The End of an Era

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May 29, 2018.  I’ve known this day was coming for me since August of 2006, when my Little League coaching journey began.  That month, my elder son Max (now a high school Junior) first picked up his glove in service of a San Francisco Little League team — the Giants, no less — as a kindergartner.  Team names are picked at random each season by coaches out of a hat (an envelope, really). That first season, we had plucked the name of our hometown San Francisco Giants — the first and last time the folded up piece of paper would have those particular words scrawled on it.  An auspicious beginning to a memorable coaching career.

Over the years I would coach the Grizzlies, Cubs, White Sox, Angels (twice), Red Sox, A’s (thrice), Indians, Mariners, and a couple more I cannot currently bring to mind.  Perhaps because I coached each of my sons throughout this adventure, I was keenly aware, from the very beginning, that each practice and each game meant that I would have one less practice, one less game, to savor before it all came to a crashing halt on a baseball diamond in the future. A silent clock in my head, counting down. In 12 years from now, then 10 years, then 5, then 2, then just one more, than just a matter of months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, then down to a final at-bat, then down to just one last out.  I saw the end coming the whole way. 

And the end made its long-awaited appearance last night. May 29, 2018. Our San Francisco Little League Majors A’s huddled in the left field grass at Tepper Field one last time. My bloodstream was still flooded with bitter feelings from our sudden loss just minutes ago. The sensation of a dozen (somewhat begrudging, if I’m being totally honest) high-fives with the opposing team’s players still buzzed a bit in the palms of my hands.  Now, I silently regretted my deliberate decision not to pencil out an end-of-the-season speech beforehand.  I took several deep breaths in an attempt to gather my thoughts, to ensure that I was going to say the “right” things, rather than rail about missed practices, ground balls slithering through legs, and strike threes taken. And though I was painfully aware that this moment marked the end of an era for me, I tried not to peer down into that new, empty void.  Tried to focus on the boys.   

This is not supposed to be about me, you see. It is supposed to be about them. Sure, I had just coached my final game.  With the second of my sons (and I have but two).  “Dad” is my favorite word in the English language.  “Coach” had always run a close second, but  pulled up lame, as I knew it would, falling behind and off in the distance and suddenly now about to be gone forever. But not until after I try to muster up just one final (and unscripted, regrettably, again) speech on soiled knee in the outfield grass.  So I need to get this right. 

Our season had begun, as all of them do, with promise. A chance to forge a scattered and disconnected group of 11 and 12 year-olds into a cohesive team, applying lessons learned over each of the previous dozen seasons. Just last year, my team (the Mariners) won the regular season, and narrowly missed winning the playoffs, too. Arguably, our loss in the League Championship can be attributed to the overzealous coach bouncing in the third base coaches box.  That would be me. I foolishly windmilled a slow-footed runner around the third base bag, and destined him to a waiting tag at home plate.  Game over.  I expect that he has managed to forget that moment, with the youthful gift of jelly-headed resilience.  I have not been so lucky, replaying that scene over and over again in my own jelly-head. 

With some disappointment, I recognized at the start of this season that a miracle would be required for these A’s to repeat the on-field success of their predecessors, the Mariners. Sweet kids, all of them, but also offering up new challenges.  I struggled to resist my inner Captain Bligh each time players showed up at practice or even a game, invariably late, and without his hat, his cleats, his glove, his bat, his belt.  My assistant coach and good friend John routinely suffered through sunburns on his forehead, having generously, once again, “donated” his own cap to one of our forgetful A’s.  Over the course of the season, we had roughly 30 practices.  Repetition is key, I’ve learned.  And then, more repetition.  But all the sessions I had dutifully reserved, scheduled, planned for, and schlepped bags and buckets and bats and balls to over my shoulders? I believe we only had one practice at which our entire squad was present, and that may have been our very first, remind me what’s your name again? practice of the year.  

Other than near-constant, grumbling emails from me to our players’ parents, this meant that we coaches were simply never able to pontificate on all the subtleties and vagaries and nuances of the game of baseball to the entire team at once.  I never signaled a “bunt” sign during a game.  We never got around to that. We relied on only one “first and third” play when we were in the field, left to ignore the other half-dozen options given currency in every other Little League Majors season I’d coached. We never got around to that. Our most experienced pitcher — who threw the ball harder than anyone I’d ever seen in Little League — was an especially busy lad, such that I never found a meaningful opportunity at practice to iron out a kink in his swing and a rush in his pitching delivery.  We never got around to that, either.  

And so I knew, as early in March, that this would be a season of triage.  Of rushed instructions delivered during the game while sitting on my bucket of balls poised at the corner of the dugout.  Flashing the pitch sign between my legs to our catcher, while reminding him, “Big target! Stick it! Squeeze it!” Then glancing at my players in the field, assessing their body language. Beseeching our corner outfielders (who often hadn’t seen real action for several innings), “Sprint in and out and in and out and in and out, every time!” (It is a tall order, backing up potential pickoff throws from the catcher to the third baseman or first baseman.) Then cajoling our infielders, “Move your feet! Expect ball! Coming to you!” And finally sneaking in one last piece of encouragement to our pitcher, “Take a breath. See it before you throw it. Chest to knee. You got this.” I felt a near-constant, burning need to stuff twelve years of coaching instruction into a single year, into every single game, hobbled as we were from scant practice time together and from forgotten hats and gloves and bats and sunscreen and snacks and water bottles and belts. I never worked so hard on a Little League team. After games, I would pour myself into the front seat of my car and just sit there for a minute or two, trying to regain the energy required to drive back home over the Bay Bridge. 

