On the Force or the Tag: Part V

On The Force or the Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.

The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. Read earlier sections:

The dugout in which the meeting with Calloway happened. 


Memory is Duct tape. It’ll hold together bits of truth well enough for us to get on with the day.  

The season ended abruptly. My fiance and I had scheduled a trip to Denver on what was to be the final weekend of games. It was not a good look for the coach to be absent, but the last weekend of games were cancelled anyway. They couldn’t find any umpires.  

Following the previous game – what become our last – I told the fellas how much I enjoyed coaching them. I encouraged them to call if they ever wanted me to throw batting practice or hit fungos. There were a few thank yous from parents and players in the parking lot, but no one was pretending the season was more than it was. In total, I coached eight games, one practice, and one batting practice session with Zack.

Regardless of the brevity of the season, these are my guys now. That’s how this coaching gig works. My wish for them is that they find a calling, they work very hard to master that calling, and they feel the buzz of success regularly. If they need me, I hope they know I’ll answer the call.

I enjoyed every player on the team – truly – and they seemed to like me enough, too. If fate would have it so, it would be a welcome surprise to bump into any of my guys in five or ten years and get an update on how things are going.

My account of this season and the relationships forged with these players is just that: one account. In truth, there is a high likelihood that at least one player on this team did not like me. Someone felt that I had picked favorites, and he wasn’t one of them, and that I didn’t know squat about baseball. I would bet these were the topics of conversation at that monument of adolescence – the car ride home from a game with a parent.

Some portion of that story occured. How can I be so sure? Everyone who has ever played a sport at any level has had at least one coach who didn’t mesh, whether the coach knew it or not. My coach was Chris Calloway.  

I framed this series as a thank you to the great coaches throughout my baseball life. What I haven’t mentioned is I’ve spent as much time thinking about Calloway (not his real name), as any other coach I ever had.

I end with Calloway because baseball’s ultimate lesson is failure.

***

The high school field at Roseville. They can keep leveling and re-edging that field until the end of time, but it will always be a crap field. In the background you can see the hill and Highway 36 where we’d have to shag foul balls.

Calloway played the part of a coach convincingly. While he was no tactician, he was pigeon-toed and sauntered across the infield like a coach. He’d yell odd phrases from the dugout – Get foul, you communist whore! –  that sounded gruff, coach-like, but he also tried to pass off obvious objectives of the game as wisdom – you gotta throw strikes, hit the ball hard. He’d chew leaf tobacco and work hopelessly on our p.o.s. high school field during the summer while his dog ran along the fence line. His aura dripped baseball coach, but it wasn’t the real thing.

To Calloway, my enthusiasm for the game was a book picked up, thumbed through, and never read. I was another player to him, and that did not work for me. I worked hard to be more than just another player, and every other coach prior to him had encouraged me. Calloway didn’t care how much I cared. I grew to hate him for that, flatout. I resolved to prove him wrong and extract his respect without ever knowing what evidence would be sufficient proof I’d succeeded.

The goal was a D-I college baseball scholarship. I’d mapped out a plan in detail. 200 swings a day on the tee in the basement. Long-toss three times a week throughout the year. Blocking drills, framing, working out in the gym. I quit hockey – in Minnesota! –  to focus on doing everything I could to reach this goal. These were not sacrifices; I enjoyed every bit of it. I was fifteen, and because high school baseball is played during the spring, that meant I would likely need a scholarship offer after the summer season (Legion ball) of my junior year. I had two years. Not much time.

I started out ahead of schedule. Calloway asked me to join the varsity tryouts during my freshman year. In exchange for catching bullpens, I was allowed to practice with the upperclassmen. There was no chance I was going to make the varsity roster as a freshman – I knew that – but with that time I was able to assess the catcher pecking order in the program up close.

Jack Rose was the senior left-handed cleanup hitter with a cannon arm. Quick hands and a big ass. Borderline all-state catcher. Rose was graduating, and he gave me rides to the tryouts in his wagon. He was not my concern. Nico Roll was my concern.

Roll was one year ahead of me. A three-sport athlete with all of the physical ability to be good-to-great in just about any sport. He was a running back, a winger, and a catcher. He could hit, he could throw, and he could run. These are the measurables that show in a tryout. Nico also thought about Wu-Tang Clan far more consistently than he thought about baseball. That was not something that showed in a tryout. If anything, a lack of interest can be easily misread as an ‘even-keel approach’ in the short time frame of a tryout.

