One of my greatest points of pride came years ago, when my big-guy was starting kid pitch. One of my parents who worked at the same firm as my wife told her that I was the best parent coach he’s ever seen. He complimented my ability to connect with the kids, but what impressed him most was that unless you actually knew me, there was no way you would ever know which player on my team was my child. Both my kids knew from the very beginning to call me “Coach” when we were on the field, though I never made that express ask.
But my need to leave Gunnar behind for this, what may well have been our final game of the season, was an X-factor to which I was unprepared. My co-coaches and I had talked about what we’d tell the other kids—whether to make it a discussion, a teachable moment, etc. Even after that conversation, I wasn’t sure how to approach it.
I waited until the whole team had gathered for BP, resisting the inevitable early queries. I sat them all down in a sliver of shade as a very thirsty tree fought valiantly against the record heat. In the end, I felt that we had a game to play, and this wasn’t the time for an after school special. So I just kept it simple:
“As you can all see, Gunnar isn’t here. While you all know how sorry he was about his actions yesterday, there are some things that cross a line and go beyond regret. Gunnar crossed that line. He will not be at today’s game. He told me to tell you that he accepts and understands this consequence. He asked me to wish you good luck and he hopes to be back with you tomorrow.”
Bats and helmets.
The game itself was a wonderful distraction. When the first pitch was thrown, CoachN clicked in, and it really felt like another game with my boys. We played well, winning 12-6, with my shoulder-batted slugger Ford leading the way with 3 hits, 4 RBIs, and pitching two quality innings (we took him out early after getting a big lead to save his arm in case we went deep). It was satisfying, as we staved off elimination and set up a rematch with the Alexandria Aces, a team that mercy-ruled us in our first tourney game–perhaps the worst game we had played all season–on our home field, no less.
Both my boys…and my boy…would get a shot at redemption.
Alas, there would be no storybook ending. At least not in the traditional sense.
We played a much better game, as did Gunnar. He worked a walk, stole second, and helped manufacture an early run. He also bailed out Ford who despite our best plans just didn’t have much left in the tank, inheriting a bases loaded, 1-out situation in the 2nd inning and getting a comebacker and a huge strikeout to end the frame. His clenched-fist, “Let’s GO!” was met in the dugout with a celebration more fit for a championship than an early-game jam. As I saw them congregate and congratulate, for that one moment, I was just a Dad. For every one of these Aces were not just rooting for the team.
They were rooting for my son.
Seeing these boys come together around my boy at that moment transcended the rest of the game, and the game itself (we lost 9-6 after a determined comeback). All season long—and for three years running—we had preached the idea that everyone on a team depended on each other, and that picking up a player when he was down was as important as lifting him up when he succeeded. In this moment, it was both combined as one. These kids clearly sensed that their teammate needed lifting, and they did not need a coach’s speech or a parent prompt to come to their buddy’s aid.
And with that, our season was at an end. We finished with our traditional pool party, me breaking into their wrinkle-fingered fun just long enough for them to suffer through another warble-voiced coach’s speech about how far they came as a team and as people. I chatted with parents, patted players on the head, and started thinking ahead to fall ball. They would be rising 12u players now, and this would be our last year together—the end of our journey together.
But life is what happens when you’re making other plans.
And it was time to choose boy…or boys.