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