The Last Day of the Season

To Coach Hartwell, Coach Dodge, our baseball community, and the parents and families surrounding the players on our team:

As gravity took over and the baseballs’ path fell from the sky and rested finally into the opposing left fielder’s glove, my hopes for a miracle comeback were replaced with the reality that I knew could come. Almost immediately, I found the softer, sentimental side of me taking over and countless thoughts and memories started messing with my mind. I mean, I was still just making my way on to the field to shake hands with our opponents, and my mind was flashing memories of my own personal collection of “The Last Day of the Season”. As we shook hands, and I congratulated the other team and wished them well moving forward, a coach from the other team asked me to make sure that Goffstown, please, put in a bid to host the State Tournament next season. This was a vote of confidence and a compliment to how well our community had run the District Pool Play Tournament over July 8-14 this summer. Then, as I turned away from the end of the line, back towards our dugout, I could feel that choking feeling rise into my throat, and my eyes started to water despite my best efforts to keep such things at bay.

I asked our coaches if we could circle up the team one more time. Maybe I demanded it, but in my mind it wasn’t much of a question. As we strode together across the infield dirt to the outfield grass, the field aglow from the light towers all lit up, I noticed the blades of green grass. I noticed the cut from dirt to grass where infield suddenly ended and outfield began in all of its green grandeur. The players and coaches took a knee in a circle, and for a moment I thought that this could have been the same lit green grass of Fenway Park or some field of dreams in an Iowa cornfield; it was just us together on a mostly forgotten field in Nashua. But, that’s what’s so awesome about baseball to me, among a million other things, there’s the game and the places where we teach, learn, love, and compete. These places may be separated by miles, or even by levels of play, but really, they’re not all that different. Anyways, I opened my mouth to address the team and I knew I was in trouble. I believe I got the words, “I hate the last day of baseball” out of my mouth before my voice cracked and my eyes looked down at the sweet grass seeking refuge in front of our team. There was silence for several seconds before another coach rescued me.

Maybe I am too soft or too, something or other, but I love the game and the fact that it will always be a kids game to me. To this day, being on the field with the team is like a direct connection to my youth. And, boy it just gets to me when the season ends. It always has. It always ends. This year we really had our all-star team together for just 27 days. Yes, only 27 days. Yet, so much happens in that time. So many practices, reps, teaching moments, lessons learned, personal challenges and achievements. We played 8 games in that time. We pitched more than 1000 pitches in games. Our batters saw more than 1000 pitches in games. So many things happened.

Then in the heat of competition, plays, moments, decisions, and actions are multiplied proportionately by the changing levels of intensity. It’s electric. It’s fun. It’s scary. It’s life in a nutshell, there on the diamond in all of its’ symmetry. The game and its surroundings are the classroom, and there are dozens of, if not more, teachers. There’s our players and coaches all trading turns at being the student and also being the teachers. It’s perfect. There are winners, there are losers, yes folks, people and teams do lose sometimes. It’s important that neither of these outcomes define you, me, or any of us. Even winners can be defined as such while still lacking compassion, character, passion, and a good head on their shoulders. To me, that’s not a winner anymore than a person or team that loses their last game of the season is a loser or group of losers. Understand the difference and know how to move forward from either outcome.

Over the last 27 days or so, I hope our players learned many things. I am pretty sure they did. Be it baseball, or being a teammate, or being a better version of themselves, I am sure they picked some things up. I know I always learn things in each season and there’s plenty I miss too. Staying the course, being engaged, willing to fail, but also daring to be great, and just keeping on, are all part of the life lessons one could take away from these times together. Every year since I started coaching 20+ years ago, I am reminded that the players make more plays than they don’t, and that trusting in them is the best way to go. For in all of my years as a coach, I have yet to get a hit, record an out, or make a single play. As it should be. We track everything, and that’s how it should be, for it’s not something kids will escape as adults, and measurement is critical to success. Even so, when looking over numbers, tendencies, scouting reports, opponents stats, etc. it still comes down to some kids coming together to get the job done. Again, as it should be. It’s all about the kids. Sometimes things look a certain way on paper, but paper is overrated, and kids develop before our eyes, because someone always has to pick up the ball and make the play. I mean, I sit here writing, and even I am not using paper.

I am not sure how I will express this next section here, but I have plenty of thoughts to share. We will see how this goes.

