FATHER'S DAY, LIKE most days for the Barth family, included the crunch of metal cleats, the snap of the ball in the catcher's mitt, the crisp ping of metal bats.
In the dugout, 88-year-old Joe "Pop" Barth Sr. sat on a folding chair, rubbing the Brooklawn American Legion's starting lineup sheet in his tan, weathered hands. His son Dennis, 48, stood at the third-base line, shouting words of encouragement to batters. "Come on, Johnny," he yelled, "come on!" In the stands, Bryan Barth trembled ever so slightly, sunglasses hiding his tears.
No South Jersey family has invested more of their lives in baseball than the Barths. And yesterday the sport gave them a few hours back, a doubleheader against West Deptford, a small reprieve from the tragedy that struck them earlier in the day.
Authorities say that Bob Barth, 59, of Winslow Township, a longtime high-school teacher who coached baseball and basketball for decades in South Jersey, was traveling north on Route 42 in Bellmawr, Camden County, around 6:30 a.m. when his Mercury Mariner struck an abandoned vehicle near the Creek Road exit.
New Jersey State Police said that Barth was ejected from the vehicle, which flipped over when he struck the car, and that he was not wearing a seatbelt.
He was pronounced dead shortly afterward at Cooper University Hospital.
Police did not say how the accident happened, but family members believe that Barth may have had a seizure or some other medical emergency.
They all knew where he was going.
"He was going to Sportz Central, probably to work some kids out," said longtime friend Bruce Darrow, who grew up with Barth in Brooklawn.
Barth's accident was less than a half-mile from Sportz Central, the baseball instructional facility his brother Dennis owns, and where both brothers trained Little Leaguers and college ballplayers alike.
Those who knew Barth say the married father of four often was heard before he was seen, and had a mouth that rankled the ears of every umpire in South Jersey but also boosted the confidence of his beloved ballplayers.
"He had a way with kids; it would be something silly, maybe, but it would break the tension," said Bob Wilgus, whose son was playing centerfield for the Brooklawn American Legion yesterday. "He would tell the kids, 'Don't worry. You leave the worrying to me.' "
Barth was a high-school history teacher for more than 30 years, mostly at Overbrook Regional High School in Pine Hill, where he also coached varsity basketball for 17 years.
For the last nine years, he taught American history at Lindenwold High School, where he got just as fired up about the Vietnam War as he did about a bad strike.
"He always had a good demeanor, always upbeat and funny," said Derryk Sellers, the school's athletic director. "We graduate Tuesday. I don't know how we're going to make it."
And, probably because he couldn't help himself, Barth also coached the school's freshman basketball team for a few years.
"I think he actually may have liked basketball a little more than baseball," said his stepson, John Lowe.
Barth also spent 13 years as the head baseball coach at Gloucester High and often had to face off against his brother Dennis, head coach of Gloucester Catholic right down the street.
"It was weird because I knew everything he was going to do and he knew everything I was going to do," Dennis said yesterday.
"Our parents never knew what side to sit on."
Recently, Bob Barth had been coaching first base for his brother at Gloucester Catholic, helping the team win its 14th state title this year.
One team that the entire Barth family rallied around is the Brooklawn American Legion, a 19-and-under team usually made up of Gloucester Catholic or Gloucester High players.
Joe "Pop" Barth Sr. has managed the team for 59 years, winning 23 state titles and two World Series. Joe Jr. coached the team for 19 years before starting his own "Hit Doctor" baseball academy.
"Baseball is in our family," Dennis said during yesterday's doubleheader.
"It's who we are. He would have wanted us to play."