“I’m coming back in…and it’s the saddest moment of my life.”
– NASA Astronaut Edward Higgins White, II, first American to “walk” in space
Edward White’s emotional state bent and twisted like a molten steel rod 49 years ago today, as the astronaut traveled at 17,000 miles per hour, separated from his ship. The first American to perform a spacewalk, White experienced something so sublime — the culmination of years of Draconian training and innumerable sacrifices along the way — that he just could not bring himself to return to the relative safety of the Gemini spacecraft. He did not want to come back down to Earth. Back to reality. It took increasingly stern orders from Gemini 4 Commander James McDivitt to bring White back in to the relative safety of the 4-ton capsule.
For the past several months, I’ve had the incredibly good fortune of teaching 24 young men about baseball and life. I’ve logged perhaps 250 hours crouched behind batting cage L-screens, standing at the ready in my chalked 3rd base coach’s box, and doling out modernized tidbits from Aesop’s Fables with a steering wheel, fungo bat handle, or black folded piece of cowhide in my hand. My teams’ seasons always follow an intriguing, predictably unpredictable arc.
If I am lucky, I will have figured out how to reach each one of the 2nd graders and 7th graders on a deep, individual level. I will try to curate, ideally without the curation being noticed, some singular experience for each player that I hope he just might remember for the rest of his life. Maybe even pass something like it along to his kids, his players, his students.
The baseball stuff takes care of itself. By now, I can teach a shortstop to truly “feel” where the batter’s swing is likely to send a struck ball at this moment. Our catchers will come to understand the importance of their posture, the shape of their glove, and the strength of their own conviction when framing a pitch. And hopefully our batters, who showed up at our first practice swinging from out of their cleats, have at least begun to grasp the notion of a shorter swing with a laser-focus on contact. It’s the big-picture, life lessons stuff, though, that I reflect most upon as the season winds down.
Except the season never “winds down.” It always comes to a crashing halt. Cruelly.
Of course, I know that this will happen. I know that my own sublime spacewalk can’t last forever. That I will have to return to Earth. And I have known for years now that one day would be the last day that I would ever have the privilege of coaching my oldest son, Max. Twelve now, but just a 5 year-old kindergartner when I brought him into baseball (and he brought me back to baseball).
I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly: Last night.
My head swam during our team’s final, bent-legged, post-game meeting in the left field grass. Moving at what felt like 17,000 miles an hour, I replayed 8 years of Little League in my mind, then lifted my gaze to meet Max’s eyes. He had an inkling of my emotional state. My heavy-hearted gratitude for my own sublime trip. For the honor of coaching his teammates. The honor of telling him after every game how much I loved to just watch him play. And he saw my reluctance to rise up from my now wet and grass-stained knee. Standing up would represent the end of it, the end of standing on the same field with my first-born as his coach.
I know I have to come back to the ship. To come back to Earth. I am coming back in. And it’s the saddest moment of my life.
Thanks for reading.