DOBSON — Surry Central shortstop Forest Kimbrell has chosen Rockingham Community College to continue his baseball career.
The two-time all-conference selection is well known in the Dobson area for driving an SUV with a Central baseball theme across the paint job.
Yes, the SUV was quite distinctive, but Forest’s dream vehicle was a Toyota 4Runner, said mom Tonya. They found a used one for an affordable price in the past week, she said.
Just like his Central playing career, the technicolored SUV was well loved, but now he must move on to the next phase of his life.
The 4Runner will be more useful this summer working in tobacco, Forest said.
Now that he’s chosen a college, he can focus on making a few bucks over playing travel ball to catch the eye of some scouts.
Playing summer ball for Central and for an AAU team wasn’t really about impressing scouts anyway, the senior said. He wanted to play as much as possible for himself, getting a chance to improve every game.
Baseball is a family tradition, according to his mom, and Forest wants to stick with it as long as he can.
Tonya said her great-grandfather played on a semi-pro team in Albany, Georgia, decades ago. As a cheerleader in high school, she enjoyed cheering for her boyfriend’s team.
“I’ve loved baseball for a long time,” she said.
Then her cousin was drafted straight out of high school by the Montreal Expos.
Reid Cornelius, a 6-foot pitcher, grew up in a small town (Thomasville, Alabama) that is a lot like Dobson, Tonya noted. A local boy getting drafted by a major league team was “the biggest thing in the whole wide world.”
Cornelius would win 86 games in the minors, including going 17-5 one season between AA and AAA for the Florida Marlins. He played 45 games in the big leagues with an 8-17 record and a 4.91 ERA.
After his playing career ended, Cornelius went into coaching and has spent the past five seasons as the bullpen coach for the Marlins.
The whole family followed Reid’s career, said Tonya. And when Forest was just three years old, she was tossing him balls in the backyard dreaming about the day when her son could star for a team.
By age five, Forest was playing on a team in Ponte Vedra, Florida.
When Forest was in middle school, Tonya took him to see Cornelius when he was a pitching coach for a Class-A team in Jacksonville.
Forest got to dress out in uniform and join the pitchers and catchers in the bullpen, becoming a regular at games.
The players made Forest an honorary member of the group known as “the unit,” recalled Tonya.
After the game, Forest told his mom, “Yes, momma, this is what I want to do.”
He formed a special bond with one of the pitchers, and now he travels out to California each summer to visit Kasey Olenberger, who retired in 2010, she said.
While in grade school, the Kimbrells moved to Surry County.
Forest played a year for Joe Felts and Chris Mitchell on the Dobson Yankees. Then he moved over to the Salem Fork team coached by Dennis Wilmoth.
When Forest was 11 and 12, his Little League team won back-to-back state titles and advanced to play in regionals in Jacksonville, Florida, and Atlanta, Georgia.
After Forest’s last game for Salem Fork, Tonya said the coach gave the boy a ball and said with pride, “You ain’t nothing but a d——-baseball player.”
His coaches used to joke and say that when Forest made it to the majors he better leave some complimentary tickets at the gate for them, Tonya said.
By this time Forest already was putting in extra hours each week working on his game. He was taking lessons from Ed Goodson, whose son Kirk coaches the West Stokes Wildcats.
Forest also met Bill Jarrett, who drove to Dobson to speak to help his all-star teams in their title runs.
The boy developed a friendship with Jarrett’s grandson Austin Easter, who plays for Alleghany. Austin has committed to UNC-Wilmington now.
When Forest hit a backyard “homer” over their fence was a huge moment for the boy and his proud mom.
When he joined Central Middle School, Forest said his school team lost more games than he ever did at Salem Fork. Every loss ate at him and pushed him to want to learn more.
“There’s been an internal drive ever since I was a little kid,” he said.
UNC basketball coach Roy Williams has often said that he hates losing more than he enjoys winning, and Forest says he feels exactly the same way.
“You play to win, but you practice hard because you don’t want to lose,” he said.
In the ninth grade, Forest played the big three of football, basketball and baseball.
He was so much smaller than the other boys, said his mom. Forest was about 5-foot-3 back then playing against guys who’d already stopped growing.
Then during a medical exam, a doctor discovered a tumor in Forest’s abdomen.
The doctor didn’t want to cause a panic, but let Tonya know that it could be cancerous.
Tonya said Forest was put on a prayer list at their church, and everyone prayed for it not to be cancer.
The surgical team removed the tumor, and it proved to be benign.
It was almost like the tumor was stealing all his nutrition because as soon as Forest had surgery he started to grow, Tonya recalled. He might have even grown an inch on the operating table, she said.
As a sophomore, Forest thought he was still a bit small to play football and decided to focus just on one sport all year.
The result was making the varsity team and earning Northwest All-Conference honor as a shortstop.
As a junior Forest was named an honorable mention for all-conference and made the Northwest All-Tournament Team.
Over the summer between his junior and senior seasons, Forest tore up pitching in the summer league.
After going 0-3 against East Surry at the start of his senior season, Forest put together a nine-game hitting streak from March 6 to April 9. Then after a couple of hitless games, Forest hit safely in eight out of nine games.
He was one of five Eagle starters who batted .300 this season. Forest hit .308 with 24 hits, second to Cole Fowler.
With 10 walks, four times reaching on error and twice being hit by a pitch, Forest reached base 44 percent of the time he came up to bat. That led to him pacing the team with 26 runs scored.
At shortstop, Forest had 85 chances in the field with a .918 fielding percentage.
He even made one start on the mound, pitching six innings for the win with a 3.50 ERA.
Coach Matt Scott told the team once that it wasn’t the statistics he remembered from his own playing days, said Forest. It was the feeling of being on the field and the time spent with his teammates that he remembered, he added.
Forest said what he loved the best was riding back home after a big win on the road.
That’s why two of his best memories are of playoffs wins away from home.
The Eagles beat Wheatmore in a 12-inning game his sophomore year and upset Mount Pleasant in the first round this season.
In that Wheatmore game, the starting pitcher didn’t allow a run for 11 innings before Central broke through for five runs in the top of the 12th for a 5-2 win.
Forest says he now stands 6-foot-3 and he is starting to mature into his bigger size. Because of his late growth, he feels like his best baseball is ahead of him, and he thinks Rockingham is a place that will help him cultivate those skills.
Forest said he really enjoyed talking baseball with the coaches because they seemed to have more knowledge of the game than just about anyone he’s ever known.
After two years at RCC, Forest plans to transfer to a four-year school to earn a degree in chemistry.
If he has a chance to play baseball beyond college, Forest will pursue that with his mother’s blessing.
Forest is smart — fourth in his class in GPA — but he’ll always be smart, she reasoned. He needs a chance to see baseball through as far as he can go, then he can move on his professional career of choice, which is pharmacology at this point.
The senior is a member of the National Honor Society and the National Science Honor Society. He is treasurer of Central’s Interact Club and an active member of Dobson United Methodist Church.
It is for these endeavors — not his glove and bat — that Forest earned the Edward M. Armfield Scholarship to pay for almost all the tuition at RCC.
Tonya said she plans on making the 90-minute drive to Rockingham often to see Forest play. It’s just too much of a family tradition to stop now.
His sister Mattie was raised on concession stand food, she said. When Forest was at Salem Fork, Tonya ran Mattie to the car between innings for diaper changes and nursing.
On Senior Night, Tonya bit back tears as her eldest warned her, “No, momma. There’s no crying in baseball.”
There may not be crying, but there’s plenty of Kimbrell history in baseball.