A PLAYER…ALL GROWN UP

For a guy who coached high school baseball for over thirty years, I don’t go to many high school baseball games. Just four this season. I feel a little guilty about not going but have found if I haven’t invested in the kids playing, I’m just as happy to catch a few innings of a collegiate or a pro game on the tube while relaxing on my recliner. Maybe I’m just being lazy.

Today was different. Instead of being lazy, I sat on the first base fence line watching a former player, Tim Perry, coach his high school team in our state high school playoffs. I might have been the only spectator who was more focused on the third base coaching box than the actual field of play.

The site of the game was a field where, in a past lifetime, I had wandered from the dugout to the third base coaching box and back again just like my former player was doing. I felt a certain kinship with him and understood the emotions he was possibly feeling. I watched him cheering, clapping, offering up nuggets of baseball knowledge and teaching the game. Picking his players up after an error or a strike out…no visible berating although I don’t know for sure what went on inside of the dugout…no berating I’m sure.

I was happy to be a spectator. The gut wrenching, acid churning and Tums gobbling days’ of “life or death” competition rest squarely on his much younger, broader shoulders and are, thankfully, in my rear-view mirror. I’d rather just cheer for him.

There is a comradery among coaches, even rival coaches, and these two knew each other well, having competed against each other since their little league playing days. After losing the second game, the district final, I wondered if they were still friends? Knowing Tim’s personality, I would guess yes.

When I first met Tim, he was a freckled faced ninth grader. He had one of those angelic faces that lit up the world when he smiled. Angelic face but full of “snips and snails, and puppy dog tails.” Short and just a few pounds past “stocky,” he resembled a “pleasingly plump” Alfalfa of Our Gang fame or maybe Howdy Doody of Buffalo Bob renown. If you look at him just right today, you can still see it.

Tim was trying out for our junior varsity team and had all the correct mechanics and moves, learned from hours of baseball camps and honed on hundreds of diamonds around the South, if not the nation. He looked good doing whatever he was doing. The problem was he looked good swinging through a lot of pitches, having a ball roll between his legs or having to line him up with a fence post to see if he was actually moving when he ran. I cut him. Doing so might, I say might, have been a mistake.

When a young kid gets cut he has a couple of options. He can allow it to ruin his athletic career, just quit and feel sorry for himself, or he can work harder and try again. I imagine you might guess which Tim did. It didn’t hurt he had a growing spurt over that next year, as in about six inches, a foot? No not that much but he was six foot plus by the time graduated. He turned into a good player, the ace of my pitching staff and good enough to play college ball. Yeah, maybe I made a mistake. I cherish the picture of us made when he signed his letter of intent to play for my old alma mater.

More importantly, and more to the point, he’s turned into a good man with a beautiful family. I watched a three-year-old boy run around and play as the game went on. He is Tim made over, a freckled faced little imp. The little boy’s mother and sister are pretty, brunette images of each other, thank goodness. I’m not sure how much Tim’s wife actually got to watch the game while keeping up with two fireballs. I know I never saw her sit down. Tim’s parents were there too, aging but still pulling for their son, always his biggest cheerleaders…and greatest teachers. How much support does someone deserve…a lot in Tim’s case.

I would guess it was heaven ordained Tim would become a baseball coach. He was already a coach when he played for me. Tim loved the game too much not to pursue that vocation along with a career in teaching despite a short tenure in the “real world,” the non-teaching world.

I’ve found there are two kinds of men who coach baseball…at least at the high school level. Those who coach the game for the game, and those who coach the kids. Over the years, I’ve found I don’t have much use for the men who coach the game just for the sake of winning championships…and I know, we’re all in it to win or you don’t stay in it very long. Observing Tim, I saw a coach who was coaching baseball but more importantly he was coaching kids and having fun doing it…and they were having fun too.

Tim, I’m glad you were mine for a brief period and happy you have turned into the man you’ve turned into. I hope you know how lucky you are to be that man. Maybe next year Coach…and I’m really sorry I made that mistake.

Don Miller writes “memories.” If you enjoyed this short essay, more may be purchased or downloaded at https://goo.gl/pL9bpP

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