Sunday, July 5, 2009

Diamonds Are Forever

So, once again, it's been awhile since I last posted something. Hey, I've been busy. Doing what, you ask? Uh... hmmmm... well, for one thing, I was coaching my sons' baseball team. (Yeah! That's it!)

And, to commemorate the end of the Little League season, I thought I'd re-print (with some minor changes) my very first article for the Courant, which originally ran on October 12, 2003. The piece chronicles my time coaching in Charlestown, Massachusetts, from 1994 to 1998. (Man, that's a long time ago...crap, I'm old.) And, to my knowledge, it's the only baseball article in the history of baseball articles to incorporate, in a meaningful way, a quotation from William Wordsworth.

My apologies to any of my former players mentioned in here, most of whom are now, no doubt, college graduates by now. (Again: crap, I'm old...)

Anyway, here's the piece:

I remember praying for rain.

Call it a ritual; only instead of eating ceremonial fried chicken or wearing lucky underwear, I would pray for a well-timed deluge of the local baseball diamond to delay the infamy of actually playing the game, if only for another day.

Even when cursed with sun, I used procrastination offensively; I spent many anxious dugout minutes constructing mental matrices -- considering the number of batters before me, their approximate averages, and the skill of the other team's infielders -- to calculate the odds of making the dreaded Third Out. Poor attempts to trick time, I admit. And time returned the favor: Things slowed way down on that field -- the walk to the plate, the time in the batter's box, even the trip around the bases when I got to them ("Take that piano off your back!" my coach would yell to me). Yet the fastballs still blazed past the logo on my shirt ...

So why return to the minors 11 years later, as a coach? To redeem my own unheralded baseball career? To beef up my resume or impress women with my sensitivity? Maybe to "prove something" to my father, who was still my hometown's Little League president? Or perhaps it had more to do with my favorite Wordsworth quote, paraphrased: "The best portion of a good man's life are his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love."

Ultimately, I don't really know what inspired my cold-call to the local Little League commissioner, the ample-bodied Wayne Davis, in 1994; luckily, Wayne-O didn't ask.

I'm quite sure Wayne never knew what to make of me. A recent college graduate, I just moved to Boston the previous September. I had no family in the city -- no kids of my own or even any distant cousins. And, as far as he could tell, I didn't excel at or even particularly like playing baseball. But I did have a few things going for me: my own clipboard; three dedicated assistants, Mac, Ace and Jason -- whose cool names, I hoped, compensated for their lack of skill; and, most important, persistence.

We coached for five consecutive seasons. Five years, five annual trips for ice cream and five rosters populated by players of all temperaments and abilities. We had all-stars like the Buhay boys, Danny and Timmy, who seemingly played three different sports at any given time. We had Kerry, the 9-year-old girl who could out-throw anyone on the team, including the coaches. And we had our share of kids like Bobby Stone.

Ah, Bobby Stone (always say first and last name, like Charlie Brown) ... I'm quite sure he prayed for rain. And why not? The kid was terrified of the ball; he hurled himself violently into the dirt on every pitch -- right down the middle, high and outside, didn't matter. Bobby Stone thought everyone was against him, even the coaches. And maybe he was right; we invested so many frustrated practices just trying to keep the boy vertical for his entire at- bat, we almost gave up. But, in truth, I liked Bobby Stone. We needed the naturals to win, but I needed Bobby Stone -- mostly because of my sneaking suspicion that, when I played, I was a bit of a Bobby Stone.

The Bobby Stones notwithstanding, Mac, Jason, Ace and I did enjoy a few successes as coaches. A couple of times, we watched as our team went to first place, once after an undefeated season. With a record like that, you'd think I'd have a few knuckleballs of wisdom to pass on to aspiring coaches, right? In truth, I have a few.

First, always put your name on your glove; with all the post-game commotion, the odds are good someone else will walk off with it accidentally. Don't try to coach alone; you can't juggle everything, and besides, who else will want to listen to your war stories about the unassisted triple play?

Don't argue with the ump; you may think you're standing up for your kids, but you're really undermining the spirit of sportsmanship. Don't have scrimmages as practices; they degenerate too quickly. Concentrate on catching and throwing; at this level, defense wins games.

Don't even bring up bunting.

And that crap about "little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love" -- don't believe a word of it.

Maybe, to my shame, I wanted my acts of kindness named and remembered. And maybe that's why, when I look back on my coaching career, I keep returning to this one spot of time.

It's our second year, after the first win of the season (not too many follow that year). I take aside our spunky pitcher, Ryan Collins -- who brought religion to the team by blessing himself before every pitch -- and privately present him with the game ball. Bursting with excitement, Ryan asks if I have a pen. I don't -- we kept score in pencil --and ask him why.

"I wanted to write your name on it," he tells me, before running off to show his mom his blank trophy. Meanwhile, I remain crouching there by that first baseline, thinking: Of all the times not to have a pen!

By signing that baseball, by cementing that moment through the power of ink, I could have guaranteed that our time on the field would be kept somewhere, preserved. Somewhere in Ryan's bedroom -- maybe on a bookshelf, maybe under the bed, to be uncovered only when he packs up for college, but somewhere -- would remain a baseball with a name on it. And I could live again.

Of course, Ryan Collins wouldn't remember he said that; he probably didn't remember two minutes later, and I think that's precisely what ate away at me that night. I want the instant replay to apply in the minors. And I mean, permanent instant replay. I want the kids we coached to remember their time on the field with nostalgia, not as obligations that fell in between thunderstorms. And, when they do remember their baseball days, I want them to recall their coaches not just as the guys who yelled frantically from the baseline to get the ball back to the pitcher. I want them to show up on ESPN someday and mention their former coaches by name. But, in a simpler way, if they grow up, get good grades, go to college and just end up as good people ... well, I want to take a little bit of credit for that, too.

And I know that's unfair. I vaguely remember my own Little League coaches as nice-enough guys, but none of them affected my life in a lasting manner. And yet, I somehow assumed my coaching experience would work differently. We spent our time telling them to get their gloves down when stopping a ground ball, to lift the bat off their shoulders, to run past first base. Somehow, from that, they were supposed to learn, "Don't do drugs, drive carefully, be good to each other."

The four of us -- Mac, Ace, Jason, and I -- always said that one of the best parts about being a coach is the distance: your responsibility to these kids ends with the last out. Yet I found myself referring to them as "my kids," as if we had anything to do with them when a bat and ball wasn't in the vicinity. In truth, I was just someone who told them where to go next inning. I had to give them back.

To rescue me from complete self-absorption, Mac once offered: "Is it about whether they'll forget us? The question is, will we ever forget them? No way."

And this has comforted me. And so, while some more accomplished Little League veterans get ready to do battle in the upcoming World Series, I'll be remembering that impromptu post-game practice when we stayed with Ashley and used a Wiffle ball and bat to help her get over her fear of hitting. Or that season-ending loss, when Steven came over to give me a hug, as tears crushed down his disappointed, befreckled face. Or that 1994 championship final, when Bobby Stone planted his feet in that box and swung the bat, connecting ...

Five years in the minors. Five summers, with the length of five long winters. Five years, five rosters, and a few insights. Don't yell at the ump; you don't want to be remembered that way. Put your name on your glove. Make sure they step on each base.

Oh, yeah. .. and always have a pen handy.