Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A class act

Some nights, I really miss playing baseball. Like last Friday night when I sat along the third-base line, leaning on the fence and talking with some youth league coaches and parents about the pending game. A soft breeze blew over the freshly mown field in east central Illinois, whose sweet smell reminded me of days spent roaming across such fields back in New Jersey. I loved nights like this, as much for the beauty of the moment as for the competition. I miss the joy of playing.

But on this night, I was able to see the next best thing – my daughters were set to play the first game of a weekend softball tournament for a travel team filled with small, thin but fast and determined young girls, a team that has improved dramatically since last fall. And they were set to play a powerhouse Shelbyville team, a squad that had just knocked off two of the best teams in the state of Illinois.

Publicly, we told the girls any team is beatable. Privately, we hoped the game would just be close. As I worked with the girls on their swings before the game, the kids seemed looser than normal, something the head coach worried about, believing his girls were not concentrating. But he is a gentle coach, so he did not yell or scream.

By the second inning, we trailed by four. By the third inning, we were deadlocked. Our girls hit like never before, ripping shots all over the field. My oldest daughter drilled a two-run single up the middle and then scored. Our shortstop snagged a pop up and threw a bullet to first to double off a runner. Our third baseman snagged a liner and tagged a runner off that base for another double play an inning later. The girls played the game of their lives, applying lessons taught by their coaches and showing determination and confidence that they could win. A few more late-inning hits and some solid defensive plays later, the girls did just that, leaping in the air as if they had won the World Series. Our girls had played the perfect game. The girls could barely contain themselves, laughing as they ate burgers and fries at McDonald’s and slurping down shakes at Dairy Queen.

But I was even more amazed the next afternoon. Girls are vastly different than boys (in case you could not tell.) I learn this a little more every day, whether that is as a father of two girls or as a coach of a youth sports team. Girls are cool, man. They play hard, dance in the dugout, and sing songs for nearly everything from foul balls to a batter’s stance. Boys are awkward and duller. Girls sometimes cry when they make a mistake, but they do not give up and have much more fun.

Our team lost in the morning but rebounded to win an afternoon game by about 10 runs. As our team walked off the field, the Shelbyville players stood in two lines in front of the dugout, formed an arch with their arms, and yelled “WE are proud of you! We ARE proud of you!” A class act from a class team. (Which usually comes from a class coach.) And that is exactly how I would characterize the Shelbyville coach, a man who appears to be a calm teacher who cares for his players. I enjoy talking with him. Like our coaches, he is clearly set on teaching life lessons as well. That’s something we all need to consider when we watch our kids compete as parents and when we watch teams play as sports journalists.

There are way too many coaches who mistake screeching for teaching. There’s nothing wrong with raising one’s voice and yelling instructions, but screaming and deriding and attacking is another manner. (Like the coach who growled at his 10-year-old catcher: “Use your head! It’s not there just to hold up your mask!”) Winning is great, but not if it means enduring jerks like this guy. Shelbyville’s coach proves nice guys can finish first. Thanks for the great lesson for my girls.

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