By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
There are some names that are very familiar to those in baseball circles around the nation.
Yankees, Mud Hens and even the Lansing Lugnuts have a reputation for being a part of the history of the game.
Another name that is widely known comes from Liberal — the Bee Jays.
With a long list of Major Leaguers getting their start in the powder blue and red, including two Cy Young winners and three Major League managers, there are many in the profession that are familiar with the community’s tie to the major league sport.
There has been a long-standing history of success dating back to the team’s beginning in 1955. With 13 state titles and a 1968 national championship, the Bee Jays quickly became known as one of the best summer programs in the nation.
When the Jayhawk League was formed in 1976, Liberal continued to impress.
For the first 25 seasons, Liberal won 12 Jayhawk League titles and never had a losing record.
During that 25-year stretch, the Bee Jays finished seventh or higher at the national tournament 18 times and was a fixture at Lawrence Dumont Stadium, building a strong fan base from coast to coast with players coming from the premier baseball colleges in the nation.
Darin Thomas coached the Bee Jays to a national championship in 2000, the fourth in team history and the third during that incredible 25-year run.
But in 2001, the record of winning seasons came to an end with a 19-21 league finish.
Liberal still managed to finish tied for seventh at the NBC World Series, but a streak of five losing seasons between 2001 and 2007 led the Bee Jay Board to seek help from its past to guide the future.
Former Board members Jay Hay and Bob Carlile returned, and Carlile used his connections to pull off a major coup that brought ESPN to Liberal. Carlile asked Mike Hargrove, who lived with the Carliles when he was a Bee Jay in 1972, to coach the Bee Jays.
The former Major League coach who turned the lowly Cleveland Indians into American League champions came to Liberal and turned in a 22-14 league record and a fourth place national finish.
In his second season, Hargrove led the Bee Jays to an 18-14 league record and a third place national finish.
John Martin took over after assisting Hargrove in 2009 and won the national championship in 2010. Martin also led the Bee Jays to a winning record in 2001 and a seventh place finish at the NBC World Series.
Brandon Kitch has coached the Bee Jays for the past two seasons and has not had a losing season.
The Hargrove turnaround has been vital to the resurgence of the program.
“They brought the pride back in what it is to be a Liberal Bee Jay,” general manager Mike Carlile said. “We had some down years, but with the changes — and we are lucky to still have Jay Hay — we are going to try to keep this going and do what we are supposed to be doing.”
So far, it’s working.