The season for one of the two baseball teams I’ve been coaching came to a close on Saturday. Not because of any big loss or anything. The team was a coach pitch baseball team for which the season simply came to an end. This team brought me a lot of anxiety this year; it also taught me a lot about parents and kids.
Two weeks before the season was to start I received a call from one of the volunteers from the league asking if I would be the head coach. I had been a head coach the year before, at the same time that I was the head coach of my oldest son’s Little League team, and I had vowed that I would never try to balance those two roles ever again. With that last year’s experience under my belt I had told the local Little League, and this coach pitch league that I could be an assistant coach, but that I did not have the ability to take on the head coaching duties.
With this history, when the league called asking me to take over the head coaching duty I had to answer, “No, I’m sorry.” But I also knew that the jobs of the volunteers were thankless, so I told the man calling me – a dad I knew from other activities – that if no one else would step forward for the role, I would do the job. Further complicating my decision was that three weeks before I had agreed to take over the head coaching duties for the Little League team, for which the head coach – the Manager in Little League vernacular – had backed out.
As you might imagine the dad called back a day later saying that he was unable to find anyone else to be the head coach. Here I was again: head coach for two baseball teams.
Last year when I had naively taken on this coaching juggernaut the timing of the teams’ schedules worked out in such a way that I had only two conflicting days of practices and games. Those were two conflicts out of ten weeks of overlapping baseball schedules. With this single experience as my only history I figured I would be able to wrangle the same kind dovetailing schedules.
I told the coach pitch league I was unable to fulfill the head coaching duties but would do my best. I told them that I would be unable to make it to the coaching meetings because of already existing obligations. They said no problem. It was at the coaching meetings that practice times, teams and corresponding game schedules were chosen. I wasn’t there, and what happened? Six of the ten coach pitch games conflicted with games on the Little League schedule.
Here I was between a rock and a hard place: two teams on which my boys were playing that I wanted to help out, to coach, but would require me to be in two places at once many times in two and a half months.
So what did I do? I had to make a choice, and that choice was swayed based on how much help I found for my plight. After introducing myself to my teams I let the parents of the kids on both teams know the position I was in. I made a plea that I needed help to make sure the season for their kids was not only good, but actually happened: the kids couldn’t coach themselves. Parents from the Little League team came forward to help when they could. Parents from the coach pitch team came out in force.
Three dads stepped forward to willingly step up and coach whenever they could. These were all men with very demanding jobs, and jobs that had often inflexible schedules: everything from doctors to sheriffs. Until they could wrangle their schedules I was some times left alone coaching practices. But when the first game came, and I had to leave the game early in order to coach a Little League game, they were all there. When I could not show up at all for six of the next eight games, they were there. These men were the defacto head coaches and they never complained: at least not to me.
I was touched by how these men stepped up and, basically, covered my ass. They were there to prepare the fields for games, and warm the kids up, and coach them during the game: cheering them on, encouraging them, mentoring them.
At the end of the season I bought three wood baseball bats and four different color Sharpies. I had each of the kids on the team sign their names on each of the bats and gave one bat to each of the dads: a small token of my thanks, but something I think they’ll think is pretty cool.
What moved me further was the perspective of the kids at the end of the season. Despite my absences these kids still saw me as the head coach. I showed up for practices, and guided them, but given how much these other men took over during the times that I had to attend to other responsibilities, I felt my role to be far less significant than what some of these children seemed to believe.
But it didn’t stop there. At the end of the season there was a picnic where the children got to celebrate, and the coaches got to hand out trophies for all the team members. We sat in a circle, ate hot dogs, and drank soda, and I shared the duties of handing out the trophies with one of the parents who had done the most to support me in my absences. I had to remind him some times that he had grown to know these kids better than I did.
And at the very end, just as I needed to bid farewell to my team in order to run off and coach a Little League game, two of the boys came up not just to say thank you for coaching, but to give me hugs.
I hadn’t gotten hugs from my players in the years before when I coached.
This team was something special.