This is the time of year when I think almost exclusively of youth baseball. I played for many teams and even more coaches, and no one ever came close to the guy who coached our V.F.W. team in the Jaycee League, ages 8-10.
We all knew he wouldn't be like other coaches when he showed up at our first practice with my cousin Denny in tow. Denny was a year older than me, so he was a one-year Jaycee veteran when I came into the league. He'd played for Pepsi-Cola the year before, under the eye of a loud, abrasive and entirely awful coach whose son was renowned for running out of the batter's box in fear every time the pitcher started his windup, lest his parent scream at him, in public, and elsewhere.
Denny didn't really like baseball very much in the first place, but under Pepsi's coach, he quickly grew to loathe it. Denny was very small -- the bat was almost as tall as he was -- and his coach made it far worse. He would typically refuse to play him, but when Denny's father complained, he would stick him in late in the game with explicit instructions, whispering, "Just stand up there. If you swing, you won't play next game." Denny was so little, it was near impossible to throw him a strike, and he would walk almost every time he came up. He would then be replaced with a pinch-runner, followed by a nasty glance from the coach in his father's direction, as if to say, "There's your damned at-bat." Once, Denny, if just out of boredom, swung three times, struck out and was promptly screamed at by the coach. He quietly cried on the bench. That was a game Denny's dad hadn't made it to.
Our new coach made it clear there was a new sheriff in town. "Denny is going to be our catcher. Put the gear on, Denny," he said. Now, Denny did own a glove, but he was rarely called upon to use it, and then only as a harmless right fielder. Denny? As catcher? Any pitched ball would surely knock him over. Denny looked up at his new coach with horror, and excitement. Ricky Simpson, a classy, smart 10-year-old with a firebrand younger brother who ended up in the Coles County Jail, was our best pitcher, and Coach directed him to warm up with Denny. Ricky was nervous himself; he certainly didn't want to hurt the tiny boy. But he fired his best heater in there anyway. Denny, to his surprise, snatched it out of the air with his virgin catcher's mitt. The mask couldn't hide a huge smile. He popped back up and winged it back to Ricky. We had our catcher, and baseball found itself a fan.
The fever swept through the team. There was this chubby eight-year-old named Tim Hawkins. He was so obese he could barely swing the bat, and when he did, it was with no extension, a top spinning wanly. He also couldn't catch with his undersized glove jammed uncomfortably over his plump fingers. Once, when "patrolling" right field during batting practice, he was smacked in the face with a pop-up because he'd been chewing on his glove and watching a nearby train pass.
Coach was undaunted. The first game of the season, Tim was the leadoff batter. In a nice touch, the first pitch hit him … and Coach gave him the steal sign on the very next pitch. He waddled, left and right, toward second and belly-flopped into the base. That the catcher's throw had sailed into center field was irrelevant. He was safe. His grin could be seen three states over.
Then there was John Boeden. A gangly, shy kid from a dirt-poor Mattoon family, raised by a single mother, he would cry every time she dropped him off at practice. He would often refuse to step into the batter's box, then scramble to sit in the car with his mother, who, anticipating a moment like this, would always stay for the first half-hour. Coach would have an assistant run practice, then sit in the car with John and his mother as John tried to explain, through sobs, why he didn't want to play baseball. Coach talked him into coming out, and, a couple of practices later, started calling John "Bulldog," the exact opposite of what he was. His mother even took Coach aside one practice and chided him for applying such a snide nickname. Funny thing though: Two weeks later, he showed up for a game with the name "BULLDOG" blazoned across his uniform. By his final year, he made the city all-star game, and years later, he hit a home run off me in the 13-year-old league that cost us the game.
At this point, I should probably tell you: I hated all of this.
When I was eight, I already was obsessed with baseball, memorizing Stan Musial's statistics and rattling them off to my parents' friends' amazement. At the age of eight, if you loved the game, you were already better than three-quarters of the kids out there, who were plopped in the league just so their parents could have a few hours' peace each week. I was good. I was our team's best player, already.
Problem was, Coach kept batting me near the bottom of the order, behind Tim Hawkins and Denny and Bulldog. My batting average was far higher than theirs, and I could play any position on the field. I deserved to be batting fourth, and pitching, and catching, and playing every damn position on the field if I had to. Why were those shrimps who were so obviously terrible batting above me?
Coach didn't see it that way. I would complain to him regularly -- in the most eight-year-old way possible -- whine about all the attention he gave to the other players, moan about receiving the least batting practice of anyone on the team. Everyone on the team loved Coach instantly, but I didn't see it. Why? All he did was let lousy players on the field when it hurt us the most. We lost to the Elks Club 5-4, which wouldn't have happened had I been batting fifth instead of the Larry James kid Coach was trying to help out.
Coach ignored me -- told me to shut up, even. He was too busy driving out of town to pick up players whose parents couldn't make the trip or putting a kid's name on the back of his jersey if his parents couldn't afford it or weren't around to care. He also had this weird habit, inspired by one of Tim Hawkins' at-bats. Despite Coach's attempts to change the laws of physics and motion, Hawkins' girth made it tremendously difficult to get the bat around on even the weakest of fastballs. Most of his at-bats were strikeouts, walks or a hit-by-pitch (another of Coach's impressive accomplishments was coaxing Hawkins -- or "Hawk," as he was inevitably known by the end of the season -- to resist the temptation to cry every time he was hit). But one time, Hawkins happened to time his lunge at just the right moment, and POW! The ball had all of Hawk's weight behind it and went soaring over the left fielder's head. Hawk stood there in wonder. I did that? Coach noticed the delay, laughed and screamed "GO!" Hawk snapped out of his daze and took off, and somehow ended up on third base. Coach, patrolling the third base coaching spot, hugged him as Hawk stood, panting, on the base. From then on, any time any player would hit the ball, Coach would yell "GO!" I'm sure it annoyed the other coaches, but we all ate it up. The best was when Bulldog drilled one down the first-base line and ended up on third, where he scolded Coach for forgetting. "Hey, you didn't yell GO!"
It was impossible not to get caught up in the fun. We were just kids, playing baseball, just being outside. Even I came around. And we always got milkshakes after the game, whether we won or lost.
Coach led our team's charge for three years, all three years I played for the team. We never won a league title, only made the playoffs once, ending up a perfectly respectable .500 during his tenure. At the end of the third season, the entire team went out to our house for an end-of-the-year picnic. They shocked him with a trophy with the names of every player, with the inscription, "Presented to Coach for a wonderful year. Thank you, and GO!!!!!"
To this day, anytime I'm back in my hometown of Mattoon and run into one of the old V.F.W. kids, they always mention that team and how much fun it was. Many of them played only one more year of organized baseball and learned right quick that most grownups weren't like Coach, that most cared too much about winning and losing and not about making sure that kids were having fun, a part of a team, that it was just important that they were outside. Many of them have kids of their own now. Some of their lives have careened out of control; life's a lot harder outside of Jaycee ball. But they all remember those teams, and they all remember Coach.
If it isn't obvious to you at this point that Coach is my dad, you've never met him.
This column is a modified excerpt from the book "Are We Winning? Fathers, Sons and the New Golden Age of Baseball." (Hyperion)