The Eternal Spring, and Autumn, of a Coach’s Life

Rookie coach hadn't quite figured out his style, or the directions to the gym...

My rookie season in ’06. Hadn’t quite found my style, or the directions to the gym…

Opening Day 2013 is coming this weekend for the Arlington Babe Ruth youth baseball league, and we’ve been hard at work getting the kids’ arms, bats, and voices ready (for as I tell my kids, the most important thing about being a baseball player is supporting and respecting your teammates).

This is actually the first year since Gus was four that I’m not the head coach of his team.  Indeed, I had made my farewells last year as now that he’s entered the highest level of his league, I thought that would be a good time to admit that I’ve reached the level of my own incompetence.

I actually wrote a piece for a local magazine last year that they liked and wanted to run, but their spring edition had already gone to press.  They asked if they could hang onto it until this spring, but they’ve decided not to use it.  Well, so much for local celebrity…

I still think it’s a nice piece, and very much encapsulates both my feelings at the time, but, more than that, my feelings about how special it is to be a coach.  So to all my fellow coaches out there, be it baseball, soccer, chess, or, well, just life (that’s pretty much what parenting is, right?), I hope you enjoy and…Play Ball!

One More Trip Around the Bases
An Arlington Babe Ruth coach starts a last season with his boys

A dust cloud that Pig Pen of Peanuts fame would be proud of erupted from the trunk of my ancient Saturn station wagon.  Out from a season of hibernation came the menagerie of baseballs, whiffle balls, tennis balls, bats, helmets, tees, and plenty of instant ice packs that comprise the youth baseball coach’s toolkit.

As I lugged my myriad wares up the small but steep hill separating Quincy Park #3 (that’s the field on the other side of the tennis courts from the library) from the street, I fumbled with a new toy that I learned about from the good folks at the Virginia Baseball Club out in Merrifield.  “The Spatula” as they call it is a specially designed bat that helps players keep their hands in the right place as they make contact with the ball.  But as I twirled this sophisticated piece of baseball technology in my hand, so eager to put it into use, I couldn’t help but recall the first piece of coaching equipment I used a half-a-dozen years ago—an orange hand puppet called “The Tickle Monster.”

Some seven seasons ago, my elder son Gus began his first season playing the game he was genetically designed to love (my wife and I had our engagement pictures taken at Shea Stadium, to clue you in).  As soon as the Arlington Babe Ruth baseball league age rules permitted, we signed him up to play BlastBall!—a rudimentary form of tee ball with a base that honks like a clown nose when a player jumps on it.  As I filled out the paperwork, I arrived at the inevitable check box asking, “Would you like to help coach a team?”  My answer was swift and definitive—No [insert inappropriate expletive of your choice here] Way!

I love baseball, but the thought of trying to teach it to a dozen wide-eyed kindergarteners the nuances of baseball—a game not exactly designed for short attention spans—was beyond what this rookie Dad could even imagine.  I had enough trouble just teaching one child to poop in the potty (like Father, like Son, so my mother tells me).  But then I saw the way Coach Brown handled the boys and organized the chaos.  He grabbed parents as he needed to coach bases, handle drills, and pull kids off each other with the inevitable scrum caused by grounders.  It wasn’t quite baseball yet, but it was pure joy.

So next year when I arrived at the check box, I thought about it a bit more.  I certainly wasn’t ready to coach a team on my own, not with a toddler running around and a full-time job.  But I did enjoy it when Coach called upon me to help, and so my mouse traveled toward the check box, and, click, I was now happily committed to helping out.

A month later, I stood in front of twelve squirming five- and six-year-olds…alone. It seemed very few other parents had checked that magic box.  And so with a tattered bag of balls, a tee, a honking base, and absolutely no clue, I was now Coach Scott.

I knew I was out of my depth immediately as blank stares met me when I explained why I loved baseball so much (Note: telling Kindergarteners how exciting the anticipation of action is in baseball is not a good coaching tip).  And when I lined them up to hit and run, most of the kids either chased after the ball when they hit it, or ran straight to their parents for a hug.  Baseball was nowhere to be seen, as gloves became excavation equipment filled with the irresistible object of the rock-laden infield.  When a couple of boys came staggering up to the plate like drunken sailors, I looked up to find the cause of their wobbles came not from a stray beer vendor, but from the nearby hillside where they were escaping to roll down.

There was no control in this chaos, and Coach Scott’s career seemed destined to last all of one practice.  I reached into my practice bag desperately looking for another ball as one of my last ones went rolling into the sewer.  And out came one of Gus’s favorite toys that I had shoved in there for the trip home—a furry, orange five-fingered hand puppet called the “Tickle Monster.”  “What is that?” said William, suddenly disinterested in rubbing dirt in Russell’s hair.  The other kids saw it, too, and flew to the felted flame.

Holy crap, I actually had their attention!  “Why, this…This is the Tickle Monster!” I said.  The kids laughed.  “He’s here because he’s very hungry, and he eats by tickling players who don’t know how to run to first base!” Nothing but wide open mouths and laser-focus.  “Should we play a game with him?”  These kids who not three minutes ago seemed like a walking advertisement for Ritalin all yelled “YEAH!” in unison, as a team.  I had each step to the plate, and take a swing.  They would then run to the base, with me and Tickle Monster would be right behind them making crazy yummy noises.  If they got to the base before ole TM could get them, they were safe.  If not, it was a tickle feast for the monster.  By snack time, the kids sucked lustily at their juice boxes as they had worked up a powerful thirst cheering for their teammates to escape their orange nemesis.

And that was when I realized what coaching was all about.  Not talking about your love for a sport.  Not imparting your knowledge of the game.  Coaching is all about channeling joy through a particular prism—in this case, pairing baseball with uncontrollable laughter.  And so from the Tickle Monster was born the Crab and Gator drill (fielding), the Riddler Run (base running), the Solar System Swing (hitting), and many more.

For my big guys, the Tickle Monster is now a distant memory.  And soon, I will be, too.  Next year, they’ll move to a higher level where there will be a player draft, and coaches who know the game far better than I.  Indeed, one of my older players “graduated” this year.  His mother left me this note:

“I wanted you to know that we had a meeting with his teachers…  When asked if there was anyone other than his family that he felt comfortable with and trusted and he listed you and only one other person as those people.  Thank you so much for being a person that [he] trusts. You are a wonderful role model for all those boys.” 

So while my motto has been all about the fun, I see now how much power and responsibility a coach can have on a child’s life.  Even though we may only see them a couple of times a week, a few months out of the year, a coach is a teacher of choice. For while school teachers can be and often are the very best of role models outside the family, with coaches, the child is choosing to take on another responsibility and is actually seeking out guidance.

As I unpacked the equipment for this last first practice, a deep, warbling voice came up from behind, saying “Coach, what time is practice over?”  I turn around and see Neil, one of my Tickle Monster victims, his boyish smile now framed with a peach-fuzz moustache.  Now, in this final season, they’ll coach me in a skill I’ll certainly need for the rest of my life—how to let go as your kids grow up.  But not just yet…there’s still time for one more trip around the bases.  And I’ll savor every last step.

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2 Responses to “The Eternal Spring, and Autumn, of a Coach’s Life”

  1. Libby Harris Says:

    To my favorite Tickle Monster,

    I loved this so much. It touched my soul. L

  2. lblivingbetter Says:

    Cheers to “channeling the joy!”

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