Life is not salvage to be saved out of the world, but an investment to be used in the world.
Recently I found myself driving alone under a full moon along Interstate 80 for over two hours. I relish this time as being a busy husband and father that I rarely get moments of solitude. It was a cool night in the 70s after being 100 the night before so I was able to shut off the air conditioner, lower the windows and enjoy the night air. The Eagles were singing about the Seven Bridges Road while I criss-crossed over the winding Platte River. My shorts and shirt were soaked. Life was good.
The night before I had made the drive eastward, back to Lincoln after having watched my oldest son’s baseball season come to an early end due to a hard fastball to the ribcage. The next day his team was going to be playing without him, trying to stay alive in the State Tournament, and I was driving in the opposite direction. The last images I had had of Nolan were of a sweaty, scared 14-year old boy fighting for his breath while lying on his back in the grass behind the grandstand in Hastings. The blow to his ribcage was causing his diaphragm to spasm and he could not catch his erratic breath. He was scared as was I, but before I left he was again breathing normally by inhaling shallowly.
But I was going back to Lincoln. I was going back to honor a promise to a group of ten fourteen year old boys. I was going back to my team. It was the team I had coached since they were ten years old. While we’d had various boys come and go over the years there was still a core group of boys whom I had coached since 2006, but watched play their first t-ball games together four years before that. Nolan and his best friend Brian had been members of that core group but they moved on in May after making their high school freshman summer team. I had offers from parents to coach the boys so I could stay in Hastings but I would have none of it. This was my team.
(I must also point out that my assistant coach this year, Bill, made the drive back as well. His son Brian would play the next day yet he, too, came back to coach. I told him to stay since Brian would get to play but Nolan was done. He came back anyway. A good man.)
I had resisted coaching Nolan’s team at first. My prior gig had been as a high school coach and I knew that the boys, especially Nolan, needed a gentler hand than I’d likely offer at such a tender age. I say especially Nolan as with me being his father and coach it would surely be a hard test for him. (And at times it was.) During the 2005 season the group of 9-year olds were left without a coach in the waning weeks when the college-aged coaches decided to skip out on a team suffering with an 0-10 record. I took over with another dad for the final two games and the boys responded by winning them both. We’ve not looked back.
Over the next five years they would go 58-22. I would have the honor of hanging medals around their necks for four of those seasons: a bronze, a silver and two golds. But the team and the game was never about winning medals. The real rewards of coaching this team came in what we taught each other.
In the end I learned every bit as much as I taught. I considered this truth while watching a group of 9-10 year olds play their final games a few days ago. It was sweltering hot and the boys just wanted the long season over. And there he was…or rather there they were…the same men I see all too often on baseball fields around the country. He was there in his various incarnations: the yeller/screamer, he of the wild gestures and bulging eyes, arguing with teenage umpires and anyone who will listen. He disgusts me, and I fought the urge walk onto the field to kick his ass. Because he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t see the moments he’s missing because he’s doing his best Earl Weaver impersonation. He thinks the game is all about him. He is a moron and I feel sorry for him. I feel more sorry for his players.
Was I perfect? Hell, no. I did my share of pacing, snapping and growling. I’ve got a clipboard that I used for all five years held together by duct tape because in 2008 I had to release my frustrations in a non-verbal fashion so I simply snapped it in two with my hands. In hindsight I think the sight of me doing that got the boys’ attention more than any tirade would have done. No, I wasn’t perfect. I was hard on them. But they always knew WHY I was being that way. Not because I wanted them to finish in first place, but because of a talk we had each year during the first practice when we set goals as a team and as individuals. My goal was always the same: to teach them the game and its fundamentals as best I knew how. To prepare them for high school ball should they decide to pursue that path. To have fun.
But there was always one more that I never shared with them. One day some or most of these boys will be dads. They may be called upon to coach their son’s or daughter’s team. I wanted them to be prepared for that day. I don’t want any of them to be the next generation of yellers and screamers. We’ve got enough of those as it is.
It is important to me that these young boys grow to be fine young men, whether on the ballfield or as is more likely, off of it. We often talked a little philosophy, of making good life decisions, and a little about faith. Of course we also talked about the importance of hitting the cutoff or never throwing behind the lead runner.
In the end they taught me how to have more fun as well. This year two twin boys joined our team, Zach and Pat. Nolan and I have known them for a few years as they played midget football with him. They are large boys that while twins are very different. Pat is the more quiet of the two. Zach is the outgoing kid with a smile that never quits. Their sister and family came to all the games and would holler their nicknames (Pat was “Bubba” and Zach was “Zubee”). After calling him Zubee Zach smiled at me and told me that he preferred “Big Sexy”. Seriously, the kid has a million dollar smile and a twinkle in his eye so it was hard not to laugh. The final two weeks of the year he kept at me to call him that and I told him it would be a cold day in hell before that happened.
And this brings me finally back to that final Saturday when I’d driven back to Lincoln. I had told the boys that for the final two games I wanted them to just have fun. Look at the skies, soak in the green of the grass and the faces in the stands. For many these might be their final games. So after losing a disappointing first game to a team we’d beaten two weeks before it was time to take the field for game two. Disappointed eyes stared at me. We were the #2 seed. We shouldn’t have lost that game. They weren’t having fun.
Getting on a knee I said “Before we take the field, I want you to know that it has been an honor and a privilege to coach you boys. I’ve loved every minute of it and wouldn’t trade any of you for anyone else. In two hours it will be over. Let’s get out there and play hard for seven innings…give me all that you’ve got and then reach down and give me some more. Support each other. Keep your heads up. Communicate. Do your best. Have fun.”
And then I stood up to look at them, smiled, put my hand on theirs in the huddle and said: “Big Sexy on three and then we take the field.” They all looked at me to see if they’d heard me right. My smile told them that they had.
“1-2-3 Big Sexy!” They ran out to their positions, parents laughing, and Zach laughing the most of all. He couldn’t believe it. Hell had frozen over.
We lost 9-8. But they played their butts off.
So we posed for team photos, they poured the water cooler over my back, and I placed the silver medals around their necks. Hanging the medals on the necks of the core group I’d had the longest were the hardest as more than one hug was exchanged.
Before we parted I said this: “You are going to be told over and over that the next four years will be the best years of your lives. That is a load of crap and don’t you dare believe it. These will be the hardest, most difficult and challenging years for you. You all have my number. You’ve been to my house. You are welcome any time. You will get through the next four years and emerge battered, bruised, and ready for the next step of your life’s journey. So when are the best years of our lives? Heck boys I don’t know. Each year gets better for me. The past five years with you have been among them.”
Baseball is a drama with no clock and a natural narrative arc in three acts—the early, middle and late innings—each with its own distinct feel. These boys are still in their early innings and I hope I helped guide them through their initial lineup of life. I’m in my middle innings and prepping for the final stage of the game, and they in turn helped prepare me for it.
I walked to my car, rolled down the windows and turned up the Eagles. This inning was over. The next one begins now.
Thank you boys: Zach, Brendan, Alex, Brian, Brian, Tyler, Nolan, Garrett, Zach, Brandon, Pat, Nick and Connor. And my thanks to former players Sam, John, Sam, Tanner, Gabe, Simon, Jared, Zac, Kaleb, Colton, Nathan, Zachary and Devon.
Thank you coaches. Brian, Will, Jared, Tom, Rich and Bill.
And thank you parents. You trusted me. I’m forever grateful.