The San Antonio Angels have become the darlings of the NBC World Series.
It’s a baseball team comprised almost entirely of junior-college and Division III players, most of whom have played together for upwards of five years.
They were a mediocre 14-10 during their regular season and picked up one of the final bids into the field, but the Angels are now 8-0 in Wichita and have secured a spot in Friday’s semifinals following an 8-4 win over the San Diego Waves at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Thursday.
The Angels know their run seems improbable to most.
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“All we needed was an opportunity,” outfielder Jordan Billups said. “Every game we knew we were the underdog, so we just had to prove people wrong.”
But even more improbable than the team’s run in the NBC World Series is how Howard Palmer became their manager.
Palmer, 43, grew up in Leon and lived in poverty his entire childhood. From kindergarten to high school, he attended 26 different schools and lived with multiple family members before becoming emancipated at the age of 16. Two days after graduating from El Dorado, which was his sixth high school, Palmer joined the Army and was shipped off to Fort Bragg, N.C., in the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
Over the next 26 years, Palmer was deployed to Iraq twice, traveled to Egypt, East Timor, and Mongolia for peace-keeping operations, earned an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, and a pair of master’s degrees, steadily rose the ranks in the Army in health-care administration and eventually became a major, all the while making a family with his wife of 20 years, Jill.
The last six summers, Palmer has taken leave from the Army so he could coach many of the same players who are currently playing for the Angels. But earlier this summer, on June 1, Palmer officially retired from the Army.
His favorite part in the military was helping build leaders, and he’s eager to continue that on the baseball diamond with his players.
“I want them to know that a strikeout means nothing,” Palmer said. “The bottom line is we’re playing a game here. We’re here to learn the game and this is a game that will teach you so many life lessons.
“You’re going to get yelled at in life. Striking out is kind of like getting yelled at. You can’t let it knock you down. You’ve got to keep your confidence up and take it as a learning lesson. You try to repeat the positives and learn from the negatives.”
Palmer carries his military regiment over to his baseball practices. His players are to be punctual and they hold each other accountable. Everything the Angels do is detail-oriented.
But his greatest accomplishment, according to his players, is the trust he builds with his players.
“He’s our foundation,” outfielder Ian Bailey said. “Without a strong foundation, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing right now. We have so much confidence because we know that he’s going to back us up and he’s going to protect us, no matter what.”
“He teaches us what it’s like to have responsibility because he leads by action,” Billups added. “We’re all learning so much from him and not even in baseball, but in life.”
It’s been a proud two weeks for Palmer’s younger half-sister, Dee Liggett, who still lives in Newton and was with Palmer every step of the way when they were bouncing around from school to school as kids.
She’s been amazed by the Angels rallying through the NBC World Series (“I don’t do baseball, but I do now because of my brother”) — but not as amazed as she has been by her brother’s journey in life.
“I’m so proud,” Liggett said. “He’s my big brother and my mentor. I love watching him because he always wants to see everybody become the best that they can be. He means the world to me.”
Looking back on it, Palmer doesn’t think much about the odds he overcame in life. On how he was able to still find the drive to become the only one from his family to graduate high school, despite attending so many schools, Palmer says “as long as you’re willing, you are always able to learn.”
He also credited a one-year stint with his grandparents, William and Dolores Liggett, when he was 12. For the first time in his life, Palmer experienced stability and thrived because of it.
“That one year made all of the difference in my life,” Palmer said. “Where I grew up, there weren’t many opportunities for someone in my socioeconomic background. So having people that believed in you, that put you on a pedestal, constantly telling you positive things, that was life-changing for me.”
Now Palmer hopes to be that kind of positive influence on another kid who maybe needs a role model. After all, Palmer’s life has been a case study in how will and determination can trump one’s circumstances.
It gives hope to the Angels, who are up against teams stocked with future professional players, that they too can overcome the odds and win the NBC World Series.
“You know, it’s funny, every year we’ve had this group they’ve gone on one big run,” Palmer said. “We never really had that run during the season and now here we are. These guys don’t care who the other guys play for or how big-time they are, they believe in themselves. They believe that this is our run.”