Former Wildcat coach Keith Madison continues to grow as ‘a work in progress’
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
LEXINGTON — Keith Madison chuckled when I asked him if he ever reflects on his success during his 25 years as the Kentucky Wildcats’ baseball coach.
“Maybe it’s because I didn’t have enough wins, but I don’t think too much about success now,” he grinned as we shared breakfast together last week. “I think more about the relationships I made.”
We probably shouldn’t read too much into Madison’s self-deprecation. He won more than 700 games, becoming UK’s winningest coach. At 26, Madison took over a Wildcat program that had never had sustained success. He won over 700 games and turned Kentucky into a perennial player in the baseball-rich league.
Through that tenure and now in retirement, Keith Madison was and is about nurturing the relationships that began at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
“I saw Matt Coleman last night,” Madison smiles, talking about one of the pitchers on some of Madison’s best Wildcat teams. Coleman went 22-15 from 1986-89, but Madison didn’t talk about that or any other stat. “Seeing him made me feel like a million dollars.”
Madison is now 67 and enjoying life. Since retiring from UK in 2003, he’s stayed close to the game he loves through Score International, an organization that organizes mission trips to places like the Dominican Republic. The goal is to share Christ through baseball and create an environment where Christians are comfortable in sharing their faith. He’s about making a difference and seeing God work.
Madison also publishes Inside Pitch, a baseball magazine intended to help ameteur baseball players, and serves as a baseball commentator on the SEC Network Plus. And he’s an encourager, as I found out several times in an hour long chat over breakfast last week.
And even though Madison can stand on a highly-visible platform, he’s quick to note he has struggles like every person from every walk of life.
“I’m still a work in progress,” he smiles.
That could describe Madison’s sports life.
“I was shocked when Adolph Rupp didn’t recruit me,” Madison laughs.
A guard at Edmonson County High School in Brownsville, Ky., Madison grew up listening to Cawood Ledford telling him, “The Wildcats are moving to the right side of your radio dial.”
Reality visited during his senior year in high school, he says. “We played Louisville Shawnee. They had Tom Payne (who eventually played a season at Kentucky) and they had a 6-(foot)-3 guard who was on me like a glove. I couldn’t get a shot off. We lost and the next day, the (Edmonson) baseball coach saw me and said, ‘Keith. Baseball!’”
Madison breaks into a huge laugh telling the story of a night that launched his path toward the diamond.
A pitcher, he signed with the Montreal Expos in the summer of 1969 but after making it to the AAA level, developed arm problems and was released. The Cincinnati Reds came calling but Madison’s career as a player topped out one stop short of the big leagues.
He made his name as a Wildcat, but it was on the baseball diamond.
“In 1988, if my memory is correct, we were one out from going to the College World Series,” Madison sighs.
In the double-elimination NCAA regional at New Britain, Conn., the Wildcats led 5-4 in the ninth when the Stanford batter smacked a line drive. “Our shortstop jumped as high as he could but the ball went off the top of his glove and Stanford scored a couple of runs,” Madison recalls.
The teams had to come back for one more game, but Stanford pounded the Wildcats 16-2. “We ran out of pitching,” Madison says. “I felt like we had the better overall team but they had better pitching. They had a young man named Mike Mussina on the hill.”
Mussina, of course, went on to win 270 games for the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees and is a member of the 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame class. And Stanford went on to win its second straight College World Series title.
“Our 1987 team was better…. We were one of the Top 10 teams in the nation and got snubbed,” Madison remembers.
That Wildcat team went 40-15 but was not tendered an NCAA Tournament bid. “It was so much different then,” Madison says. “The selection committee was a good ole boy network and most people didn’t know we got snubbed. Today, with all the social media, everybody would know.”
Those losses are still painful and the relationships he built are real.
But it was a call on the morning of Aug. 27, 2006 that shook the coach like none other. “I had been to church when one of my former players called and said, ‘Hook was on that plane.’”
Jon Hooker, who had been on Madison’s pitching staff from 1998-2001, and his bride, Scarlett, had been married less than 12 hours when they boarded Comair Flight 5191 in Lexington for a honeymoon trip. The plane crashed on takeoff, killing 49 of the 50 people on board.
“”My wife and I were at the wedding the night before. I love all my former players but Jon was one of those — you know, Paul says to consider others better than you. Jon was like that. He was more excited about (UK teammate and big league pitcher) Brandon Webb’s success than his own. He was a great teammate,” Madison says.
“It was devastating to the whole family. Jon’s family asked if I could take care of the media setup (in the days following the crash). It was hard to talk but it was an opportunity to take some of that burden off them.”
It was an expression of the faith Keith Madison strives to live. During an hour-long interview, he quotes or paraphrases Scripture freely. I asked about the difficulty of living for Christ in a world that is increasingly hostile to expressions of faith.
“To me, it would be more difficult to live in the world without my faith,” he says. “I can’t imagine going through the world in 2019 without faith. America is a great place and I am thankful for America, but some of the things going on are disturbing. So many young people today are concerned with what we wear, how we look and how much money we make. Those things don’t bring real happiness.
“There is a difference between joy and temporary happiness. My faith allows me to choose joy.”
We talked about my concern about profanity become too commonplace and accepted in society, and especially in sports, today. Madison agreed, but said, “I am a work in progress. I didn’t use profanity, but there were times when I didn’t agree with an umpire and I used words to make him feel like dirt. That’s still wrong.”
That’s the Keith Madison who used his pulpit as Kentucky baseball coach to deliver the message of being a champion for Christ and building relationships with those around him.
“I had 737 wins as a baseball coach, but when I am in a nursing home, that won’t be important,” he says. “What will be important is my relationships with my family, with my former players and with Christ.”