“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!”

A HEAVENLY HAPPY BIRTHDAY

I wrote this as a postscript to the short story “A Lesson in Physics” from the book WINNING WAS NEVER THE ONLY THING…. I wrote it when I found out Jeff Gully had left us to join former teammates Mike Douty, Heath Benedict and Tim Bright. Today is his birthday and once again I find myself missing the “crazy little @#$%” along with Mike, Heath, and Tim. I know I have shared this excerpt before and my guess is I will probably share it again. Happy Heavenly Birthday JEFF.

I found myself sitting in stunned silence when I learned that Jeff Gully had passed away. For the last few weeks, he has not been far from my thoughts no matter how much I tried to push him out of my mind. In true Jeff Gully fashion, he remains an itch that I can’t quite scratch. I have sat in front of my computer staring into space as I attempted to put my feelings into print. The ability to describe them seems to escape me. In true Gully form, Jeff has once again left me speechless.

I can see the young Jeff Gully so well and it is the Jeff Gully that I choose to see. He is in his baseball uniform playing catch as we warmed up for practice, laughing at his wise-cracking with whomever he is warming up with. Words like spontaneous, free-spirited, impulsive, and devil-may-care come to mind when I try to describe him to myself. I have these very clear mental pictures of him bursting into my classroom, just a little late, with a smile on his face that lit up the dreariest of days. His personality could generate enough energy to power the entire eastern seaboard. As irreverent as he could be on occasion, words like caring, big hearted, bigger than life, and compassionate also come to mind when I think about Jeff. There was no truer friend.

Teammate Carolus “Boo” Bennett posted a picture of himself and Jeff when they were teammates during their Northwood years. It was a great testament to their friendship which lasted through high school. My favorite mental picture is of the four seniors, Jeff, Boo, Brian Bridges and Jason Nasiatka walking arm and arm from the field at Georgetown. I so wish I could have bottled those feelings and sent them to Jeff to be used when he was feeling low.

I attended his memorial and as I suspected, it was an overflow crowd. As I get older I fully expect to be attending more and more of these affairs but not for young men that are half my age. Despite the minister’s assertion that all questions will be answered in time, I am troubled by many questions. If there is a positive to be garnered from his memorial, it is getting to see so many people that meant so much to me over the years. I just wish it had been better circumstances.

I had many conversations with Jeff that began by Jeff asking either “Coach Miller are you pissed at me?” or “Do you still hate me?” Fortunately, most of those conversations ended with “Coach Miller I am sorry!” Many of those conversations also ended in amusement if not total laughter. Jeff, I am sorry too. I was never really pissed at you for any length of time and I never hated you, ever. I wish that I had told you this over the years you have been away from me. The truth be known, I am probably a little envious. While your life was shorter than anyone would have wanted and had its share of demons, it was filled with joy too. It was filled with the joy that you created for your family and friends and the joy that they created for you. I also hope that in Heaven you have found comfort and peace as well as Douty, Bright and Benedict. I am sure you could not wait to yell at them “Hey y’all watch this!”

Like those particles in an electron cloud, Heisenberg tells us that you can’t know both the exact location and the exact velocity of a subatomic particle. Jeff, I am sure you will always be somewhere near, continually bursting into our thoughts at light speed.

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

TRIBUTE TO AN ICON

I find political programing to be quite depressing, especially recently. Today when I should have been in church, but wasn’t for reasons beyond my control, I found myself being uplifted by Face the Nation, normally an impossibility. This day, host John Dickerson interviewed Vin Scully, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers for six decades and a true ambassador for the game of baseball and all that is good about humankind. Vin was presented with one of the Presidential Medals of Freedom this past week, a great choice by anyone’s standard.

I’ve never been a die-hard Dodger fan but there have been times…. During my childhood, I received a transistor radio for a birthday and remember listening to baseball games deep into the night when my parents thought I was asleep. Some nights Don Drysdale or Sandy Koufax might have been on the mound and if atmospheric conditions were perfect and they were playing on the East Coast, I might have heard the play by play by Vin Scully iconic voice.

During his interview, Vin Scully spoke of evenings spent laying under a four legged Victrola as an eight year old listening to baseball games and dreaming that one day he would become a baseball announcer. I had similar dreams but mine were of performing inside of the foul lines, not outside of them. I am glad he realized HIS dreams.

Vin had one of those familiar voices that will be forever missed by me. I remember the 1988 World Series when Vin said into his microphone, “And look who’s coming up” as Kirk Gibson limped to the plate. With only one good leg Gibson drove the game winning home run over the right field wall as Scully said, “High fly ball into right field. She is gone! … In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”

My greatest memory of Vin Scully making the call was on April 8, 1974 when Hank Aaron sent a fourth inning, Al Downing fastball into the left field Atlanta bullpen and himself into the record books. As Aaron rounded the bases, Scully said into his microphone, “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”

I will miss Vin Scully and hope that he enjoys his retirement as much as I enjoyed his work. What a glorious way to make a living…doing what you enjoy the most. Thank you, Vin Scully.

For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

LOVE CONQUERS ALL ‘COMERS’

I don’t think Virgil, the originator of the quote “love conquers all,” had baseball in mind when he made it. He was dead several centuries before Abner Doubleday was “credited” with inventing the game but ‘love’ appeared to be the big equalizer in Coastal Carolina’s unexpected and unprecedented run to the College National Championship in Omaha.

Coach Gary Gilmore had his own quote which he just managed to choke out as tears rolled down his face. “We may not the most talented team in America but we are the champions.” Talent is a funny thing. Too much talent may not be enough to get you to the pinnacle of a championship if there are too many egos to deal with. Too little talent may not even get you into the same zip code. There has to be enough talent but talent will only take you so far. There has to be more and the Chanticleers displayed not only talent but all of the clichés we coaches have a tendency to use. Tenacity, heart, and hustle were but a few that I thought of but one that is often over looked, especially when it comes to men’s athletic endeavors, is the love that was apparent when these young men and their coaches took the field. It is a love only “championship” athletes and coaches can understand.

I had no expectations when Coastal took the field against the “Juggernaut” that was Florida. I remember telling my wife how small they looked compared to the Gators. By the time they recorded their last out against Arizona I found they had grown just a bit, at least in my estimation. Being able to continually find a way to “snatch victory from the jaws of defeat” takes much more than talent. I am reminded of a Lew Holtz story he told early in my coaching career when he coached at NC State. When questioning an undersized defensive end about his ability to “whip” a certain all-American offensive tackle, the young man exclaimed, “No Sir…but I’ll fight him till I die.” This was a mentality shown repeatedly by the Coastal team. Thankfully, no one was able to make the kill shot.

I only met Coach Gilmore twice during my career and I doubt he would even remember who I was. I remember him well from a clinic I attended and later when I got to coach the South Carolina team in the North Carolina-South Carolina Challenge held at the Chanticleer’s stadium. I remember he displayed two major attributes. Passion and Humility. I get to add another, love for his players. From listening to his players in their postgame news conference, his love was returned tenfold.

When I think of my most successful teams I can’t help but draw parallels. They were all talented enough to overcome bad coaching, mistakes, and poor officiating. All of them had a love for the game and a love for each other. They wanted to do whatever needed to done to win…not for themselves but for their teammates. Many times it is not the “nine best” that wins the championship. In Coastal Carolina’s case it was the “best nine,” or best twenty-five that came home with the gold. Congratulations Chanticleers. For this season at least, fairytale rooster or not, you are the “cocks of the walk.”

More humorous nonfiction by Don Miller is available at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM