The Redz Bar and Grille at the DoubleTree Suites in Mt. Laurel New Jersey had found themselves a loyal, if slightly malodorous customer.
“Another Old-Fashioned, sweetheart?” said Sally, the been-there-forever bartender with the voice of a thousand cigarettes.
“Please,” I sighed in return.
“Not sure why I even asked,” she replied with a grin, stealing the evidence of melted ice, cherry stems and orange peels from view.
“Get him as many as he wants, and don’t let him pay!” shouted a voice from the door. My co-coaches were wandering in.
“We had a feeling you’d be in here,” said TJ, clapping one of his Hagrid-sized hands on my back. He, Steve, and Mark had popped to their room to wash off a double-header’s worth of dirt from their bodies and souls. Me, I couldn’t wait that long.
“Tough day at the office,” added Steve, ordering himself an Amstel Light and sliding in beside me.
“No doubt about that,” I replied. “I hope the kids are okay. I mean, they’re nine years old, for god’s sake. What the hell did I just do out there?”
For it was not our two wretched losses that sent me to Sally. Yes, we lost by mercy rule twice, the second time to a team we clearly could have competed with. But all these kids here at the “Killer B” tournament had never actually traveled out of Arlington to play. And because at the outset of the summer there wasn’t even going to be a 9u B-Team, we got off to a very late start.
But this was our second tournament, and after going winless in our first, and then losing to the summer house team who had won the local team tournament I had coordinated (The Duel for the Doughnuts–still love the name!), the fact that this group of boys had still not gelled weighed on me.
I felt like my coaches and I had done everything, kept things positive when we were down, tried to focus on what we were doing right and where we needed to improve. But when the kids pranced out of the dugout after our drubbing in the same happy-go-lucky way they had done in every game before, with their Christmas morning smiles of the impending pool and pizza mayhem to come, my “relentless optimism” needle finally hit empty.
“I have no idea why any of you are smiling right now.”
“You have nothing to smile about.”
Yep, that’s how ole’ Coach Sunshine began. The smiles, as you might expect, faded into wide-eyed silence.
Now, I cannot remember word-for-word what vomited from my brain thereafter, but piecing it together as best I can, here’s how it pretty much went:
Our mantra as a team is “Win Every Inning.” And in every game before this one—win or lose—you worked hard to do just that. Whether we were ahead or behind, you worked your hardest and did your best to get better every inning, to compete every inning, and to help the team every inning.
Until this game.
I know some of you here feel lousy about losing. And do you know what? I’m glad. Not that winning is the most important thing about baseball, but caring about it, wanting to compete, that is right up there at the top of the list.
When we got down early, I didn’t hear anyone try to pick his teammates up. I heard more talking about the pool party than about the next at bat. More teasing and joking rather than yelling and cheering. You didn’t lose this game because that team was better than you. They aren’t. You lost it because they wanted to win and you didn’t seem to care.
We are your coaches, and we selected you out of the many other kids who came to try out. And I’ll tell you now that I don’t regret any single one of our decisions. There is not one of you I’d even think about replacing with another player who tried out. But while we can tell you what it means to be a team, while we can instruct you on how to improve your game, while we can try to get you to understand how winning baseball is played, we can’t get out there and play for you.
The first half of our season is over. Tomorrow is the last game of this tournament, and the last chance to show people outside Virginia what “The Aces Way” means. What we do in the second half of the summer is in your hands. You can either come together, or fall apart.
I believe in you. All of us coaches do. But you have to start believing in what you can do together. We saw today what happens when you don’t.
So go, eat pizza and noodle around like crazy men in the pool. But think about what I’ve said, and decide what kind of team you want to be starting tomorrow.
No team cheer to end things off. I was tempted, but not this time. Just a quiet parting of the ways as the boys lugged their gear off and headed back to the hotel.
And that’s what brought me to the bar. Normally I’d have a beer with the parents and play around with the kids. But I felt that Coach Grumpypants didn’t have a place at that that table. So after stealing away with a couple of slices of pie (by the way, if you’re in the Mt. Laurel area, I can’t recommend Montesini’s Pizza highly enough, ambrosia for this New York slice-deprived Arlingtonian!), I retired to drown my sorrows and question who I really was as a coach.
The next morning, Gunnar and I wandered into the restaurant for the breakfast buffet and saw my kids scattered about.
“Have a good time last night?” I asked Kyle.
“Yes Coach,” he replied quietly.
“Ready to start our second half strong?” I followed.
“Yes Coach!” he replied earnestly.
I got the same sort of responses from the kids as I wandered around the room, and when we all got to the field, there did seem to be more of a sense of determination. It did start with my own son, who ate from the “Vat O’ Eggs” at the breakfast buffet and found they didn’t agree with him. He excused himself, trotted to the garbage can, threw up, and returned to the hitting line.
“Gunnar, why don’t you just rest?” asked TJ.
“No thanks Coach, I’m fine, really!” Gunnar said forcefully.
Love the ole’ Boot-and-Rally.
And we could all see right at the beginning that there was something different about the kids. They were still having fun, but the way they had fun was different. We got down two runs early, and in past games that would have triggered a “here we go again,” reaction. But this time we managed to wriggle out of it, and the team was psyched. We then went from just losing an inning to tying one, as they held us down again, but we threw up a goose egg of our own.
It felt like real baseball.
We all felt it.
And then we exploded.
We hit, we walked, we stole, we hollered and we listened. Three outs later, the score was 10-2 in our favor.
We had been here once before, in the final game of our first tournament when we ran out of pitching and blew a big lead. But this time was different. Yes, we wobbled and they came back. But we tacked on and didn’t allow any inning to get out of control.
14-9 your final.
16 young boys streamed from the “good game line” straight out to the wailing throng of parents in Center Field, filled to overflowing with their first flush of victory in travel ball.
It wouldn’t be their last.
For the next time we tasted the sting of defeat would be the championship game of our final tournament of the season. But that’s a story for another time.
I’m still not sure if I straddled that fine line you try to walk as a youth coach, or I stepped over it, but I do know that by challenging these kids to expect something of themselves, and each other, there is no doubt in my mind that it impacted their mindset from there on in. Too many times we coaches try to be everything to our players—certainly I may be more guilty of that than most. So by allowing them to realize that this was their team, it empowered them to become more than the sum of their parts.
And those parts were pretty darned great to begin with.