I volunteer as do many others. I am no more or no less perfect than any of you. I make mistakes like we all do. I learn, and in my human shortcomings, I don’t always get things right. Honestly though, I can say with 100% certainty, I operate in this manner as a pure dedication to keep this game, and the things we do in that space, to be all about the kids. I know that were it not for the kids, I would have spent the last 27 days doing something different entirely. I know that the game is designed with what most people would consider a flaw, because not everyone can play at the same time. The numbers don’t work. But I don’t think of it as a flaw at all, but rather a reality. We don’t always get what we want, and we should be happy that is the case because there’s a litany of examples of how poorly getting everything our way can turn out. There’s always room for improvement, just like there’s always someone better than us, and someone working harder than us. These things are real, they are life. So, it’s okay to recognize such things, but it’s not okay to not value what it is that each of us can bring to the table. Maybe we can work harder than the rest. Maybe we can improve and develop so that the list people of who are better at this or that is shorter by the day. You know what? It is okay to put yourself out there and have the guts to be great. You won’t always be great, no one is every single time, but there’s a lot of folks who aren’t around long enough to find out. Kids grow up, they are sponges, they learn everything from somewhere else. I take this seriously. I want to show kids the right way to play the game. The right way to be a good teammate. The right way to win. The right way to lose. The right way to approach the task at hand. The right way to be one among many. The right way to be greater as a group than to be just great individuals in the same place at the same time. The right way to deal with the failures inherent in baseball, and the rest of life. The time to hang in there when forces pull in a different direction than the goals they set. The power of a common goal and the drive and determination one can draw from a group, a team, of like-minded people with the same goals. This could go on and on. I recognize that I don’t know everything. I have a lot to learn. I also have a lot to teach, which is just one reason why I teamed up with this coaching staff last year, and again this year. We learn, we teach, we reap the rewards that is the beauty of kids learning the game and so much more. Yes, I would like to win every game. I would like to see every kid play every inning of every game. But, as we pursue life beyond the diamond, isn’t it more important to have learned not to quit? Not to give up because I didn’t get my way? Not to let forces outside of myself dictate the man or woman I know I can be? Not to feel I am owed anything but what I put into the outcome myself? Kids can be great teachers and we all should pay attention to when those moments happen because being an adult doesn’t always mean we make better decisions; sometimes it means we learned how to not be a kid anymore. Most of us would probably define kids, childhood, or children in similar terms. Pure. Simple. Innocent. Fearless. Relentless. Uninhibited. True. Honest. Unassuming. Friendly. So the list would go. Sometimes we just need to stay out of the way and let the kids be kids. For one day (maybe several days), we all wish to be kids again one more time.

Okay, so several people mentioned to me over the last 10 days or so, how impressed they were with how we, the Goffstown community, ran our tournament at Allard Park this year. To these, I always say thank you, and thank you for noticing. I always, always point out how we try to make it about the kids. Always, about the kids. I get a lot of comments from folks all over the state, and even other states, largely because I announce games and deal with numerous people from the different organizations that come through our little slice of this world. But this is not about me. This is about the kids, and the families that surround these kids. From the bottom of my heart, and I think I speak for our coaches, and for our league, I say thank you. A HUGE THANK YOU TO ALL OF YOU. You are the best. Why? Because I do feel we make it about the kids. The kids have a beautiful field to play on, thank you to the Allard family as always, and to the tireless hours of preparation, maintenance, and repair that our community puts into this oasis. We offer one of, if not, the best concession stands in all of New Hampshire and it’s because of you all and the work you put in to make it special. We take care of the field, we feed the folks, we announce the names, we honor America, we respect the game as well as the officials in whatever capacity they might hold, we accept the challenge, we set the standard, and we love to do it. Thank you. Thank you. Trust me in knowing that none of this is lost, and it certainly does not go unnoticed. To the kids that hear their names announced, to the woman whose day is made because she won the 50/50, to the parent who was bailed out of their ‘too busy’ schedule that left a car full of hungry kids pulling in to the park, to the coach that first saw this place we call home and was in awe of the setting that is Allard Park, to the officials who are thankful to come visit with us again, to the players who run free among the green before time takes it away too soon, to the parents who sacrifice time and distance to get the kids where they need to be and at the right time, to the families that support us, to the kids learning to play for the name across the front of their jerseys, to the untold stories we each carry with us when we stand at attention for our national anthem, to the laughter heard up and down each baseline, to the kids who learn from us about never giving up, working hard, and paying it forward, and to the reason I write this list, because there’s always a right way to do things. Thank you all.

Separately I want to say thank you to our parents in our community. Clearly, without the kids none of this would happen, but right there too, are the parents and families who support the kids’ days in the sun. Thank you for your time, your sacrifice, your involvement, your volunteerism, your dedication to do it right, and for the example you set for all of our children.

