BILOXI’S OWN BARRY LYONS

barry-bb-cardsThe youngest of four boys born to adoring parents, Kenneth and Germaine, Barry Lyons grew up in Biloxi, Mississippi on the Back Bay. He comes from “salt of the earth” people. Both Kenneth and Germaine worked as they raised their sons. They instilled in them a strong, loving, unshakable foundation that began with a solid education. The boys had a wonderful time, exploring their surroundings and playing sports but one sport in particular meant more to the family than any other…America’s favorite pastime…Baseball.

Kenneth was a mailman and worked for the U. S. Postal Service for over 35 years. Germaine was an RN who went on to manage a large Biloxi OB/GYN private practice for 30 years. Both were well known and respected within the community. “My father loved to talk to people. I’m sure at one time or another, he covered every mail route in the city. My dad knew everybody and everyone knew him,” Barry said. Kenneth was always very involved in youth sports. He was a coach, friend, and mentor to countless ball players in both football and baseball. Kenneth also coached his sons through Little League.

Eldest son, Kenny Jr., was often referred to as the family trail blazer. “He carved the path for the rest of us, “Barry said. Kenny Jr. was an outstanding athlete who excelled in multiple sports. He was a highly touted, highly sought after quarterback and was recruited by all the best schools upon graduation, especially schools in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). He chose to go to Ole Miss. Kenny began his freshman year just as Archie Manning was a senior. Kenny suffered several debilitating injuries during his college career and unfortunately they took their toll. The Dallas Cowboys signed him as a free agent after college. “As a young boy, to have my big brother playing professional football and being a Dallas Cowboy was the most incredible, exciting thing in the whole world! I was so proud! However, it was not to be,” Barry said. During Mini Camp, Kenny’s injuries proved to be too much for the rigors of the NFL. During the physical, it was discovered that his back and shoulder were not healthy enough to withstand play and he was unable to pass. “There were too many issues that would have jeopardized his long term health had he gone forward so his dream ended quite abruptly. It was a heartbreaking time for us all but my brother handled it with such grace and strength, he made me even more proud than I was before,” Barry said. Kenny Jr. went on to great success as a banker. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Nashville, Tennessee, and have two grown children.

Brother Tommy, was another gifted athlete. He was a pitcher and showed great talent from the time he was a youngster. Barry learned so much from Tommy. He would happily spend hours pitching balls to Barry in the backyard. There is quite an age difference between the two but it never mattered. Tommy loved to hang out with Barry, especially when they were throwing a ball around and practicing the fine points of baseball. Tommy had professional scouts keeping a very close eye on him as he approached his high school graduation. He was actually drafted by the Cleveland Indians right away but chose instead to focus on a college education. He enrolled at Ole Miss just as Kenny Jr. had before him. Tommy got his degree and finished at Ole Miss but once again, due to injuries, the dream of playing professionally was not realized. He fell in love and married his sweetheart, Debbie. They have three children together and reside in Kennett, Missouri. Twin sons were both talented players who went to Ole Miss on baseball scholarships. There is no question that baseball is the blood of this very close, connected family. The Lyons’ have a legacy and a passion they share that is reminiscent of another well known family in the world of sports…the Mannings.

Brother Pat was closest in age to Barry and they were joined at the hip. “Pat was my best friend. Our relationship meant everything to me and the fact that he is gone is very hard to accept…I loved him so much,” Barry said as he wiped tears from his eyes. Pat was another stand out athlete, excelling in both baseball and football. He attended Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College then went to Morehead State University in Kentucky on a scholarship. Once again, injuries plagued this young man as was the horrible fate of his older brothers. Pat chose to forgo the rest of his college studies and headed for home. He enjoyed a happy marriage and his two sons were the light of his life. Son Thomas, is a coach at St. Martin High School and Patrick Jr. is a banker at People’s Bank. “After Katrina, my brother took his own life. He became severely depressed and could not overcome his sadness. Patrick Jr. and Thomas are amazingly resilient men and we are all doing our best to carry on as there is no choice,” Barry said.

Childhood memories are sweet and joyous. It was a wonderful time of life growing up in a house with three big brothers. Barry idolized them all and wanted to emulate them at every opportunity. They were very good to their little brother, always making him a part of their activities, spending time together and teaching him about the sports they loved so much. Germaine and Kenneth were both doting parents who made great sacrifices for their boys. “They did everything within their power to let us live our dreams but nothing was more important than our education. “All four of us received athletic scholarships to play sports in college. Our parents were very thankful for that and they were also very, very proud of our accomplishments,” Barry said.

