A few years ago I coached a little league baseball team in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I’ve coached many baseball teams over the years from American Legion to Little League.
The league needed someone to coach a team of leftover players. Kids who did not get drafted on draft day. I still hate that terminology. No kid is a “leftover” in my opinion. Teaching them how to play the game of baseball is enjoyable. The individual and team concepts that can be learned from baseball and other sports can go a long way toward providing character building tools that can last a lifetime.
After calling my list of kids and talking with parents, the first day of practice was set up.
That day finally came. Excited kids and parents arrived on time. Many of the kids had never played organized baseball before. Baseball school was in session.
I put the kids through a series of drills designed to find out which kids could possibly play infield or outfield. The drills also pointed out which kids could catch the ball well and which ones needed work. We ran bases, fielded ground balls and caught fly balls in the outfield.
The first day of practice ended with a short talk about each of us doing our best, being a great teammate and planting that seed of teamwork. We would do everything as a team from that day forward. It started with everyone picking up the gear, the bats, head gear and balls. All the equipment was loaded into the gear bag before anyone left the field.
A very excited, little red-headed, freckle faced boy had been following my every step throughout practice. He looked like a character in a Norman Rockwell painting. You couldn’t help but smile when looking at him. His name was Billy.
“Coach, what position am I going to play?” Billy asked me. “I’m not sure yet son. What position do you think you would like to learn?” I asked him. “I’ll play where ever you put me coach,” he said with a huge smile. So started our relationship, one I will never forget.
Billy could catch the ball. So I put him at first base and began his education on playing that position. At practice he listened to everything I told him. He quickly grasped the footwork and other skills to play first base.
I handed out uniforms. Billy couldn’t take his eyes off his uniform and held it carefully like it might break.,
Two weeks later we played our first game of the season. It was scheduled for 5 p.m. Of course Billy’s mother told me he was at the ball park about 10 minutes after he got out of school that day.
I sent my players to their positions to start the game. Our dugout was on the first base side of the infield, thank goodness. From our dugout I could constantly talk to Billy, attempting to maintain control of the highly excited youngster.
On the second pitch of the game, the batter hit a line drive all the way to the left field fence. As my eyes followed the flight of the ball and watched my left fielder get to it and throw the ball toward the infield. I realized my first baseman, Billy, was jumping up and down screaming, “throw me the ball!” Billy was in shallow left field. That’s clear across the field, in the outfield.
The play ended. I managed to get Billy back across the field, back to first base and reminded him to stay at his position. “Yes, sir coach. I know coach. I will coach!” he repeatedly said.
The next batter walked.
On the following pitch, the base runner attempted to steal second base. As my eyes followed the flight of the ball from my catcher to second base, I realized my first baseman Billy was sliding into the second base bag ahead of the base runner! I said, “Billy! What are you doing? Get back over to your position and stay there.” He was grinning ear to ear because he had outrun the base runner to the bag.
Every game was similar to this one. It was a challenge. But to see a kid so full of joy, so excited to play baseball was a joy for me.
Midway through the season. Billy didn’t show up for practice one day. I attempted to call his mother that night, but no one answered. Billy didn’t show up at our next practice either. I was very concerned.
I arrived at the ball park at 4 p.m. to prepare for our next game. As I sat in the dugout writing out the lineup sheet, I looked up and saw Billy walking slowly toward me. He had a cast on his arm and his baseball uniform neatly folded on the other, and his head hanging down.
Billy had fallen off his bike and broken his arm. As he made it to the dugout, that little freckled faced child looked up with tears streaming down and said, “Coach, I’m so sorry. I broke my arm and I can’t play first base for you anymore.” He cried as he attempted to hand his uniform to me.
As I looked at Billy, I was brokenhearted for him. He held that uniform like it was the most valuable possession in his life. I said to him, “Billy, why don’t you keep your uniform as a gift from your team!” His face lit up and that sparkle returned to his eyes and he screamed, “Thank you coach!”
I watched Billy sprint away, clutching his uniform that day, and thought if we all could only be as passionate for the things we love and do, like Billy. Joy and the excitement of life would fill us all.