I played Little League Baseball up until college. I’d go so far as to say, without lacking hubris, I was really good. How good? Good enough to have multiple college scholarship offers. Good enough to play some independent minor league baseball post-high school.
The Summer between my Sophmore and Junior year, I was selected to our town’s all-star team. That team is selected by the coaches and is the team that theoretically would compete to represent the state in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Normally, the coach of the best team in the league becomes the head coach of the all-star team. That would have been my coach, Frank McNulty. He deferred due to conflicts and my dad decided to step up and coach the team.
Some background on my dad:
- Never played baseball growing up…or any sport, in a non-recreational capacity
- Diehard Red Sox fan
- Lover of math and science
- Always made time to practice with me and offer coaching feedback
- Never coached a team
Despite never playing sports growing up, he was definitely a student of the game (s). I remember spending an entire summer reading books and looking at formulas to understand the physics of how to throw a curveball. My curveball was scientifically, very good. He was also a big believer that I would succeed or fail on my own merit, and it wouldn’t be because of equipment. Cleats, balls, bats, gloves – I had them all. And, they were all top-shelf.
So let’s get back to the all-star team. The first game was away at and against Hopatcong. I remember it vividly. I lead off the game with a single. In between the next 3 pitches, I was picked off of 1st base by a left-handed pitcher named Daly. In the 3rd inning with 1 out, I crushed a double. We had some momentum. I got picked off of second base by Daly, again. The next person at-bat hit a single. The next one struck out. I would have scored if I wasn’t picked off. In the 5th inning, I bunt singled and was subsequently thrown out trying to steal second to end the inning.
As I was walking off the field, my dad met me at the 1st base line. I was expecting an arm around the shoulder. Instead, calmly and cooly, he said, you’re head isn’t in the game, you’ve killed three scoring rallies – you’re benched.
We didn’t speak for a week. I was pissed. How do you bench your best player? Not an exaggeration. How does your dad treat you like a stranger? During the week, my uncle had a lengthy discussion with me and offered the following advice:
- You played like crap. You let the team down. You let your dad down.
- You shouldn’t be mad at him, you should be mad at yourself.
- You owe your dad an apology. He only wants the best for you. His job isn’t to treat you differently than everyone else. His job is to do what’s best for the team.
The next game I pitched a complete game shutout. We didn’t get much further in the tournament. After exiting the competition my dad made it clear he would never formally coach me again. It was simply too hard.
Years later, I apologized for being a jerk, a sulky player, and a son who didn’t realize the position he placed his father in. The story above eventually became a joke that would show up on occasion and we’d all laugh about it.
With kids of my own now, it really hits home how hard it must have been for my dad to be my dad, be my coach, and have me, in essence, flip him the bird across both.
The poet, Coolio, once wrote,
They say I gotta learn, but nobody’s here to teach me
If they can’t understand it, how can they reach me
I wonder if he had it 180 degrees wrong. What happens when you gotta learn, there is someone there to teach, they do understand it, but you refuse to listen and be coached? From player to parent/coach, covering the past 20+ years, I think that’s the biggest change I’ve observed with youth sports. When every kid has a phone and youTube to tell them what’s “right”, why should they listen to their parents and coaches?
That my dad didn’t ring me by the neck for being so dismissive and getting into a verbal confrontation before heading to the dugout, still astonishes me. With my own kids I’ve adopted much of his philosophy. John and Cora will never want for top-shelf equipment. I look to invest my time and money into coaching them to be better. But, when they don’t want to listen, much like my dad, I don’t get angry, I simply stop coaching and go back to being a parent. While I know, much like my dad, I would have the conviction to bench them, I know I don’t want to be in a position to do so.