Take me out, coach

Published 11:22 pm Friday, March 29, 2019

After a few years sitting on the bench, I have reluctantly returned to the coaching ranks of Dixie Youth baseball. My 7-year-old son will be worse off for it, but I’m hoping the 12 other kids on the team will not be.

I once coached my oldest son. It was rough, not just for me but for him as well. There were tears, some screaming, a few hits and not very many wins.  Since that season, I decided we were both better off if I kept my distance from the field.

So I watched as he progressed through coach-pitch and into kid-pitch. I bit my tongue when he was at the plate or when he took to second base or the mound. I tried to stay positive when he struck out or dropped a pop-fly or his team lost. But I was not particularly suited to that positiveness.

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My nature is to critique and correct (just ask my wife). I wanted to point out that he missed the pop-fly because his first step after the ball was hit was forward, not backward. I wanted to show him why he struck out. I wanted to push him harder when it came to base-running or delivering a pitch.

But I knew he was not destined for the Majors. I knew that my criticism would not be taken constructively. So I tried to keep my mouth shut. I wanted him to enjoy the game without an overbearing father yelling at him from the third-base line. I wanted him to be treated like every other kid on the team, and coach’s kids are always treated differently. I wanted him to love the game, and that can be hard when your dad is also your head coach.

I remember my dad as a coach, and while he didn’t scream or berate me for mistakes, he once left me in the game long after I should have come out. I was pitching and having a bad day. I couldn’t find the strike zone and soon gave up trying. After I walked in a few runs, he should have pulled me. “Just keep throwing,” he said. “Keep trying.”

I suppose he was hoping I would learn some life lesson about perseverance. All I learned was my dad was as stubborn as I was.

I walked in a few more and the parents started grumbling. I walked in some more and it got downright embarrassing, especially for my mom. I don’t know if he ever took me out or the ump had pity on me and called the game, but we lost by 20 or so. I had walked in most of those runs.

I was determined to not let that happen to a child of mine, so I have been a spectator the past few years. My oldest daughter plays softball and does just fine with me watching from a distance. I had planned to be in the stands, not on the field, this year when the 7-year-old moved up to coach-pitch.

But those plans changed, and now I am on the field instead of enjoying hotdogs and sweet tea from a chair outside the fences.

And I must admit, I enjoy it — or at least most of it. I enjoy watching kids hit the ball for the first time, or catch a line-drive for the first time. Their surprise and joy is contagious. Their love for the game, or playing in the dirt and pulling up the grass, is pure.

But there is one aspect of the job I have come to loathe — pitching. I am not new to throwing the ball toward home plate. I pitched growing up and can still deliver a decent fastball. But pitching to 7- and 8-year-olds in a way they can hit it is tougher than I imagined.

Some like it slow, some need it fast. Some need it high, others low and outside. The toughest part is that each batter only gets five pitches or three strikes. Sadly, I have struck out several on my team. And I feel downright terrible when I do. I’ve even hit a batter during practice. I’ve also had flashbacks of that day when I walked in 20 runs as a kid.

“I want no part of that,” I heard another head coach say about pitching. He, like most other coaches, was smart enough to find some other poor soul to pitch. I was not.

We have played two games and lost both, and my pitching is probably why. If we don’t start winning soon, some parents will want to bench me. You can only strike out little Billy so many times before Momma steps in. Trust me, there is nothing I want more than to get pulled from the game. I would gladly turn the pitching duties over to someone else — anyone else. But there are no takers.

So I will persevere no matter how many kids I strike out or hit. Maybe dad left me in the game 25 years ago for this very reason. When you can’t throw strikes, sometimes you just have to keep throwing. You have to keep trying.