The following year, my task was quite plain coming into tryouts. In order to stay on schedule for a D-I scholarship, I had to beat out Roll at catcher. I was more consistent defensively, a left-handed hitter, and cared about nothing but baseball. I’d been working at it every day since the gym tryouts the previous year.

Roll was a more powerful hitter, and I already mentioned the speed. His best was pretty damn good, but he rarely showed it. Catcher is a position that will make a mess out of a guy if his head isn’t in it. The catcher is the captain on the field, the only one that has the entire field in front of him. To put it in Kent Anderson terms – every ball’s coming to me, know what I’m going to do with it – the catcher needs to know what every player on the field is supposed to do in every situation. Simply too much happens all of the time for someone with an occasional interest in baseball to play the position.

It was hard to tell who had the edge, and I waited for Calloway’s announcement. I finally had to ask. We were walking out by the loading docks in the back of the gym. Roll was going to start. Calloway seemed unsure why he even had to say it out loud.

It was the first moment in my life in which I encountered another’s talent that outweighed my desire. All things weren’t equal. Hard work had not paid off on my expectation, and I’d lost to a guy that didn’t care. Worst of all, Roll was a junior, meaning I’d sit behind him for two years. By the time my senior year would come I would miss most any chance to get a scholarship. This was not the plan.

And then, without warning, Roll was caught dipping in class before the season opener. Mandatory two week suspension. There I was, starting a varsity game as a sophomore playing against Cretin at their legendary diamond in St. Paul. I hit the ball hard a couple times that game, and I remember a walk-off hit against Coon Rapids. After the Coon Rapids game Calloway referred to my hit as something along the lines of a ground ball with eyes.

Cretin-Derham Hall. High school field of Joe Mauer and Paul Molitor. 

I don’t remember much else from those two weeks other than being extremely happy and feeling like I was where I was supposed to be. I played well, I think, and it wasn’t crazy to hope that I’d continue catching after Roll’s suspension. Who knows if the stats would prove my memory correct or not. Memory is Duct tape.

Roll served his suspension and was back into the lineup shortly thereafter. I was the designated hitter for a couple games, and then I was on the bench taking my turn shagging foul balls along Highway 36. I hated shagging foul balls at that field. You had to walk behind parents and students to climb over the chainlink fence and search for a baseball in high grass along the highway as cars and semis blew by. Put on an orange vest, and it’d be difficult to distinguish a bench player from a minimum security prisoner doing highway cleanup.

I was certain Calloway had it out for me and was going out of his way to screw me. He was drawn to athletes over ballplayers. In Minnesota, that meant he liked the hockey players that also played baseball. I’d quit hockey to become a ballplayer.

He liked Roll. Calloway once brought Roll a Sport Illustrated article about the Pirates catcher Jason Kendall. The story is about the two sides of Kendall: the surfer bum and the hard-nosed, always dirty, win-at-any-cost ballplayer with a huge wad of tobacco poking out of his cheek. Roll had the laid back portion of Kendall down (and the tobacco*), but he wasn’t hard-nosed. He wasn’t a ballplayer.

Calloway was trying to inspire Roll. In retrospect, I understand Calloway trying to jumpstart a player, but you can’t coach a kid to care. Kent, my Little League coach, could tell that from a game of catch with a ten year old. Still, it hurt to see Calloway try with Roll and wonder why he wouldn’t try with me.

The easy answer would be that I didn’t need it. That I already had the drive. That, of course, is disingenuous bullshit. I was a teenager, not a monk. How about an ‘atta boy’ every now and again?

At one point, I even had a meeting with Calloway to try to figure out what I could do differently. In a moment I’ll always regret, I had my older brother, Matt, join us in the dugout. I cried. I was failing, and I didn’t know how handle it. That moment remains utterly embarrassing and emasculating.

***

In the end – what do you know – it worked out. It took me a long time before it sunk into my teenage brain that I couldn’t control Calloway. What I could do was keep up with the daily 200 swings off of the tee and keep taking one more step back on the long toss.

You win by outlasting them. You care more for longer, and eventually the people between you and what you want quit. It’s not always the cinematic moment, the walk-off hit. In many ways, success is attrition.

I don’t think Roll even finished his senior year of baseball. What’s more telling – I can’t remember.  

I didn’t get that D-I scholarship, but I got some money to play at Augustana College, a D-II school (2018 D-II National Champs!). We played damn good ball for Coach Holm, and the team rode buses across Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska playing baseball in decaying minor league stadiums and through spring time snowstorms. We caravanned across the gray, wet belly of America on a diet of Euchre and orange peanut-butter crackers.

