There were a lot of things I enjoyed about coaching little league baseball: the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of highly impressionable young people; the chance to stay connected to and teach a game that I had loved since I was a little boy (likely because it meant spending time with my own dad); the competition, even if, more seasons than not, my teams, some of which were quite talented, ended up with “less than stellar” won/loss records; the challenge and satisfaction that came along with building and then being the leader of a team; and the smell of freshly mown grass on a beautiful Saturday morning. But those who know me best will quickly tell you that the thing I liked most about coaching were the pre-game, between inning and post-game dug-out “speeches” – what I like to refer to as my “Knute Rockne moments.” I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a cheerleader at heart. Whether it was on the baseball diamond, at the dinner table, in the recital hall or at the office, I seldom passed on an opportunity to try and inspire. And, I think, at times, I was reasonably good at it – or so I was told. In fact, many of the people I was charged with the responsibility of firing at my old firm would later tell me they left my office feeling as if our letting them go “was the best thing that ever happened to them!”
I remember one little league game in particular. It was the 1992 HPKL Atom II All-Star Game at Suniland Park. Despite the fact that my team had a mostly forgettable season (we wound up 2-12), 3 of my players were selected to play on the Eastern Division team and I, in turn, was invited to be one of the assistant coaches. I’ll never forget that day – the unusually large crowd filling the bleachers and spilling over onto the surrounding sidewalks and several spectators deep along each of the foul lines; the excitement and sense of anticipation that was in the air; and, most of all, the joy and enthusiasm that was on the doughnut and Sunny Delight fueled faces of the Eastern Division All-Stars as they raced onto the field to start the game. I also will never forget the looks of disbelief and defeat on those same faces as they dragged their butts off the field 20 minutes later after a barrage of hits by their Western Division rivals combined with several uncharacteristic fielding errors, likely triggered by nerves, led to a 10-0 first inning deficit. Our coaches had similar looks on their faces, which, I suppose, is why they turned to me (that and their knowing I’d found myself in that same position many times during the year) to try and help breathe new life into the situation. “I need everyone in the dugout!” I shouted – and, once assembled, my trademark: “Listen up . . .”
Obviously, I can’t remember what I said verbatim, but I recall it went something like this:
“I’m seeing a lot of long faces on this bench. In fact, I hardly recognize you guys as the same team that took the field just 20 minutes ago. How many of you think we’ve already lost this game? (Heads down, all hands sheepishly raised, one at a time). Well, you’re wrong – we haven’t! It’s only the first ½ inning – there are 7 more innings to be played. Let me ask you another question: Who wants to be part of the biggest comeback in the history of the HPKL All-Star Game?!? (Eye contact, several inquisitive looks (coaches included), even a smile or two – and, once again, all hands are raised. Goal established.) Here’s how we’re going to do that (Head Coach, curious, joins the meeting). I don’t want to get all the runs back in this first inning (there are some advantages to being the only adult in the room(reverse psychology 101). That will just motivate them. I want them to keep thinking they’re “all that” – to stay cocky and over-confident. Instead, we’re going to score a couple of runs each inning, tighten up our defense in the field to keep them from scoring, then we’re going to take the lead in the bottom of the 6th inning, shut them down in the 7th and win this game! Are you with me? (All hands shoot up. Excitement and anticipation return. Pathways to success defined and agreed to).”
Remarkably, the game played out precisely as I had HOPED. “We” took a two run lead in the bottom of the 6th. In their final at bat, the West All-Stars scored one run and, with two out and men on first and second, their best hitter hit a line drive to right field, typically the fielding position where teams try to “hide” their least talented player. Unbeknownst to the opposing third base coach, however, I had “snuck” my regular season shortstop and arguably our team’s best player out there at the start of the inning on a hunch. As the runner from second rounded third on the hit to left, the coach fully expected to tie the game and, at worst, send it into extra-innings. I remember the grin breaking across my lips as Brian cleanly fielded the drive on one hop and threw a perfect strike to home plate, where our catcher snagged it and applied the game-winning tag! I wish everyone could have seen the pure joy that exploded in the hearts of each of the players on that little baseball field when the home plate umpire screamed “You’re OUT!” More importantly, I wish all of us (the players, the coaches, the parents and the spectators) would have understood the significance of what all of us had been a part of that very special May morning. Though none of us realized it at the time, we had witnessed Professor Snyder’s “hope” theory in action.
The truth is: that All-Star game is a microcosm of many of our lives. We start the “game” with a great of deal of enthusiasm, full of life, eager to see what waits for us around every corner – confident that our dreams will come true. And then, the unexpected happens. It puts a small chink in our armor or, worse yet, knocks us completely off our stride. Fear and self-doubt, the precursors to hopelessness, gain a foothold in our souls, as does our sense that “defeat” is imminent. If we’re incredibly well-adjusted and put-together, we may have a chance of righting the ship ourselves and getting back on track. More likely, however, we will need a “coach” (or two) – someone we trust implicitly or, better yet, a trained professional who can help us to: (1) set some goals; (2) discern the pathways to achieving them; and (3) be there to support, encourage and hold us accountable for remaining on those paths. That’s where you and I come in. We’re all in this together folks. We need to be sensitive to the seeds of hopelessness in those around us, before they find fertile ground. We need to be “educators” that hope is an acquired skill. And most of all, we need to be “encouragers” – purveyors of hope – in helping to motivate others to “initiate and sustain” the pathways that will lead them to their realization of their goals and dreams. It’s never too late – even if it’s 10-0!