After writing last week’s Coachisms post, I got a bug to find Carmine, he of “losing the second game of a double header is like kissing your sister” fame, and give him a call. This was no small feat given all I had to go on was his first name, his son’s first name, the name of our team and the names of two other players. With the internet being the internet and some good Samaritans who returned a website info request with a phone call, I eventually managed to get Carmine’s phone number. Which is how I found myself speaking with a man I only ever knew as the coach I played for when my summers of travel ball came to end.
It was a wonderful call going the way I imagine all such calls go, catching up on the intervening years, our families and reminiscing about that team and some of the kids, now grown men, I played with. Then Carmine said something which lit up a light bulb, a flaming torch really, in my head about why I coach.
Put the call with Carmine on hold for a second and take a short detour which provides some background and allows me to pat myself on the back (what’s that Bruce Springsteen song, Glory Days?) The last games I played for Carmine were in the northeast regionals of whatever league we played in that summer some 29 years ago. I had been in a slump for a good chunk of the summer, but Carmine kept trotting me out to first and batting me fourth. His faith was rewarded come August when I was ripping the cover off the ball. You couldn’t get me out.
That’s when we played those northeast regionals somewhere in New Jersey. I went eight for 15 over the four games with 10 rbi (and that includes a one for four game with three lineouts to third.) As I said, I was ripping the cover off the ball. The third game is the decisive game for us. We’re playing against a team from Latham and we had both destroyed the other teams in the tournament. Win and we go to the World Series. Lose and Latham goes. It’s the last inning and we’re down by two when I come up with two outs and the bases loaded. I’m already two for three, but they’ve changed their pitcher bringing the center fielder in to pitch and moving the pitcher to center field. The first guy threw hard. The new guy throws even harder. It’s early in the at bat when he throws me a fastball. I remember thinking, sometimes the game slows down just so, “It’s a bit on the outer third. Oh well. What the [expletive deleted]. Give it a go.” I hit a bullet, an absolute laser. A one-hopper right at the center fielder that never gets higher than four feet off the ground. We know the kid has a gun, but Carmine sends our runner on second because we might not get another shot. He’s out. Game over. Bye-bye World Series. And though I don’t realize it at the time, bye-bye summer baseball.
The kid who got thrown out at the plate was our stud pitcher. He was drafted by the Marlins and made it as far as triple AAA. What I didn’t know, as Carmine now informs me on the phone, is Zimmy got a hefty signing bonus out of college. It’s Carmine who first brings up the tournament in New Jersey as he explains how Zimmy got his college scholarship. “After that tournament in New Jersey, Zimmy played with another team in the Babe Ruth tournament. You know that was the one mistake I made, not playing us in Babe Ruth.”
“Carmine, we should have won that tournament in New Jersey. If Zimmy,” I interrupt. It’s as far as I get.
“I’ll tell you why we lost. I’ll tell you what you did wrong. You hit that ball too damn hard. And you hit it right at the center fielder. You hit it two feet to either side and you’ve got at least a double and we score three runs.” I’m speechless. I’ve not spoken to the man in 29 years since not too long after that game, and unprovoked, he recalls every detail about a play that, with the passing of my dad, I am convinced I am the only person on the planet who remembers. In an instant my whole view of coaching flipped on its head.
The light bulb that went off is this. I coach completely and utterly for me. Not for my son. Not for my daughter. Not for the kids on my travel team. For me and what I get out of it.
I have always thought about coaching in terms of what I give to the kids. First and foremost my own kid. And this year, with the travel team, the other kids as well. As players we always remember the games and the plays and the coaches, especially the coaches, the good ones and the bad ones and the impact they have on us. And I always have tended (pretended?) to think about coaching in those terms. I will give these kids something, hopefully a great something, that they will take forward with them and ultimately look back on later in their lives. And for sure, there is some truth in that.
But I have never thought about it in terms of what they give me, how their experiences all come back to me. To be a part of it, to live it, to breathe it and to watch them execute the things I’ve taught them and to watch them experience indescribable highs and cry with the lows. It’s a gift they give to me.
It’s our lone playoff win in 8U travel this past summer. My son hits a little league home run to tie it up and the kids are jumping up and down and he’s running home with both arms in the air and I’m hi-fiving with the kids and just so excited and proud and happy. The next kid, our best kid, gets up and hits a bomb – our first real homer fence or no fence. The moment he hits it, I am yelling at the top of my lungs to my third base coach, his dad, “Send him, send him, send him, send him!” And when he crosses the plate, I’m jumping up and down with the kids and then there’s a moment when things have quieted down and the next kid is up and the home run hitter is in front of me. And I hug him. I’m so damn happy and so damn proud of him, possibly even more so than that third base coach, and on a high and it is infinitely better than if I had hit the homer because I know what he doesn’t. I know just how freakin’ amazing what he just did really is and how rare it is and that one day the games are going to stop. For him, he’s happy no doubt, but it’s a single moment in a young life that promises a million more right around the corner. And so that high, that reward, is made all the more exquisite by the knowledge the games will end one day and he’s going to be remember that homer for the rest of his life. I know I will.
Just as I’ll remember my son’s first hit, game-tying liner to center in his first game of kid-pitch baseball in the minors (his team’s only hit that day), and just as I’ll remember every second of his first “homer” and the three errors it took to get him home and his face with those arms up in the air as he nears the plate, I’ll remember the bomb that followed it. Just as I’ll remember the diving grab and throw to nab the runner at first my third baseman made – it’s takes six miracles for an 8-year-old to make a diving grab on a grounder and get the kid out. Just as I’ll remember the over-the-shoulder catch and throw to double off a runner at first my emergency shortstop made (complete with a scoop at first). Just as I’ll remember 100 other plays from this past travel season because that’s really the gift of coaching. I am so invested in those kids, every one of them, and experiencing those highs and even the lows is the return on that investment. It’s the reward of being called Coach. Chasing them is why I do it.
In the end, it turns out coaching is all about me and what I get from those little kids and their games. It took a whimsical call for me to have the epiphany that was oh so obvious. Just as I was back in that summer when he stuck with me, I am once again indebted to Carmine. Hey, if nothing else, he helped me understand why I am up until 1 a.m. on game nights with my post-game stats, recap and make the next game lineup ritual.
Thanks Carmine. Great coaches live forever.