About to ride back from Greeley, Colorado with a NCC conference championship. Left to Right: Bergie, Wally, Kroeger, Schultzy, O-Dog, yours truly in the headphones, Walzy in the background with the looooooong cargo shorts, and Sammy’s chest far right. 

I was lucky to play a bunch all four years, to be captain two of those years, and to help win the first conference championship in the program’s history. My grandpa, my dad, my brothers got to see me play college baseball. Mom, too. She’d sit watch like a sentinel in that Sioux Falls wind galloping across the Dakota plains.  

I also spent my time sending writing samples to authors, drinking beers with teammates who would become lifelong friends, learning to play the guitar, and streaking across the quad. I read Tim O’Brien, John Fowles, and Steinbeck with a pen in hand and slipped terrible love letters into the shadows beneath dorm room doors.

After all those great times, why do I still think of those days with Calloway? Why do I still want to extract that goddamn, worthless respect out of him? Why does a part of me still need him to know I wasn’t a phony?

What bothered me as a teenager and what bothers me now are different points. As a kid, I wanted to play, to be great, and be recognized for it. As I saw it, Calloway wouldn’t allow that to happen, which of course isn’t entirely true. If I was an obvious D-I scholarship player, I would’ve taken Roll’s starting spot at some point.

As an adult, Calloway’s wasted opportunity bothers me as much as anything. He coached with no joy. It offends me that he held that Varsity Baseball Coach job for years, keeping it away from a coach who could’ve been to other players what Kent, Tony, Jay, and Holm were to me. It also bothers me at how quickly I panicked when Roll was given the starting gig. It took me too long to toughen up and deal with the situation by simply controlling what I could control, which was my effort and attitude.

But If I’m going to write about it like this, if I’m going to critique a man twenty years later, then I need to unwrap the Duct tape and examine all of the bits of truth that remain, not just the ones that fit within my emotional truth.

For as uninterested as I remember him to be, Calloway gave me a key to the baseball storage closet so we could get in the old gym and take B.P. anytime we wanted. That was our practice space throughout the winter, during the time the coach couldn’t be working with the players.

He also must have recommended me for a fall wood bat league that ultimately allowed me to catch the attention of my college coach. He spoke well enough about me to have Augustana offer me a scholarship. Without his endorsement, it is highly unlikely that happens. That is a huge detail I’d overlooked until writing this.

And we need to leave room for one other consideration. When we think of coaches, we let the title stand in for the entire person. We don’t think of them sitting at a cubicle the eight hours before they go to the field, and we can’t imagine them in the role of spouse, parent, son, or daughter. We have no idea what people carry on their shoulders on any given day, month, decade, or lifetime.

I have the right to share this story – my story – but I don’t want to be so self-centered as to not even acknowledge that Calloway was more than a coach, and there were parts of his life I didn’t see that impacted our relationship. These are not excuses, but it’s not always about us. Maybe it’s even rarely about us, and we need to leave space to remember that.

So it’s OK if some of the guys I coached this summer didn’t like me, but I hope they believe I care about them. I hope they work hard so they compete and expect to succeed in the moments when real life is at stake, whether that success comes as a cinematic moment or as the invisible victories of persistance. Kent, Tony, Jay, Holm – that’s what they gave me, and that’s about as big of a gift as it gets.

I also hope they know I will throw them B.P. and hit them fungos until it’s too dark to see. I’ll do it because I love to coach, but I’ll also do it because there’s no place I’d rather be than on a baseball field. – PAL

FOOTNOTES:

*I’m realizing now that tobacco is at the root of this chapter. Calloway chewed while working on the field, Roll was suspended for dipping in class. Kendall always and wad in his cheek, and I took up the nasty habit early in college (and have since quit).

A huge thank you to TOB for reading and editing these five chapters. Over the several years we’ve been doing 1-2-3 Sports!, I’ve come to love his writing and trust his opinion immensely. Also, a big thank you to Jay Kurtis for digging up some vintage pics from Little League, and to my mom and dad for digging up old team photos from cardboard boxes in the basement.

 

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “On the Force or the Tag: Part V

  1. Wow Phil….thank you for sharing so honestly. I have to say, you are right, coaching, teaching, sharing can change lives. I took what I learned and experienced from those seasons and am now paying it forward with my son and the MN Sled Hockey Association….We are changing many many lives in very positive ways. Coaching those teams taught me a lot. THANK YOU…. AJL

  2. Pingback: On the Force or the Tag: Part IV | 1-2-3 SPORTS!

  3. Pingback: On the Force or the Tag: Part III | 1-2-3 SPORTS!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s