Centerfield

Centerfield

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone – the sun came out today!
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.
A-roundin’ third, and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man;
Anyone can understand the way I feel.

Oh, put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be Centerfield.

~ John Fogerty, Centerfield

During a game, the coach called one of his 9-year-old baseball players aside and asked, “Do you understand what cooperation is?  What a team is?”  The little boy nodded.  “Do you understand that what matters is whether we win or lose together as a team?”  The little boy nodded.  “So,” the coach continued, “I’m sure you know, when an out is called, you shouldn’t argue, curse, attack the umpire or call him a butt-head.  Do you understand all that?”  Again the little boy nodded.  The coach continued, “And when I take you out of the game so another boy gets a chance to play, it’s not good sportsmanship to call your coach a dumb ass, is it?”  Again the little boy nodded.  “Good,” said the coach.  “Now go over there and explain all that to your dad in the stands.”

It’s baseball season.  Once again, I have decided to join the ranks of the volunteer coaches of New Canaan Cal Ripken Baseball.  I am already starting to behave oddly at home.  I yelled “slide” to my eight-year-old as he ran to greet me at the door the other day.  I asked my wife if it would be okay to buy a radar gun.  “We could clock all kinds of things – how fast the kids get out to the bus in the morning, how quickly they come to dinner when we call.  We could increase their allowance when they beat certain time thresholds…”  She gave me that “you are a very troubled person” look.  The sad truth is that I cannot resist the draw of those bats, balls and battle.  It just doesn’t feel like April unless once again wrestle 11 other committed Dads for bragging rights.

Coaching is a catharsis.  It’s the ultimate opportunity to be of service and help shape kids.  It is also a mirror for self-reflection and, if done properly, lays a foundation for kids to grow into young adults.  If done poorly, coaching can be a demoralizing experience for a child, a source of constant tension for parents and a Greek tragedy for the fatally flawed but well intentioned coach.  When Reverend Joe Ehrmann came to New Canaan last fall, many coaches were introduced to the book about Joe, Seasons of Life.  For some, it was given as a gift or a stocking stuffer.  For others, it was left surreptitiously on a front door step or, in a few cases, tied to a rock and hurled through a living room window.

Joe’s message is priceless: each kid is a treasure trove of possibility and sports is a stage where we can discover each child’s potential.  Coaches can cultivate each player to become a more confident and engaged citizen of our community and to build self-esteem, which is the oxygen that fuels adolescence.  I realize this is innate stuff to a lot of people who work with kids.  Yet for others, including myself, Ehrmann’s talk was a great reminder.

There are coaches (and yes, I am one of them) who occasionally forget it’s just a game and become a little obsessed with winning.  It’s sort of like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where two alpha males make eye contact across the watering hole (in this case the baseball diamond).  I can almost see his antlers growing.  I scratch the ground with my cleat.  He picks up a bat and takes a few half swings.  The rut is on.  It’s a curse, really, thinking when the other coach goes home at night they’re calculating batting averages and comparing first to second base sprint times, instead of catching up on bills or reading.  Each season there’s always one coach who “challenges my objectivity.”  Whether it’s having their runner steal second while enjoying an eight-run lead or invoking some double secret rule like the “Speed of Play” clause from the Cal Ripken Official rules book that I get handed every year but never read.  (I actually think the “Speed of Play” rule was first created by the French in the UN to prevent the US from taking over committee meetings.)

I know I should not be so competitive.  There’s just something about that mixture of red dirt, chalk, and eye black that makes a guy a little, how should we say, less spiritual?  I’ve had to learn the key to being a good coach is to realize that it’s not about me.  It’s not about the parents.  It’s about every kid I’ve been entrusted with – every single one.  It means taking pride in each kid’s progress and teaching something new.  It means telling them the story about when I was a kid and how I pretended to go to football practice but would instead hide in the bushes, in full pads, smear dirt on my pants and wait for two hours before going home, hoping a passing dog wouldn’t lift his leg on my hiding place.  It’s me remembering when my son makes an error or strikes out and looks at me that I do not cringe, shake my head or make a face but smile and clap and say “go get ’em.”  It’s finding humor in everything.  Whether it’s a food shack listed in Zagats and rumored to be selling foie gras or the way people park their cars at Mead Park as if they have spilled an extra hot latte in their lap.

We all want our children to respect one another, try their best, work hard, and come back to play another year.  We need to remember that great television commercial that appears during most NCAA games: “There are 30,000 athletes in American universities and most of them will go pro in something other than sports.”  It’s a great time of year…the smell of freshly cut grass, chalk lines faithfully edged around a red dust diamond, and the sharp ping of a well hit line drive mixing with the roar of a hometown crowd.  Somewhere a kid rounds third base and tries to beat the throw to home, while another player tugs on his/her coach’s arm and yells, “hey coach, put me in .  I want to play centerfield.”

Lessons Learned At Mead Park

Lessons Learned at Mead Park

My Father used to say that the harvest from seeds of defeat can be greater than those grown from a success.  I used to dismiss this and his other Mid-western agrarian sound bites as the ramblings of someone starved senseless during the dust bowl years.  Yet, as I watched our New Canaan Tiger 10 year olds lose 12-0 in the local playoffs, I felt an ancient seed germinating from my father’s bag of insights.

By the fourth inning, our star pitcher had yielded eight runs.  Our all-star first baseman was in tears tormenting himself over a rare error.  The testosterone and bravado of pregame warm-ups were now dissolving in a deluge of hits, bad throws, walks and every conceivable form of human error.  How could this be?  Our little agents of competition who had become my vicarious instrument for exorcising all the unfulfilled demons of my work day were getting – – slaughtered.

My fellow coach, Michael K., and I immediately switched gears like captains salvaging a ship being ravaged on the rocks.  As we let go of our dreams for a championship game and refocused on the boys and the experience playing out before our eyes, we discovered a redeeming dignity among the faces tear streaked with eye black mascara.

None of the boys pointed a finger at one another.  Their disappointment was driven by the need to not let the other guy down.  They never gave up.  They dove.  They sprinted. They slid.  At one point, one of our more inconsistent players turned to me and say, “ Coach, this time I promise I will strike out…swinging !”

These little men came out each inning and circled the hilltop like Custer and his troops awaiting the further on-slaught , knowing no help was on the way.   If life is measured by not getting ahead of the other guy, but getting ahead of yourself, we were winning the game.  The seeds of future life lessons were being scattered among a rag tag crew of fourth grade boys who tears, sweat and toil were fertile soil and a great mirror for self reflection.

In the end, the game was mercilessly concluded and as we circled the boys, we told them how proud we were of them.  “You never gave up.  You never blamed anyone else.  You tried your hardest and the ball just did not bounce our way. “ They shed their tears, shuffled through the victory line high-fiving their opponents, handing them this year’s bragging rights and then slowly broke off in groups of twos and threes, hugged by parents and consoled by siblings.

We learn best what we teach and that’s the beauty of coaching kids.  We remind ourselves how to conduct ourselves – – “ Keep your head up .  Practice makes perfect.  Be a good teammate.  Things will get better. “ There’s always going to be the green grass of summer and the promise of another chance at the plate…a chance, perhaps to fail better the next time.  Some day, somewhere, those little seeds we sew will germinate in those young men.  As parents, we hope our children will one day exhibit those attributes we value most in society – – compassion, tenacity, intelligence, humility and resilience.  We needed to look no further than that diamond on that day to see the seedlings of maturity taking root in the red dirt and dust of Mead Park.