Some of my fondest childhood memories are of lazy summer Saturday afternoons spent at Fenway Park (http://tinyurl.com/3w68kh8) in the mid-1960’s and the evenings that followed flipping, tossing (http://tinyurl.com/8xfmmcv) and collecting baseball cards with neighbors and friends in the basement of our Framingham home. It was a magical time to be a Red Sox fan (at least until the post-season began!) with the likes of Jim Lonborg, Rico Petrocelli, Tony Conigliaro and my idol, Carl Yastrzemski, routinely populating the daily line-up card (http://tinyurl.com/7jefvpv). Truth be told it also was an incredible time to be collecting baseball cards (Note To Self: Avoid venturing too far down this road lest you be forced to once again admit, in public, that you ultimately “sold” a gold-plated collection that included multiple Maris, Mantle, Mays and Gehrig rookie cards to a friend for $8.95 so you could get a two Whopper lunch at Burger King!).
As much as I grew to love watching baseball and keeping track of the multitude of stats that are such an integral part of its history, however, I was never very good at playing the game. In fact, if corresponding records were kept of such things at the little league level, which, thank God, they’re not, I’m certain I would still hold the Howard Palmetto Khoury League (http://www.howardpalmetto.com) single season and career records for number of strike-outs. Likely that was due, in part, to the fact that my stubbornness in refusing to wear glasses was outdone only by the level of blindness in my left eye and, in part, to my insistence on batting left-handed (just like “Yaz”), when I did absolutely everything else in life right-handed, but it was no less embarrassing – I assure you! Let me make the point this way: The only multi-hit game I ever had was one in which my dad, the third base coach, managed to “steal” the other team’s signs and relay them to me in the batter’s box, so that I knew the intended location and type of pitch (fastball, curve ball, change-up, etc.) BEFORE IT WAS EVEN THROWN – and I still only went 3-4!
Fortunately, I didn’t allow my lack of playing ability to dissuade me from my lifelong desire to coach at the little league level. In fact, I was so eager to coach that I started before I even had children of my own! My eagerness stemmed not from a misguided belief that I was capable of instilling the technical skills required to turn a young boy into the next baseball prodigy – my career “winning” percentages, first as a player and later as a coach, should be more than sufficient to quickly dispel that notion. Rather, I coached because I believed it afforded me an opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of young people, to make friends with other young families, because I loved giving pre- and post-game speeches to the team and, ultimately, to stay connected with a game that I loved and the energy (and joy) that I always derive from being around kids at play.
What I had no way of knowing at the time I started was that, along the way, the young men that I coached would teach me far more about life, about patience and about the true meaning of being a “coach,” than I would ever teach them about baseball. I also never could have anticipated that my experiences as a coach would serve as the inspiration for my first two published works, The Bunt (http://tinyurl.com/d9xl6wt) and Rounding Third (http://tinyurl.com/cgdt6nb), and a third, Todd’s Story, that I recently completed but have not yet published. Perhaps most importantly, however, my coaching served as a catalyst for the following letter, which might not otherwise have been written. It was a letter I received when I was 34 years old. While I’d like to think it was not the first time my dad was proud of me, I’m fairly certain it was the first time he ever used words to tell me he was. I framed it:
May 20, 1992
I have almost recovered from your sterling “World Series Victory” of Saturday last. It was as the shouts of your exuberant team declared to the heavens – “AWESOME!”
The thing I need to comment on is how impressed I was with the conduct of the head coach. I couldn’t help but think how lucky that collection of “All-Stars” was to have a man like you directing them.
No matter the circumstances, your every word to that team and its individual players was one of encouragement. In the darkest moments (10 runs down, for instance), you were constantly assuring one and all that collectively they had the ability not to just fight back, but to win.
Wherever the circumstances dictated despair, you instilled belief. What a marvelous gift that is – the absolute keystone in successful adult-child communication (if I sound jealous, it’s because I am).
The real uniqueness of your style, however, stems from your ability to convey your very special talent in such an enthusiastic, patiently positive manner. And miraculously, you manage to convey it to groups and individuals, as the situation dictates, with equal fervor and with exquisite timeliness.
The result speaks for itself. How sweet Saturday’s victory was. I know much sweeter victories lie ahead.
As special as watching the comeback was for your mother and I, I am compelled to say, one more time, how very proud I was of your performance and how fortunate the youngsters are who came under your influence today, as well as those who will touched by it in the years ahead.
On their behalf, I thank you for so generously sharing your time, your talent, your life and your love.
That letter still hangs in my office, right above my desk – 20 years later.