Barry discovered he shared in the wealth of the Lyons’ baseball legacy at a very young age. He learned so much from all three of his brothers and soaked up their experience and knowledge like a sponge. His skills far exceeded all the other kids in his age group and he had a firm grasp on the science of baseball. He understood all the nuances and fine points of the game because he had paid such close attention to Kenny Jr., Tommy and Pat. Barry was born with a passion for the sport which only intensified as he got older. The boys played ball all the time. They lived up the street from Notre Dame High School, which is now Mercy Cross. As soon as school let out, Barry took off for the ball field at the high school. “I couldn’t get enough of watching my brothers play ball. There was nothing I loved more than that. The entire Spring and Summer, I played ball at the Back Bay Ball Park which was the Little League field. It was not far from what is now the IP Casino,”Barry said. Barry would be out there all day, then race home to get his uniform on to play in the evening Little League game. “My dad was always our biggest fan. He never pushed us, he didn’t have to because we loved everything about baseball and wanted to play more than anything else in this world,” Barry said.

During college, Barry had developed a very close relationship with his coach and mentor, Dave “Boo” Ferriss. Born and raised in the Delta, Ferriss played ball at Mississippi State University and was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in the 40’s. In the 50’s he was a pitching coach for the Red Sox and then decided to return home in 1960. He developed the baseball program for Delta State University. Barry was introduced to the coach during a recruiting trip to the Coast. “I was always in awe of this man. His history as a ball player and a coach…he’s in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame, and is one of the most revered baseball men in this state and beyond,” Barry said.

Barry signed a football scholarship with Delta State with the agreement that he would forgo spring training for football in order to play baseball. Barry wound up with a full scholarship for baseball as well and he followed coach Ferriss’s direction to the letter. He was the starting catcher from day one, which lasted all four years. He was part of four outstanding teams and celebrated many wins as well as a Conference Championship and Regional Championship. Barry also played in the NCAA Division II College World Series and it was there that he was named to the All American Team. All four years, Barry was also Academic All American which thoroughly pleased his parents. Professional scouts began watching Barry Lyons very closely in his third year at Delta State.

Opportunity came knocking very quickly when the Detroit Tigers drafted Barry and made him an offer in 1981. He chose to turn them down and made a life changing decision. The money was not what he hoped for but he was also healing from an injury which forced him to miss almost one month of the season. He was disappointed in his performance and his team had not achieved the goals he had expected either. In addition, he wanted to complete his degree. “It actually was not a hard choice. So many factors were hand in hand and I just knew it wasn’t the right time or the right team for me…I had a gut feeling and I trusted God to guide me,” he said.

Coach Ferriss supported Barry’s decision and felt if he completely dedicated himself to his sport and worked much harder there were bigger and better things in his future. Ferriss was like a second father to Barry and the level of trust between them was unequaled. “It was the right decision and my return to my senior season was very special, it was a great year that meant everything to me,” Barry said. He played in the NCAA Division II College World Series and finished 3rd nationally. Lyons was named the Mississippi College Baseball Player of the Year which was a tremendous honor. Today, the trophy bears the name of Coach Ferriss and the award is also known as the Ferriss Award.

Professional baseball is very complex. There are different classifications as well as different levels. There are Minor Leagues referred to as Class A, AA, and AAA, and then the Majors. Barry Lyons was drafted by the New York Mets in the 15th round of the draft. A Mets executive met with Lyons and offered a $1,000.00 signing bonus which initially he scoffed at. He tried to negotiate more money in order to cover the rest of his education expenses but the bonus was only raised to $1,500.00 and not a penny more. Again, Lyons was not happy. He was given one more chance to take the money and sign on the dotted line or he might not ever play in the Major Leagues. Needless to say, Barry Lyons took the deal and began his career in professional baseball.

With the college season over, Lyons returned to Biloxi. He was asked to meet with the scout who had chosen him for the draft, Joe Mason. Joe lived outside of Montgomery, Alabama. The final destination would be Shelby, North Carolina, where the Class A South Atlantic League Mets team was based. The two met at a Burger King in Montgomery where Lyons signed his professional contract. “I think I was paid $650 a month. I was 22 years old at the time,” he said. He spent 3 1/2 years in the Minor Leagues before he made it to the Majors.

In 1984, Lyons played in Lynchburg, Virginia, and was named Most Valuable Player in the Carolina League. He lead his team to the League Championship and it was one of the most exciting moments of his career. “It was at this time that I had a gut feeling deep down that I was going to be a Major League player. It was still 2 years off, but I felt I was well on my way,” Lyons said. Next stop…New York where Barry Lyons received his honor for a stellar season in the Big Apple. “It was just amazing. I was in awe and I loved everything about the city and had the time of my life,” he said.