To the players:

They are called the boys of summer. Whether it’s boys, young men, girls, or young women, it really is the time of our lives. The days we all grow up from only to look back and beckon them to come to us once again. Truly, I am honored to be a part, in some small way, of those days for this group of kids. I am sorry that I get caught up in the post game rush of the necessary things to be done to get ready for the next game, or to leave for the next slice of time, or to prep the field, or whatever it is that calls us away. I do wish there was time to sit and talk with each one of you about anything and everything after each game. I really do. Mostly though I would tell you how thankful I am for your efforts. I would tell you how proud I am of you for doing this or doing that. I would provide opportunities where we could discuss growth on and off of the field. I would tell you how great you were on this play or that at bat. I would challenge you to look at things from different perspectives. I would commend you for battling, and not giving up. I would help you recognize how much better you are than maybe you even think you are. I would tell you to enjoy just being a kid, and to never let go of the spirit that is childhood. I would sit and dream with you. I would do my best to let you know, and further understand how important you are to the team, and how important you are to yourself. Finally, I would thank you for always being ready to play whatever role it was you were being asked to play.

Thank you all for working so hard. It has, and will continue to pay off. Thank you for your attention and for your desire to learn. Thank you for being genuine and for being you. Thank you.

To the coaches in uniform, and the ones who helped on the field at every turn:

Thank you. Thank you for being involved and for helping us to be more effective as a coaching staff. Truly, each of you make this team a better team.

For those of you who know me, you know how important I think these examples are. I cherish and honor the times I get to put the uniform on, and the opportunities I am afforded to represent my community. I both relish and respect the times I am granted to be the coach, the parent, the adult, that has been entrusted with the care of these children we coach. Thank you again for the chance to be a part of the regular season and certainly the all-star team. I know we don’t always agree on every aspect of the team game and use of the roster, or at least our approach to playing the roster. I will say that we do agree a lot more than we don’t. I welcome the opportunities to challenge one another’s thought process and the banter that follows. Honestly, I can say that I can’t count how many times we, regardless of discussion, said “let’s put the best 9 on the field”. I point this out because I value the approach. There’s no agenda that any one of us carries other than what is best for the team. In such a case, there are no names or faces assigned to that statement, just the entire team. Yes, we make decisions that always leave someone out, momentarily. That’s one of the toughest things about coaching, someone is always sitting. Thank you coaches for always working to develop these ball players. Thank you for creatively thinking of how to utilize the talents our team possessed. Thank you for putting up with me. Thank you for your feedback, your planning, your dedication, and for your passion. Thank you for being my friends.

As we left the ball field last night, us coaches shook hands in respect and thanks to each other as equal members in the dugout. We shared hugs as we said good-bye to each other, another season at its end. We talked immediately of next year, fall ball, and opportunities to continue improving as coaches and as a team. And as one coach and myself lingered until all was dark and the lot was empty, we talked of the team. We talked of the lessons in life that we ourselves had learned in the padded safety of team sports growing up. I say it that way because these lessons are so much easier to learn in our innocent but beautiful youth than they are later when we have learned so many different ways to react. We talked of our own roles and how we could be better at the development process. We laughed and shared our own stories, but mostly we just wanted there to be another game we could all suit up for.

Finally, as I try to wrap this up, I share this. As the finality of our season hit me last night, and the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve thoughts entered my mind, I found peace in the following. If all I did was to help even one kid improve on the ball field, even a little bit, then something was gained. If I learned lessons and improved as a coach, as a father, as a man, even a little, then progress was made. Far more importantly, if through some small miracle, I had a positive impact on this group as a result of our interaction this summer then the story is a success. Time will tell who we spend our time with, who our friends are, or which ones remain. Time will see these kids grow up, and some are probably already taller than they were yesterday. Time will cloud the memories of us all. Teams, coaching staffs, and rosters will blend together as time takes us further from these moments. But, to think that we all came together to this community, to this place, to this season, with whatever it is that our cumulative experience was prior to now, to be one. We came from wherever, to be here now, and our own lives and times on this planet overlapped to this level over the last 27 days especially. If one day somewhere down the road, a then grown man or grown woman, who grew up and interacted with me, with us, during this last season, and is better suited for what lies ahead for having done so, then we all win. As I tell the kids often, always be learning, always be recording, there is always something to gain. I do not take this lightly. I am so very thankful for the chances that I have to coach kids.

For now though, I feel the pangs that pull at my emotional core knowing that baseball season is yet again done. Like I used to feel on the last day of school when my little world of friends and the likelihood of seeing those familiar faces everyday ended for summer break, I look forward to the next time we shall meet again. All these years, and I still dread the last day of the season.

Advertisements

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s