If I could do it all over again, I wonder, do all of the orders and instructions and pitch-calling really matter? Would I, would we, have been better off had I chosen instead to sit on my hands in the dugout all season, with a smile on my face, simply letting whatever will happen, happen? I don’t know.  I suspect I would have blown out my eustachian tubes trying to hold back all the “helpful” instructions banging around in my head.  But still, I don’t know. 

To my credit (I hope), I generally tried to counterbalance the in-game micromanagement tendencies with more emotionally intelligent commentaries delivered in the outfield after each our games. More often than not, I would apologize for something I did or didn’t do during the game.  Said or didn’t say, in the heat of the moment. The players likely suffered whiplash from this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine, but I think any honest youth coach understands and struggles with this same push-pull dynamic of which I speak.  During a game, I have no fewer than 8 people inside my head shouting orders, or attempting to sooth the savage beast, or thinking make sure you smile so the parents don’t think you are a complete jerk and your players don’t fear you, or why didn’t you practice bunting more, you should have practiced bunting more this would have been a great time for a bunt. It is an emotional whirlwind, immediately followed by (ideally) a much calmer discussion about life lessons and such in the outfield grass.

And this whipsawed dynamic was on full display last night.   

We had managed to hang tight with a team that won, handily, the regular season.  Our previous encounter with the juggernaut Red Sox found the A’s on the unpleasant end of a 12-4 trouncing.  And yet, at the top of the 5th inning, here we were in a tie game, knotted at 3 runs apiece. I began entertaining visions of these A’s miraculously finding themselves playing for the League Championship four days hence.  In my 3 previous Majors seasons, two of those teams played in the championship game.  Last year we nearly won it. Why not these A’s? Why shouldn’t fate smile upon me, at long last — after 12 years — and give me a League Championship? Don’t I deserve it? 

While I fantasized about dog piles and beaming parents and shiny trophies coming my way on Saturday, I lost my full concentration on the field in that moment.  Loosed just a bit my grip on the action in front of me.  Our speedy outfielder drew a two-out walk, advancing the self-glorifying narrative building in my head, and now the meat of our order jogged up to the plate. Things were looking good.

But while standing in the third base coaches box, with my head full of delusions of grandeur, I failed to notice a devilish glint in our speedy outfielder’s eyes.  I had been preaching aggressive base running all season (to the detriment of other bedrock rules dealing with the sanctity of runs when our team is a couple runs behind, for example).  And so, inspired by his coach’s fiery pre-game rhetoric, our outfielder suddenly careened around first base in a courageous but ill-advised attempt to stretch his walk into an extra base. He almost made it, too.  But the throw and tag were true. The home plate umpire’s emphatic thumb and fist-punch ended our season.  

And I knew, right away, exactly what had happened.  Despite all these years, I had neglected the central truth:  It is not about me.  It is about them.  

And so, only minutes later, kneeling in the outfield grass one last time, I tried to look within and find that proper perspective. To come up with a valedictory speech rather than a eulogy.  To leave the boys with something poignant but not saccharine. So that they would remember the right stuff, not the wrong stuff.  To ensure that my last post-game words as a coach would be meaningful.  I told them I was proud of them, and they should be proud of themselves.  Every one of them, proud of themselves.  And of each other.  I told one of our players — whom I have coached for as long as I have coached my son Everett — that I didn’t care how many balls went under his legs. That knowing what I know now, right now, I remain grateful to have coached him all these years, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.  And then I looked into his eyes and told him that I loved him. (This line I rushed through, because I wanted to get it out before my increasingly choked-up throat cut me off at the pass.) I scanned the others’ faces, and told them to look at each other in our semi-circle.  We live in different parts of the city, we look different from each other, our families came from different parts of the world. But sitting here right now, what you guys have been through together, those differences don’t matter, do they?  Never forget the fun times you had together and how much you learned together. Savor the good stuff. 

I told them that the winning and losing stuff seems really important right now, I know, but it isn’t.  It’s only baseball.  Only a game.  And that each muffed ground ball, or strike out, or whatever, is another chance to see what you’re made of.  To get back up.  To rise to the challenge.  That losing this game, and losing all the games we lost this season, is actually a good thing.  Because down the road when you have girlfriends or boyfriends who tell you one day they no longer want to be together with you, maybe you will have felt that pain before, on a baseball diamond, and maybe you will remember that you can go on.  That you will be OK.  You will fail tests, and suffer disappointments, and lose jobs. People you care about will get sick.  But you have been there before. You have been given the opportunity to play this game and make all kinds of mistakes and learn from them. Grow from them.  Push yourselves up off the floor.  At least try to get up, and keep trying to get up. 

It’s a lifelong journey, I think to myself as they boys scramble to their feet, none of them, thankfully, even remotely aware of the enormous loss I feel in my own belly.  I am still making mistakes, I acknowledge.  And gritting my teeth to remind myself each time that each mistake is an opportunity, not a failure.  A challenge, not a loss.  And while my Little League coaching career has reached it conclusion, as I always knew it would, I am trying to take my own outfield advice. To remember and savor the experience.  To appreciate that it happened. To maybe learn from it, rather than get stuck on this “end of an era” thing.  It is all a work in progress. But I am trying.  And that is enough for now. 

Thanks for reading.  And a heartfelt thank you and tip of the cap to the 2018 San Francisco Little League Majors A’s (and to all the other teams of girls and boys I’ve had the privilege of coaching). 

 

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