“PLAY BALL, CHUCK!”

Baseball coaches and umpires seem, at best, to have contentious relationships although to “toot” my own horn, I really attempted to cultivate umpires rather than alienate them and most of the time I believe I was successful.  Yes, I’m happy to say Tommy and I buried the hatchet before he died and we didn’t bury it in each other.

Chuck Eaton has passed away.  Another of my adulthood friends has gone to his reward.  Chuck and I began our careers in baseball about the same time, he as an umpire and I as a coach.  I can’t count the number of times he called games involving one of my teams but it would have had to be in the dozens.  I can remember the first one and the last one and over forty years, I’m just not sure who cultivated whom.  My problem with Chuck was he reminded me too much of my dad, somewhat in looks but more in his quiet and respectful demeanor.  I guess maybe he cultivated me.

I remember when I first ran afoul of Chuck.  It was one of my first games as a JV coach at Mauldin, a high school outside of Greenville, South Carolina.  Chuck was behind the plate, a young umpire but not a young man.  At the time, I did not realize he had retired from twenty years of military service.  I believed the opposing catcher had interfered with my batter’s attempt to bunt the ball.  Chuck quietly said, “No coach, the pitch was too high to be bunted anyway.”  Ordinarily, such a comment would not have been a good start to a relationship between a coach and umpire but somehow, we were able to get by it.

I learned of his military service on a cool moist night at Riverside High School.  We were both older and wiser but I’m sure my interaction with him was somewhat subdued because of the fact we were well ahead.  He was behind the plate, and even though it was late in the game, Chuck had still not settled on a consistent strike zone and my fans were unmerciful in their criticism and accused him of changing his strike zone from pitch to pitch.  Walking to the batting circle to make a lineup change, I decided to engage him in friendly banter.

“Chuck, my fans are pretty vocal about your strike zone.  I’d like to apologize for them but to be honest, I agree with them.”

In his quiet voice, he explained, “Coach, I know they think they are getting to me but I flew single engine props for the Forward Air Control during Vietnam.  This is nothing compared to that.”  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Forward Air Control, they flew unarmed, slow moving propeller driven aircraft called “targets”.  One of their functions was to attract ground fire so the fast moving, armed guys could swoop in and get all the glory.

Chuck was that kind of guy, not looking for the glory.  He enjoyed being a part of the game of baseball and the game called life.  During our many phone calls rescheduling games, he never failed to ask about my family and was quick to offer tidbits about his own, including the daughter I taught at Mauldin.  He was, as we all should be, quite proud of his family.  When we met for the last time on a field of play some three years ago, his first question was, “How is the Missus?”

It was always comfortable to know Chuck was somewhere around and I’ll miss him.  As usual, I wish I had kept in close contact.  I do feel comfort in his strong faith and I’m sure that if heaven exists, he’s already trying to organize a game.  I’m sure his strike zone will be a bit more consistent unless he just misses those coaches and fans yelling at him.  “Play Ball, Chuck!”

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THE SIREN’S CALL

A week and a half before high school football practice will begin and I am already hearing her song. The siren’s call of heat and humidity, the smell of freshly cut grass, the scent of over ripe athletic socks and ammonia from sweat soaked practice uniforms. As bad as it sounds, it is still the perfume of a sexy and sultry mistress from long ago. Our affair ended years ago but I still feel her caress on my skin and her call in my head. She tempts me today as she did all those years ago.

It’s been sixteen years since I broke off the relationship, in favor of family, friendship, and health. I hung up my rarely used whistle and shoved my over-used coaching shoes into a closet. I do continue to temp myself, watching football on TV or attending the occasional game. My senses say, “It can’t be that long ago that I last answered her melody, can it?” The calendar proves it is. Somehow, I can’t quite believe it…the desire to answer her call is just as strong today as it was those not so long years ago.

There is something seductive about the call, it’s more than the potential glory of a successful season. It is more about the people…it’s always been about the people. Relationships forged in the fire of competition. I miss those people, those I left behind and those I never got to meet.

There is something destructive about her song too. The unbelievably long hours, too little time with family. Arm chair coaches who have all the answers. My own loss of religion when plays or games go badly.

A week from this coming Friday I will face the day as I face all days, probably with an early morning walk or run. Despite my endeavors to keep my mind off my former mistress, her song will call to me. I will relive those earlier days and think about the young men I had the honor to coach. I will mull over great wins and heartbreaking losses. The pull will be strong but I’ll make sure Linda Gail ties me to the ship’s mast before I destroy my ship on the rocks.

HAPPY FOOTBALL SEASON to all.

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