I was never like most of the little league baseball coaches against whom I competed – the ones who poured over their try-out day notes for weeks before the annual draft trying to find a hidden gem or two to snatch up in the 4th or 5th round who they thought would assure their team’s spot in the post-season tournament; the ones whose major-league-drill-intensive pre- and mid-season practices seemed a lot more like work than play; the ones who viewed “game day” as a life or death event and by their behavior and intensity demanded that umpires and opposing managers do the same. No, my approach was different. Don’t get me wrong. I am as competitive as the next guy and like to win as much (or more) as almost anyone I know. I even will confess to “questioning” an umpire’s call (or two?!?) over the years. But, that was not why I coached. I coached mostly because I always wanted to be an elementary school teacher and it occurred to me that a youth league baseball diamond likely was the closest I would ever come to a classroom. I coached because I saw it as an opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of young people, not so much in the baseball skills department (i.e., the finer points of catching, throwing, fielding and hitting a ball), though, obviously, I did some of that, but in imparting life skills that I hoped would help them in the matters-of-the-heart department. Much to my very talented son’s chagrin, that strategy seldom translated into a lot of wins, but most of the moms and dads seemed to understand and appreciate my lower key, kids-first approach. There were, however, occasional exceptions (both in the dugout and in my living room) as was the case on an especially “memorable” Spring evening back in 1995.
We were mired in an unusually long and demoralizing losing streak (an 0 – 9 start that was abysmal by any standards) and everyone’s patience was wearing thin, including my own. To their credit, the boys on the team had come close several times only to have victory slip through their hands at the last minute thanks to an untimely error or strike-out. Still, game in and game out, they continued to play hard and that night it looked like their tireless efforts would finally be rewarded. We’d built a fairly sizeable lead against one of the league’s better teams thanks to some exceptional pitching and, despite a furious comeback late in the game, we were still clinging to a two-run lead heading into the bottom of the final inning. Under league rules, our starting and second string pitchers had reached the maximum number of pitches allowed which left me with no option but to send our third stringer to the mound for the final 3 outs. He was a very bright, but soft-spoken young man, who made it a habit of doubting his abilities, but he knew how to throw strikes and that’s what we needed most at that critical point in the game. So, after a quick pep talk from yours truly, I sent him and his other “fired-up” teammates onto the field, hoping against hope that they would return victorious. Two quick outs had the guys, their parents and those of us in the dugout poised for celebration. But, two hits and a walk to load the bases changed all of that in a matter of minutes and I could tell from the unmistakable body language of my relief pitcher that he was in full panic mode. I quickly called time out, before the other team’s clean-up hitter could settle into the batter’s box and strolled out to the mound.
By the time I got there, tears had begun to well up in my young pitcher’s eyes and his hands were visibly shaking. Having already stared down a few “demons” of my own by that point in my life (including the fear of failure and of disappointing others), I knew intimately what he was wrestling with. “My arm is really sore Coach,” he said, staring down at his feet. “I don’t think I can throw another pitch. You’re gonna’ need to take me out of the game.” Translation: “Coach, I’m scared to death I’m going to lose this game and let you and my teammates down. I can’t bear to have that happen. You’ve gotta get me out of here!” I remember pausing for a moment to ponder the likely ramifications of the words I had to choose from, scanning first the dugout, then the bleachers and, finally, the expectant, but equally worried faces on the field, as I did. Then, I turned to him, insisting that he look at me, and said, as matter-of-factly as the circumstances would allow, “I’ll tell you what, you can come out of the game right after you strike this guy out.” “But, Coach,” he responded, “if I strike this guy out, the game’s over.” “Exactly,” I said with a wry smile. “But, if you don’t your life’s not – and neither is mine!”. And with that, a pat on the shoulder and a word of encouragement, I turned and headed back to the dugout, as the home plate umpire screamed, “Play Ball!” No sooner had I reached the entrance and turned around than I heard the unmistakable “ping” that’s made when a belt high fastball finds the sweet spot on the oversized barrel of an aluminum bat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a baseball hit by a 10 year-old travel quite as far as that one did (for all I know, it could still be in the air!), nor had I seen such a simultaneous juxtaposition of joy and heartbreak.
I don’t really remember much about my post-game remarks. I’m sure they were wholly inadequate to take away the sting of what had just happened and having to watch the celebration in the opposing team’s dugout. They likely had something to do with how “proud I was of them” and how “no single play or player is responsible for a team winning or losing.” But, I do remember, somewhat distinctly, the car ride home. I remember my son in the back seat and his mom asking me “what in the world I was thinking about in leaving the pitcher in?!?” I remember trying to explain that taking him out would’ve been “the worst thing I could have done,” the one message I couldn’t afford to send – that I thought it was important that he confront, rather than run away from his fears and that teaching him that lesson “when all that was at stake was the outcome of a baseball game” made sense to me. “A 1 run lead with 2 outs in the bottom of the last inning is hardly the time to try and teach a 10 year-old a lesson about life!” she exclaimed. I recall looking in the rearview mirror at the tears streaming down my son’s face as he silently stared out the window and thinking maybe she was right – maybe I could’ve/should’ve picked a better time. But, maybe not. Maybe it was the perfect time – for him and for everyone who witnessed it, including my son (and daughter).
I ran into that young man’s mother a few months back – nearly 20 years later. She told me her son was an investment banker on the West Coast and was doing great! I smiled to myself as I thought back on that moment and my parting words as I left the mound – that no matter what happened with that next pitch his life wouldn’t be over and neither would mine. Turns out, I was at least right about something! Oh, and by the way, that last pitch (the only piece he could control) would’ve been a perfect strike!