

Q: If I were to grant you one wish at this point, what would it be?

BROOKES: To have a continuous winning record all the way through to the end.

Q: Not a state title?

BROOKES: No. That’s not why I’m coaching. I mean, we’ll shoot for it, as we always do every year. But that’s not the most important thing to me. Some coaches I’ve known in the past will take a group of kids and bring them all the way through to their senior years, and that’s when they make their push for a state championship. But they’ll ignore the groups behind them. So they might get a state championship, but the next year they’re 2-18. And I can’t stand that. I can’t stand being unsuccessful.

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One Response to Mark Brookes: 42 Years Coaching HKHS Baseball

  1. Joan Pontbriand Reply

    April 19, 2018 at 8:54 pm

    CONGRATULATIONS COACH BROOKS! 42 YEARS AND STILL COUNTING! GOOD LUCK TO YOUR TEAM THIS SEASON! ⚾️

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