Monday, April 25, 2005

I Was Just Having A Ball

When our daughters were twelve and nine, my enthusiasm got the best of me. Our small community risked not fielding two girl’s softball teams. The coach for the teams would be at college all summer. No one wanted the job. I knew if someone didn’t do it, my daughters would miss out on a great summer of activity.

I stood up and said, “I’ll coach the teams.” How dumb was that?

I played little league baseball two years and never hit the ball. When it came to sports, I was the best trombone player in our High School. I didn’t even know how far it was from pitcher’s mound to home plate.

There is one great thing about small communities. They are more than willing to loan you all the shovels you need to dig a hole to fall in.

The first game, a specially arranged meeting for my older team with the community to our north, was traumatic. I went to home plate with the line up and realized I had never actually been on a ball diamond when I wasn’t a late game substitute. So this is what the chalk lines look like around home plate. I remember thinking, “I hope I don’t trip.”

The local umpire told me the dimensions of the field. He asked if they were OK. Being the likable fellow I am, I quickly agreed. Besides, I still didn’t know how far it was from home plate to the pitcher’s mound.

The game went well. We pulled ahead based on excellent ball playing and the coach staying out of the way.

I guess I have a hard time handling prosperity. I decided to pull the pitcher three quarters through the game. I can’t remember why. I replaced her with the shortstop, an excellent athlete but a better infielder than a pitcher. We were ahead going into the last inning. They hammered us.

I managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.

I looked around after the game. All the parents who previously pledged their undying loyalty were gone. No one came to me to say, “Good game, coach.” They were busy consoling their children (and probably telling them they would have won the game if that bonehead coach had left everything alone). My daughters consoled me.

Later that night I confronted myself with my own promise that I would not let this ball playing get to me. It was the girls’ game. I was, after all, just the coach. This was about giving the children a chance to enjoy life.

I can’t say the pep talk was particularly successful, but that afternoon game began seven years of great fun and personal satisfaction.

I learned how to coach a sport I couldn’t play. I found the coach isn’t the performer. He is the enabler. I found his goal is to create challenging opportunities for players to compete and discourage situations not suited for their skills and abilities. Some of the best management skills I ever developed I discovered leading those young girls.

Isn’t it interesting where we learn? It is said, “All the world is a stage.” It can also be said, “Each event in life is a classroom.”

Sometimes I remember those games. I wish I could be there again watching daughter number one play second base or daughter number two set her teeth as she stepped into the batter’s box.

I have images of one of our less athletic girls barreling into the catcher and scoring because her coach told her to steal home and she trusted him.

I remember watching daughter number one get her first hit, a hard line-drive over third base. I wasn’t the coach of that game. Even better, I was her dad. A later photo showed her eyes on the ball at impact and her arms at full extension.

I remember teaching the second and third grade girls the ball would not hurt them. My players never bailed out of the batter’s box on close pitches. Ever.

I remember coming up with a drill to teach a catcher how to throw to second base and catch the runner trying to steal. The look of satisfaction and pleasure on her face the first time the runner lost was pure poetry.

I remember my brother, an excellent ball player in his own right, relay to me a bit of Tommy Lasorda wisdom. The great Dodger skipper said 68% of the times you lose, your opponent scored more runs in one inning than you did in the whole game. I taught the girls to get the out, stop the rally and stay on task.

But more than anything, I just remember having a ball.