In praise of a little league coach

I happened to think about somebody the other day that I hadn’t thought about in years and decided on a blog post.

Cotton, the man who I hadn’t thought about, (and I have no idea what his real name or last name were) was my little league coach with the Paul Hogg Trucking Reds. I was in the summer after 6th grade, and I played for Cotton in the semi-famous Neon (Ky.) Little Leauge. The Reds were a team that only our mothers could love, and frankly, most of them could have outhit or outrun us.

We didn’t win a game all year. We didn’t even have any real talent. We had one trio of brothers who didn’t own a glove and would switch the rights to wear one according to who was in the game at the moment. We had a big, nerdy first baseman who wore Buddy Holly glasses and ran like Buddy Holly’s grandma. We had catchers who couldn’t catch and pitchers who couldn’t throw strikes. All of us were good kids, incapable of trouble as much as winning. We just stunk.

I don’t remember much from Cotton, except that he told us to have fun, that he had us practice when there seemed to be no point, and didn’t get on us when we were down 22-1 in the third inning. His assistant coach, Randy, whose brother played for our pitiful team, handled most of the baseball strategy.

After that first year, Cotton didn’t come back to coach us the next year. We got a little better with Randy as the head coach. We won the occasional game, and frankly, I never thought about Cotton that year.

One day after practice, Randy called us over. He told us that he had just learned that Cotton had died. He was very sick, which was why he didn’t come back to coach that year. Randy, who was a big burly guy, tried to explain this to us. Cotton, he said, wasn’t much of a baseball guy, but, he said, choosing his words carefully, he chose you guys because he wanted you on his team. I thought about it later, and realized that Cotton chose the trio of brothers without a glove first in the previous year’s draft not because of any mistaken idea that they could play baseball, but because he knew they needed to be on a team, and to be on a team with somebody who would watch out for them. His team.

I realized that Cotton had chose me too– not because of smooth fielding skills or less than terrible hitting, but because he saw that a boy who loved baseball needed a team, and he liked the idea of me being part of that team.

We all signed a baseball for Cotton’s widow. And out young lives went on. I found myself thinking a lot more about what Little League meant. I watched Jack Barker, the coach of the (much better than us) Cardinals get ejected for berating an umpire and then sprint back to the field and celebrate like a madman when his team won. I saw the oldest of the three brothers on my team wrap out a solid line drive single to right, as if the million hours of hopeless practice had built something. I remember him standing on first base, nodding into the dugout, not like a guy who just got his first base hit, but like a guy who said, okay, I can handle this game.

I didn’t like playing for Randy very much. He wasn’t a bad guy, but between the change in coaches and the fact that we were at least not the worst team anymore, suddenly there was a lot more negativity. When I made a mistake, it wasn’t the same old thing, it was failure.

I didn’t finish the season. Baseball had ceased to be fun for me. It wouldn’t be again until I returned to it late in high school. But that’s another story for another day.

I find myself watching youth sports and thinking that there’s too much competition and not enough camraderie. There are too many coaches who are thinking about wins and losses, and not enough who are thinking that the grubby trio of brothers who don’t even own a glove are good kids, who need somebody to invest some time and hope in them. There probably aren’t very many coaches who would want me on their team either.

At least I know it wasn’t always this way. I didn’t always appreciate it at the time, but there was at least one guy who brought adult sensibilities to Little League Baseball. I’m glad I played for him.

Joe

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2 Responses to “In praise of a little league coach”

  1. Ricky Says:

    I want to know more about Jack Barker. Was he just a typical asshole, or he was an untypically great baseball asshole like Billy Martin?

    Seriously, there’s nothing worse than adults that take youth sports too seriously.

  2. eljoe1235 Says:

    I really never knew Jack well enough to tell.

    The incident I was referring to really stuck in my mind. I was watching a game before one of my games– seems it was Jack’s Cardinals against the A’s. I really didn’t like a couple of the guys on the A’s, so I was actually rooting for the Cardinals. There was a close play at the plate, and Jack went out and starts yelling at the umpire and kicking dust and the whole nine yards. Granted, he wasn’t swearing, but he was certainly yelling. The ump, who was the best umpire in the league, eventually ejected him. When he did so, Jack went up a set of stairs to the press box above the field– as you might imagine there was no actual press. Somebody won the game for the Cardinals in their last at bat, and Jack comes sprinting back down from the press box on to the field and celebrating like he won a World Series. The whole thing just left a really bad taste in my mouth, and I was what, 11 or 12 years old.

    Joe

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