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Sunday
Nov092014

Coach

Coach taught math in our mediocre little high school, but his real passion was hardball. For him, the school year began at 3:30 on February 1, at the first baseball practice. He started every year with insults and by the time we were seniors we had memorized his favorite riffs. "You all are a bunch of dumb farmers and shrimpers," he began. "You barely know the difference between a home run and running home. Even the townies are just middle class peddlers. Even genius boy Jeff. His dad sells fertilizer. What's that? He's a dung merchant."

About the tenth time coach ripped Jeff's father, Will shouted, "Hey coach, Jeff's going to Princeton. Where'd you go? Southwest Community Tech?" Coach glared, but let it go. Will was a senior and our only catcher. He couldn't run or hit, but he managed our pitchers more than coach did, so he could mouth off. Besides, coach always said we had to respect the game, but he never said we had to respect him, and we probably didn't. Coach spat on the locker room floor, paused and doubled his insult. "They're just taking him to fill their Carolina quota and they're using the lacrosse team to do it. It's a sissy game anyway. Now I've got to coach a bunch of farmers and genius sissy Princeton squash boy. I would have made the big time, but I blew out my knee. They were gonna move me up. Now I have to coach Ivy League squash babies." Coach was thirty-seven, but the way he talked, you'd think he ruptured his tendon two months ago.

Jeff glanced at the other seniors and held out his hands, palm down, fingers spread slightly, telling us to let it go, but Drew's dad was too much like coach. Coach's insults got under Drew's skin and he fired back. "Hey coach," he asked, trying to sound naïve, "How old were you when you blew out that knee?"

"Twenty."

Drew slipped out his phone and looked up twenty seconds later. "Hey coach, this stat page says you hit .230 in Double A ball the year you were twenty. We didn't know they called up twenty-year-old right-fielders who hit .230."

Drew was another senior. He could play any position, infield or outfield, and he earned almost two walks per game, so he batted lead-off. Coach spat on the floor again. "No wonder it takes you farmers a month to get dressed and on the field. Wiki boy is always checking stats on his prissy little cell phone. I ran like a leopard and the pros knew it. And if you had any passion, you'd be on the field already."

We won a lot of games that year, but we never could tell if coach was friendly or hostile when he taunted his players. Early in the season someone wanted to set up a debate, but it didn't work because most of us changed positions every day or two. There were two essential arguments. Deep down, he loves us, because he loves to coach and we're his team, so he has to love us. Or, deep down, he hates us because he feels stuck with us, because he thinks we are dumb farmers, with neither talent nor passion. "Out of the heart the mouth speaks," Drew said. That had to be Shakespeare, maybe Plato. "He thinks he's too good for us, so he hates us." Drew was going to UNC in the fall and most of us lined up with him.

Jeff never joined the debate, but one day he delivered his judgment and it ended the discussion. "You're all wrong boys. For coach, there is no 'deep down,' just a mass of petty grudges, mitigated by the dregs of his love for the game. If you asked him if he loved us or hated us, he wouldn't answer. He'd stammer, then insult us, then change the subject because he doesn't know the answer. That's why he never does anything when we give him shit. He can't decide if we're right or wrong. And he doesn't know because he doesn't want to think about it. He resents us because he resents his life. But he can't hate us because, except for his wife, whoever she is, we're all he's got, and he knows it. The last thing he wants to do is go deep and think about this. That's why he changes the subject all the time."

Jeff was smart - the first kid from our sad school to go Ivy League. He was cool about it though and he could play ball. He bobbled grounders at short once in a while, but his arm was a rifle and he hit the ball hard. Coach almost admitted it one game when Jeff had five hits – three doubles – and four rbi's. "I don't know why he wants to play lacrosse. He's got that smooth lefty swing, between Todd Helton and Ichiro Suzuki."

On April 18th, we had a double-header against Washington, seven innings each, and coach was dishing more than our fair share of abuse, like some reverse pep talk. In the first game, Washington started Jake Woodside. We'd seen Jake last year and he was good then, but now he was a senior. The paper said his fast ball hit 90, even 92, and he could control it. More than that we remembered his curve. He threw it right at a batter's face and it broke late and hard - for a called strike, most times. Coach sent our ace, Theo, against him. He wasn't going for a split. He wanted a showdown and we did too.

