As he sat by the hospital bed where his grandfather lay dying, Jake Gooch talked about his hopes and his dreams.
He talked about college and baseball and life.
He vowed to protect his family, to take care of his grandmother and little brother, to honor the memory of the man who raised him.
And even though Tom Gooch, his life slowly slipping away, couldn’t respond, he could still hear.
“He definitely couldn’t talk, but I know he could understand me,” Jake Gooch said. “Because I told him, ‘I’m going to do my baseball, my life, all this is going to be for you,’ and I’m holding his hand while I’m doing it. Every time I told him something like that, I expect an, ‘I love you too, buddy,’ but it was a squeeze on my hand. I was holding his hand and every time I would say something like that, he would squeeze my hand.”
Milkshakes and Mantras
Jake Gooch has learned to cope with death.
His mom, Holli, died in 2010.
His dad hadn’t been around for years, so Jake, and his younger half-brother J.P., moved in with his grandparents, Tom and Susie.
“My grandfather was basically my dad,” Jake said. “I grew up with him being the one that was enforcing all the rules on me. He was my coach, he taught me everything I know.”
As soon as Jake could walk, he had a bat and ball in his hands, and every day after school, his grandfather would take him to the batting cages.
On the way home after, they’d stop at Sonic, where Tom Gooch would buy his grandson a milkshake, and they would sit and talk.
“That was the person that I looked up to,” Jake Gooch said. “That’s the person, whenever I needed advice, whether it was girls to baseball to school to life, that’s who I went to.”
Sitting there, Tom Gooch would try to impart to his grandson the lessons and the values that he himself lived by.
Always give 100 percent. Don’t make excuses. Family first. Education before baseball.
“He’s old-school,” Jake said. “He knew what was best for me, you know, keep it straight-forward, don’t do anything more. Hard-nosed, like, old-fashioned, and the same way he taught me, that implied to life. You don’t need to do anything extra, just do what you can do to the best of your ability.”
For Jake, just 10 or 12 years old and decidedly not old-school, it was sometimes hard to listen to. Grandfather and grandson, both stubborn, would argue for days.
“I remember being in the cages when I was 6, 6 or 7, and there was this pitching simulator, and I just couldn’t hit it,” Jake said. “It was like 70 miles an hour coming at me when I’m 7, and I couldn’t catch up, and then I finally just said, ‘I can’t do it.’ So he sent me to the truck, rolled the windows up, and he was like, ‘Whenever your attitude improves, you can come back and hit, but until then...’”
Behind the Plate
The Gooches are a family of catchers.
Tom Gooch donned the tools of ignorance. So did Jake’s uncle, Tom Gooch Jr.
Jake didn’t get the name, but he was the same way.
“It’s just what I’ve always known to do,” the Cartersville backstop said. “My first day playing baseball, it wasn’t like, ‘Alright, where do you want me to go?’ That was just where I went. It was just a natural thing. I made jokes, I could play every position on this field — I could play shortstop, I could play second. I told my Papa, and he’s like, [catcher] is where you belong. That’s all he was saying, and that’s just where I went, behind the dish.”
It takes something special to be a catcher. Behind the mask there’s no glory, just a job to do on every pitch, a job that ruins knees and bends fingers for the good of the team.
It takes toughness, and a willingness to be anonymous while taking on the most responsibility.
Growing up in Louisiana, Tom Gooch Sr. was like that.
He was an offensive lineman in football, too, despite being one of the smallest people on the field.
“I’ve seen pictures, he was a catcher just like me,” Jake said. “He was a pulling guard in football. He was one of those guys where he’s not very big, he was 5-foot-8 ... but he was one of those people that would outwork you, and like I said, go 100 percent.”
He met his wife, Susie, in graduate school at the University of Georgia. They were married for nearly 50 years.
He taught math and computer science at Kennesaw State for 33 years. In Bartow County, where he lived, he was a coach and administrator for more than 40 years with the Cartersville Little League, where he left an imprint on thousands of kids who played for him.
“Coach Tom gave me my first baseball glove,” said Cedric Ward, now a football and basketball coach at Cartersville High School. “He used to pick me up for practice, he would call me on the days that I was playing catcher, especially on the hot days, and let me know to bring a towel. He taught me about just being humble and loving what you do. Loving what you do and loving the people that you were doing it for.”
Hard Work Pays Off
Even as Jake grew up and started to realize that his grandfather’s discipline and lessons just might have a kernel of truth in them, for a long time it looked like they would lessons he would have to apply to life, and not baseball.
