When Ron Bradley left Claremore in 2014, he didn’t know if he’d ever be back.
As luck would have it, though, his new gig as the Har-Ber High School baseball coach wouldn’t keep him away for long.
The Springdale, Ark., school competed in Claremore’s Four-State Festival every April for four-straight years before Bradley’s arrival, and he soon turned that trend into a tradition.
“It’s always something I really look forward to,” Bradley said.
The Wildcats participated in their 10th-consecutive Festival on Friday afternoon, but for Bradley, this trip to American Legion Park was for much more than a baseball game.
The ballpark has always held sentimental value to the 40-year coach, but this time there were several familiar faces there to greet him.
Following Har-Ber’s 13-3 win over Collinsville, Claremore honored Bradley and one of his most successful teams. It was the 20-year celebration of the Zebras’ 1999 state championship victory, the program’s second.
That team, widely considered one of the best in school history, finished with a 39-7 record, defeating rival Carl Albert, 3-2, for the Class 5A title.
With the scoreboard reflecting that result in the background, members of that 1999 squad gathered along the left-field line and were recognized one-by-one near the pitcher’s mound as fans welcomed them with applause and cheers.
Bradley, who also coached Claremore to the 1993 state championship, reveled in the momentous moment.
“Claremore has just been a big part of our family, and a lot of our heart’s here,” Bradley said. “It’s always a special time for us to be able to come back and visit and see friends and people who have played for me.”
Bradley has won several state titles during his storied career, including last year’s Class 7A championship with Har-Ber. The Wildcats, courtesy of a 31-4 record, finished in the Top 20 of several national polls and were as high as No. 9 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 rankings.
With that considered, there’s no denying Bradley has coached some elite teams over the years.
“My career is a storybook story,” Bradley said. “It’s one you can’t even imagine all the special things that have taken place. That just means I’ve coached a lot of great players. The Lord’s blessed my career, and there’s a lot of coaches who are better than I am, I just happen to be at the right place at the right time.
“I personally don’t take any of the credit, it’s really a team effort.”
Although Bradley acknowledged that all state championship teams are special, Claremore’s 1999 group stands out in his mind as one of the most rewarding.
Not only because of its star power, but also because of its family ties.
“This team had outstanding pitching,” Bradley said. “That really defined our ballclub with Keith Bucktrot, Matt Dotson and Wes Vrska. We had two left-handers and a power right-hander, and Greg Stone was a guy who played in the minor leagues.
“That one was special because my son (Ryan) was a part of it, and being able to coach him on a state championship team was a special bond.”
As Ryan Bradley began his 10-hour trek from his home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Claremore, he had no idea just how nostalgic the event would be.
However, once he re-entered American Legion Park and reunited with his former teammates, the emotions and the memories came flooding in.
It was no surprise. After all, a large portion of Ryan Bradley’s childhood was spent at that very ballpark.
Baseball was his first love, and he grew up as a batboy in the dugout long before he became a manager or a player for the Zebras.
He still vividly remembers being a part of both his father’s state championships at Claremore.
Ryan Bradley was merely a young onlooker during the 1993 campaign, but he contributed to the 1999 title run and earned his ring — the only one of his collection.
“To be back here 20 years later brings back a lot of memories,” Ryan Bradley said. “It definitely makes me feel old, but Legion Field and Claremore baseball are probably the most vivid memories I have of my childhood. They took place on this field, so it’s pretty special.”
Ryan Bradley, who spent more than a decade working in collegiate athletics before becoming the associate vice president at the University of Alabama, recalled the 1999 season and what made that team so remarkable.
According to Ryan Bradley, every player had a role, and he understood his well.
As a sophomore, he wasn’t considered one of the team’s star players. That honor belonged to the likes of Keith Bucktrot and Greg Stone, both of whom went on to be drafted by MLB franchises.
Despite that, Ryan Bradley was a key piece to the puzzle.
“I was much more of a glue guy,” Ryan Bradley said. “I played a little bit of infield, but for the most part, I was just a role player. We had a great team chemistry and a great team culture, so if anything, I probably contributed to that and knew what my role was with that group.”
Although he was one of the team’s youngest members, he simply couldn’t fathom not taking part in the festivities.
Others weren’t fortunate enough to make it, so he wanted to do everything he could to be in attendance. Even if that meant leaving his wife and kids at 7:30 a.m. and arriving in Claremore about an hour before the ceremony.
He owed it to his teammates, and more importantly, he owed it to Claremore, the town he called home for many years.
“I put 10 hours in because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see my teammates and get to be a part of that,” Ryan Bradley said. “I haven’t been back in Claremore in five years, so I’ve been spending time thinking about all those memories and what these guys are doing now.
“Some of them I haven’t talked to in close to 20 years, so it’s been cool to catch up with them.”
While many of his teammates came from far and wide to attend the 20-year reunion, Greg Stone’s commute was similar to that of a normal workday.
Stone, after a seven-year career in the minor leagues, now serves as an investigator for the Claremore Police Department. American Legion Park is less than 2 miles from the precinct.
There, he investigates anything that comes across his desk, ranging from violent crimes to financial and property felonies. To do so, he must be as perceptive and brilliant as he was on the diamond all those years ago.
“I worked with the sheriff’s department for three years and then with the police department since 2014,” Stone said. “It’ s a little bit of everything. You have to be pretty well-rounded. We don’t have enough people like a department in Tulsa.”
Stone has now dedicated his life to justice, but his first aspirations belonged to baseball.
After graduating from Claremore High, Stone played collegiately at Connors State in Warner, about an hour and 15 minutes southeast of Claremore.
Not long after he began his time with the Cowboys, the San Francisco Giants drafted him in 2000, but he decided to not sign.
Then, after brief stints with Oklahoma State University and Bacone College in Muskogee, Stone was drafted again in 2002, this time by the Boston Red Sox in the 10th round.
He spent a few years in Boston’s farm system before breaking his hand and jumping to the independent circuit.
However, after a few more setbacks, he decided to retire from baseball in 2008 in search of something greater.
“I was tired of living out of a suitcase and not making any money,” Stone said. “Making $1,200 a month in minor league ball is no way to raise a family or make a living, so I decided to come back home and get a real job.”
Although he’s thrived in his position with the police department, Stone never stopped thinking about baseball.
When former teammate Matt Dotson contacted him about planning the reunion, Stone could barely contain his excitement. It was his opportunity to relive his glory days one last time.
Life has changed in many ways since then for the 38 year old, but there’s one thing that never does and never will.
The brotherhood of Claremore Zebras baseball.
“It’s really fun, and I haven’t seen these guys in a long time,” Stone said. “Some of them I see here and there because they’re still living in the community, but some of them have moved off.
“It’s really cool seeing these guys.”