I hit second that year and the first time I faced Jake that day I struck out on three pitches without even moving my bat. He threw the first pitch at my nose. My knees buckled and it broke hard…. strike one on the inside corner. I moved away from the plate a little so I could see his curve better. He noticed and threw the next pitch knee high, over the outside corner. Strike two. I realized I'd moved too far, so I inched closer. He threw his third pitch at my ribs. I jumped back and it hooked in. Strike three. Drew bumped my knee with his fist when I got back to the dugout. He was our lead-off and the same thing had happened to him. But coach was merciless. "You two never even swung the bat. Never even twitched. What do you think bats are for, sissy boys? I don't know why I bat you two first and second." Jeff, batting third, fouled off several pitches, and coach kept it up till Will cut him off. "Coach, you bat them one and two because Drew gets two walks and a hit every game and Ben's hitting .370. We need to focus on Jake, figure him out, so we have a chance." He meant "Shut up," but he said "focus on baseball" because that's the way coach talked, and he stopped for a minute. But when Jeff struck out a couple pitches later, he started again. "My sissy squash boy can hit the juniors, but show him a real pitcher and Princeton comes and eats his bat."

I reached for my glove at the same time as Drew and whispered, "Princeton eats his bat? That doesn't even make sense." But coach reminded Drew too much of his father and that stoked his rage. As we trotted onto the field, Drew dropped to a knee, pretended to fix a shoelace, and shouted over his shoulder. "Hey coach, sissy Princeton boy is batting .457 and I don't think he owes it to you."

Two innings passed and we barely touched Jake. Strikeout after strikeout. Still, he threw some pitches belt high, so they might be hittable. Theo dumped one into center for our first hit, in the second. And Jake hit Will with a curve that slipped out of his hand with one out in the third. That brought me to plate with two out and Will on first. I gambled and decided to ignore pitches that were high or low in the zone, and to swing at anything from thigh to first ribs, whether it was over the plate or not. I thought I could put a bat on a ball at that height. The second pitch was hip high and a little outside. I lifted it into right center. It was an easy out, but it felt like a victory. I'd looked for a pitch, found it, and hit it a ways.

Going into the bottom of the sixth we we were down 1-0 and coach was relentless. "You guys are pitiful. Two hits, both of them pitiful. You guys should tell the score-keeper you're embarrassed to call them hits, they were so soft." It was true. Theo's bloop to center came on an awkward swing. Our other hit came from a sophomore. He rolled a ball past their first baseman, who ran like he wore lead socks. But somehow two hits gave us more hope than one – or none.

Jeff pulled Drew and me close as Jake warmed up. "Guys, this is our last real chance. Jake struck out eight of us the first time through our line-up, but the second time it was just four. We're starting to touch him a little. If we can put a couple hits together we have a chance. Drew, you say you could walk every time if you chose. So choose. After that," he turned to me, "We put the bat on the ball and see what happens."

Drew was short, so he had a small strike zone, and he knew the strike zone, the way few high school hitters do, and he could foul off pitches by design. Sometimes he'd hit seven fouls in a row in batting practice, just to prove he could. It wasn't as easy with Jake pitching, but Drew hit a few before Jake lost his concentration and gave him a walk.

I walked to the plate looking for an outside pitch above my knees, and I had a plan to get one. I'd seen him adjust his pitches to our position in the batter's box, so for the first pitch, I crowded the plate and hoped for a curve at my head. He threw it and I jumped back, trying to look dazed. "Strike one," called the ump. Perfect. Then I stepped away from the plate and looked for a pitch on the outside corner. The first pitch was rib high and a foot outside, but I strode into it, put a level swing on it, and punched it over the first baseman's head for a clean single. I could hear coach in the dugout, "That was a terrible pitch, ball one all the way. I don't know why Ben swung at it, but he hit it." For coach, that was high praise. And we had runners on first and third.

Jeff was a lefty, so he stepped to the plate without as much fear of Jake's curve. He stared at me on first, his eyes asking what I thought was coming. I looped one finger over my belt and he nodded faintly. Fastball. Jake reared back and blew one by Jeff, letter high, for a swinging strike. Then a curve pulled in, knee high, for strike two. After a second curve that stayed wide, we guessed fastball again. Jake unleashed a blistering pitch, but as coach said, location goes down as velocity goes up, and the ball cruised over the plate, waist high. Jeff started his swing a little late, but the arc was true and the ball bulleted over the shortstop's head into left-center. Drew trotted home while I tore around second and watched the center fielder's momentum carry him away from the plate as he reached the ball. I turned and found my third base coach. His arms circled like wind blades as he bellowed, "Go for it!" I rounded third and the team came out of our dugout, crouching down, inching toward the plate, shouting "Run! Run!" clenching their fists, pumping their fists with mine, then screaming for me to slide. With ten feet to go, I launched myself into the air, head first. The relay throw was on line, but high, and I beat the catcher's sweeping tag by inches. My team erupted; we had the lead. Jeff was on second, beaming, but he never budged as Jake avenged himself on our next three hitters.