The next season, Barry played in Jackson, Mississippi which was the location for the AA franchise for the New York Mets. Once again, he had a remarkably good season and the team won the Texas League Championship. It meant so much to him to be playing in his home state. It was a glorious time to be back in familiar territory with family and friends driving up to Jackson to attend his games. Barry was totally in his element and looking forward to the next step in his career.

In 1986, Lyons was named to the roster as a rookie with the New York Mets. The Mets opened the season with an exhibition game in Jackson, Mississippi against the Jackson Mets. WLOX sent a reporter there for an exclusive interview with Barry Lyons. She was a very young, new sports correspondent named Robin Roberts!

In New York, Lyons did not play in the first few games. He was the back-up catcher. Although disappointed, he was very proud to be a part of the organization. He was there for the first month and a half of the season then sent back down to the AAA level in order to get some playing time. The Mets were doing extremely well, the catcher was Gary Carter who went on to the Hall of Fame. “He was a great catcher and loved to play the game so he didn’t share his position. In other words, I never got to play,” Barry said. Fate stepped in and he was called back up to the Majors because another player was injured and they needed a substitute. He got to play for about 3 weeks but was returned to the Minors. In August, Barry was hit by a pitch and as a result his forearm was broken. Two days later, Gary Carter was injured as well. This would have been a golden opportunity for Lyons to be back in New York but he was hurt too badly and could not play. The Mets went on to win their division that year, then the playoffs, and eventually they won the 1986 World Series. Lyons was there for some of the big games, behind the scenes and out of uniform. He was never in the dug out with the other players. It was a bitter pill to swallow but he was on the disabled list which changed everything. Lyons did have access to the Club House and was permitted to go wherever he chose, including the Press Box. “We won the World Series and expected that there would be many more championships to come but unfortunately, during my time there, it did not happen,” Barry said.

Lyons has wonderful memories and made lasting friendships during his time in the Major Leagues. “I can’t sugar coat this…we were a wild bunch. I don’t have any regrets but we overstepped many boundaries and perhaps had way too much fun. Would I change any of it? No, I would not,” he said with a laugh. He does regret not achieving the team goals they planned on. He knows that the excesses he and his team mates enjoyed and indulged in definitely got in the way. “Living in New York was an incredible experience. There is an energy there that cannot be found anywhere else in the country. It’s very exciting,” Barry said. He lived on Long Island, on the North Shore, for about 5 years. Playing for the Mets, in one of the greatest cities in the world was a heady experience. The Mets fans are so dedicated and so loyal. They still love to see Lyons and remarkably can remember the stats on his baseball cards. “I cherish that time of my life and I will tell you that the fans in New York are simply amazing…the best,” he said.

After he left the Mets, Barry went to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the California Angels in 1991. The next season, he was with the Houston Astros AAA in Tucson, Arizona in 1992. Then in 1993, Barry Lyons played in Louisville, Kentucky AAA Affiliate for the St. Louis Cardinals. He played in Indianapolis, Indiana AAA Affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds in 1994. Finally in 1995 after much bouncing around and uncertainty, Lyons was back in the Major Leagues with the Chicago White Sox. “It is a very hard life and the percentages are very low for those that make it to the Majors. It is even more difficult to stay there and maintain longevity. Competition is very tough. It is easy to lose confidence and lose heart during the journey,” he said. Going to play for so many different teams in such a short amount of time was extremely wearing. There was no time to establish relationships, no way to become really connected to anyone and loyalty was non existent. However playing for Chicago, Barry Lyons enjoyed a new level of success. He was settled and felt happier than he had been in a very long time. In spite of all that, he decided to leave his professional baseball career behind. It pleased him to go out while he was on top and he was looking forward to doing something brand new.

1995 was Barry Lyons’ final year as a professional baseball player. Part of that season, he played for the White Sox AAA Affiliate in Nashville, Tennessee.

He and his first wife, Marsha, fell in love with the area and decided to make it their home. They lived in Nashville for the next seven years and welcomed daughter, Danielle, sixteen years ago. “She is a beautiful young lady, inside and out. She makes me so proud, he said. Nashville opened up a whole new world for the Lyons family and Barry was never happier…but in the blink of an eye, everything changed.

(Don’t miss Part 2 of “Biloxi’s Own, Barry Lyons” coming up in our April issue! It is a completely candid account of unimaginable trials and challenges, and how the power of God saved his life)

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