A self-described ball — “like, you could push me and I would roll” — at one point Jake thought that he might be better suited to try his luck at football, and make that his career.
Luckily, his grandfather was there with some different advice.
“He was like, ‘No, that’s not you. You’re a baseball player, you’re a Gooch.’ They played football too, but he knew that’s where I was going to be,” Jake said. “I really think that’s because, not only was he my grandfather, but he was my coach, and we spent the most time together when he was my coach, and I really think that’s the time when I realized, this isn’t the time to give up. I’ve worked so hard since I was little. I can’t let a little bump in the road or something like that stop me. Stuff happens, but you have to keep going through it, and that’s what he always said.”
Tom’s foresight would be proven correct.
Jake hit a growth spurt, lost his rotund shape, and was called up to the Cartersville varsity halfway through his sophomore year.
As a junior last year, he started for the Canes, then was a star in the summer playing for the East Cobb Colt .45s. He showed off a powerful bat and a good arm, and colleges started to notice.
Most of the Georgia colleges were in touch, as well as North and South Carolina.
All of the long hitting sessions, all of his grandfather’s coaching, was starting to pay off.
“[I remember] over the summer, when I told him, ‘Hey Papa, I’m starting to get looked at,’” Jake said. “And he was telling me all the hard work and everything he’s put me through is because of this, you’re prepared for the moment.”
Tom wanted to coach Jake’s younger brother J.P. the same way he had Jake, but as the years went by, his health worsened.
“He started having health issues, as long as I can remember,” Jake said. “When I was younger, he had heart issues. I think it was a couple months after my mom died, he got diagnosed with kidney failure, so he’s been going to dialysis all this time. I know he’s had a heart attack before.”
Earlier this year, though, the diagnosis was something different — cancer.
It was so aggressive the doctors never fully came to a precise diagnosis, but whatever it was, it hit Tom Gooch hard.
Even as he grew weaker and weaker, though, Tom’s thoughts weren’t for himself.
“I think his biggest fear was trying to stay alive as long as he could to see my little brother,” Jake said. “He said his goal was to see my little brother go all the way up to 12U with the Little League program and win a state championship. So nothing really changed with the way he acted, but you know he was, I think he knew his time was coming. But he still tried to keep it positive and still tried to enforce things on us.”
Knowing that his grandfather was going to die didn’t make it any easier for Jake.
“It was just an adjustment I needed to make,” Jake said. “Seeing him go through all this stuff all my life, I knew the time was going to come eventually. I didn’t know how it was going to be, but I knew that I was going to have to prepare for it at some point.”
In late summer, Tom left his familiar chair in the Gooch family living room.
He needed to be in the hospital full time. From there, things happened quickly.
“I wasn’t there when my mom passed,” Jake said. “I didn’t go to the hospital, I didn’t know it had happened until my grandmother got home. But I was there at the hospital with him when he was there, going through whatever he was going through, and he had no control. ... And I had tears, J.P. had tears, my grandma had tears, aunt had tears, uncle had tears. Tears weren’t something I could hold back at that time, but even though I had tears on my face, I was keeping it positive. I wasn’t trying to say why, why did this happen, it was more like, thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I can’t repay you for everything you’ve done for me.”
Tom Gooch died on Aug. 23. He was 71.
In the days after his grandfather died, Jake Gooch tried not to cry — at least, not when his younger brother could see.
Whenever he looked at the chair that his grandfather sat in, whenever he drove by the Sonic, he thought about the man who raised him.
He thought about the man who had lived his life the right way and passed those lessons down to a young baseball player, sitting with a milkshake after a long session in the batting cages.
With his coaching, Tom Gooch had made it possible for Jake to choose among several of the best baseball programs in the Southeast, and with his lessons, he had made the decision easy.
On Aug. 25, two days after Tom Gooch passed away, Jake committed to Georgia Tech, not even an hour down the road in Atlanta.
It was where he could be close to his grandmother and care for his family and maybe, just maybe, see J.P. win that state Little League championship, just like Tom Gooch would have wanted.
“I talked to my family that was in town, and I told them, ‘Hey, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be here for all of y’all, I’m going to be right here. If y’all need me, I’m going to be right here,’” Jake said. “That’s one thing my Papa always said, it’s family first. Nobody else in front of that, it’s just that’s who you need to focus on. I wish he would have known where I was going, but he knows now, that’s for sure.”