Yesterday afternoon marked the final game of my first season as a little league baseball coach.
We, the Red Sox, scored two runs.
They, the Angels, scored eight or nine.
In other words, we got slaughtered in the wrap-up of a 6-4 campaign.
And, with that, everything came to an end.
I am happy. I am also sad.
I’m happy because I’m tired. Coaching a bunch of 7- and 8-year olds can beat on a guy. Boys that age are gross and annoying and irksome and inattentive. But I’m sad, because they’re also loving and smart and inquisitive and unique. I’m happy, because my Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings will now be free. I’m sad, because my Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings will now be free.
Some background: My son’s name is Emmett. He’s 8, and he very much likes baseball. When we moved to Southern California from New York late last year, I was warned—repeatedly—that people out here are crazy about baseball; that many take what should be a child’s best memories and turn them into sludge. I heard tales of overly competitive parents; of 9-year-olds having personal pitching coaches; of managers who—when the kids are but 8, 9 and 10—align them to specific positions for the entire season; of a rush to transform Junior (of the Emmett Pearlman variety) into the next Junior (of the Ken Griffey variety).
So, in a way, this is why I volunteered to coach. Because, having covered baseball (and sports) for such a long time, I was well versed in the dark side of athletics. Truth is, I’ve spent time with thousands of professional athletes, and a large percentage (lives devoted to the singular pursuit of meeting ball with wood stick, or launching an oblong ball far down a grass field) are as hollow as a termite-infested oak. Try asking Major Leaguers to name, say, the secretary of state, or their parents’ anniversary, or (members of the Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Giants and A’s) whether there’s a drought going on in California. I assure you, the responses will be largely jarring and sad and uninformed. Why? Because to make it as a high-level athlete, you need to hyper focus in a way 99.9 percent of us will never understand. Your priority is not your wife or your kids or your parents or even your happiness. It’s hitting that ball with that stick. Over and over and over again.
It’s the reason athletes, as I said earlier, are often hollow. It’s also the reason, as soon as a career ends, unhappiness and emptiness (often unsolvable) ensues.
Wait. That was quite the tangent.
I didn’t volunteer to coach so I could keep kids from becoming pro ballplayers. No, I volunteered to coach because childhood is fleeting, and too many adults forget this. I volunteered to coach because I wanted my son and his peers to have a blast. Yes, to learn and absorb a beautiful game. But also to run and jump and chase and joke and kid and laugh and fart and burp and spit.
I’m 43. A month ago, I was 9—a little boy playing catcher and wearing No. 11 for Jenny Oil in the Mahopac Sports Association Little League. I still vividly recall squatting behind home plate, my sneakers in the dust, nervously awaiting a pitch from Mike Abbott, our best (and only?) pitcher. I remember the highs of a single up the middle, the lows of getting tagged out at second. Mainly, I remember the happiness of being on a team and feeling a part of something. The specific lessons? Fleeting. The emotions? Powerful.
I thought about those emotions often this season. Our team name was (somewhat regrettably) the Red Sox. During our first practice, I told the kids that we were cursed by a boring moniker, and every week a different player would choose our name. Over the course of the season, we were the San Francisco Stinkers, the Mahopac Gatorsaurs, the Cleveland Purple Band-Aids, the Anaheim Butts. I handed out my old baseball cards as rewards for hustle, hard work, attentiveness (There is something quite funny in hearing an 8-year old turn to you and say, “Was George Hendrick good?”). After every game—win or lose—our players gathered in a circle, hands in, and chanted two things. First, the opposing team’s name. Then, “I am a jelly donut!”
I started the season eying the 13 players somewhat warily. I ended the season by truly loving them. We were a quirky group. Lucas, the dashing jock who showed up every week in eye black. Max, inexperienced, ruthlessly hard on himself—and 1,000 times improved from the season’s start; Ashton B., owner of $100 million athleticism and an endearing Bobby Meacham-esque need to throw sidearm; Davis, who would approach me mid-game with thoughts like, “Maybe green would be better if it were blue”; Jason, grinning dimple to dimple whether he struck out or singled; Dax, who walked, ran and hit like a miniature Ty Cobb clone; Ashton H., the biggest kid on the team and the biggest heart on the team … who saw me at an after-school bake sale and said, “What cookie would you like, coach?”; Anderson, who arrived for most practices with his grandpa in tow, and would look proudly toward the gray-haired man in the stands every time he smacked a ball down the first base line; Henry, who never complained whether he hit leadoff of 13th, played shortstop or right field; Michael, who thanked me four times after yesterday’s game for “such a great season”; Bradan, who could swing through 10-straight pitches, then launch a rocket to center and bark, “That was great!”; Emmett, my boy, who played so incredibly hard, who never moped when I (regularly) sat him two innings so others could get more time; who tried throwing three knucklers while pitching in our last game, and looked back at me with a sly grin after each effort.
Perhaps the most rewarding (from a coaching standpoint) of the group was Caden, who showed up for the first practice knowing very little of the game’s intricacies. He’s a small kid with a surprisingly quick bat, but his attention would flicker like an outdoor candle. In one of our first games, Caden was standing on first when Lucas smashed a double, and he forgot to run. “Caden!” I yelled. “Run! Caden! Run!” At that moment, I thought, “Hmm … this kid could be a challenge.”
Then, amazingly and unexpectedly, something clicked. I let Caden pitch and—somewhere deep within his skinny right arm—was a bolt of J.R. Richard lightning. He threw strikes. Hard strikes. And you could see his eyes light up with excitement. That line (eyes light up) is an awful cliche—but, in this case, it was true. Something flipped in the boy; a “Holy shit, I can do this!” moment that reminded me why I volunteered to coach and why youth baseball has survived for decades, even when more exciting and popular games come along and steal some limelight.
Will Caden ever become a Major Leaguer?
Almost certainly not.
But will he remember the spring of 2015? Of standing on the mound for your Anaheim Butts?
I sure hope so.