Before we stepped on the field for the seventh, coach ordered us to halt. "This game is not over, farm boys. Three more outs. Focus. Come on. One, two, three. Let's go." Theo wasn't Jake, but he was a good pitcher. He struck out Washington's first hitter and coaxed a soft grounder from the second before he issued a nervous walk with two outs. Now Jake himself was at bat. He was big and the best athlete on the field. His blast over our left fielder's head in the fifth was their lone run. Remembering that ball, I jogged backward at least sixty feet in center, glad for once that our school didn't care enough about baseball to give us a fence. Theo's first pitch was in the dirt and the runner hustled to second. I was so deep that anything short would drop in and tie the game, but I guessed Jake wanted to win it on his terms. On the fourth pitch, the bat cracked and the ball soared deep into left center. Roars and groans flew from the crowd, but it's easy to track a deep ball to the right if it has air under it. I galloped a ways, then eased off a little as the ball popped into my glove for a very long out. Game over.

We raced together and fell on top of each other like a pile of puppies. As we untangled ourselves, I saw a couple scouts who had come to see Jake slapping coach on the back. They lingered, talking quietly for a moment, then coach pointed at us, smiling and laughing, and I wondered if we had him right.   DMD

The next day the seniors ate lunch together. Drew thought practice might be tough. "Coach is glad we won, but he'll be restless. We messed up his whole 'farmer, shrimper' myth." But Jeff blessed us one by one. "Theo, you pitched a great game, and Will, you called it for him. Drew, your walk was beautiful. Ben, what a catch. We're good, and that was our best game. Let's remember it."

A few weeks later, we graduated and scattered to our colleges. I've kept up with Jeff and Will and even saw coach a couple times when I visited my folks. I suppose I'm writing this story now because I bumped into him just after Christmas, walking with a woman I'd never seen before - his new wife. He saw me first, grabbed my hand, and slapped my back, as if he forgot that he'd labeled me a stupid, lazy, sissy farmer a thousand times. He pulled me into a coffee shop, and sprayed me with questions. "How are your parents? Your wife? Any kids yet?" He asked about Jeff, Will, Drew, and Theo. I answered as I could, avoided one or two lines, and paused.

Coach waded into the silence, looking into my eyes. "You know, you were my best team. You and Drew and Jeff, you were on base all day long. And the day we beat Woodside and Washington. That was the biggest game in school history, even if only eighty people saw it. You beat Jake Woodside – his only loss that year. He's pitched a little in the majors, you know. It took all of you, but you beat him."

Coach glanced at his wife, then recaptured my gaze. "I quit teaching a few years ago. I manage a resort now. It's a little like coaching, I guess…. I'm glad I saw you. You and Jeff, Drew, Will and Theo, you were the best seniors I ever had, even if Will hit .190. But I was a pretty bad coach that year. My first wife walked out the door in January…. I see you didn't know that. She even took my dog. I was so angry." He hesitated, "Maybe scared too. I knew how to coach tobacco farmers – my dad's still a tobacco farmer - but you guys were smart, going to Princeton, Wake Forest, UNC. I figured the less I said the better you'd do. So I tried to keep quiet and let you coach each other. I thought it worked, but you have to be the judge of that."

Still he held my gaze and I felt that he was trying to ask me for something. I waved for a refill to find time to decode his last remark: "You have to be the judge." What did that mean? Did he want absolution - not guilty by reason of fear, sorrow, and provincialism?

I looked away, fingered my mug, and looked back. "I'm no expert, coach, but I suppose it worked for us. It was… unorthodox, but maybe it worked for us." He relaxed and a calm spread over his face, lending it a texture I hadn't seen before. He seemed glad too, as if my face brought back all our faces, with all our resentment and teenage pride washed away and all his insults forgotten, as if we were all standing on second base with Jeff that great day, all bursting with joy, and I wanted to hold his smile, and the memory of Jeff's smile, and the memory of the dust on my hands and the dust in my nose after sliding, and my teammates lifting me from that dust and pounding my back and yelling, "We did it, we did it!" Yes, I wanted to forgive coach and I wanted him to forgive us and to remember everything, bad and good, all without words, all without judgment, till long after sunset.