When you dream of flinging major league fastballs and a sore arm short-circuits that dream, you don't usually think coaching a ragtag bunch of kids can measure up.
The 15 boys we were given the summer of 1973 were a beguiling and bewildering group. One bespectacled youngster could have been typecast as a computer nerd. Another, Paul, was a gangly, coltish kid, all arms and legs; watching him run was like the slow-motion dream sequence out of the movie "The Black Stallion."
The only thing I knew for sure when I began that coaching assignment was that I wanted to avoid the attitudes that had been forced upon me when I was their age. These kids had always been told what they couldn't do; we tried to teach them what they could do.
As we went through the season, we watched other coaches yell at kids for making physical errors, to the point of pulling them off the field in the middle of an inning. We talked to our guys about their mental errors - in the dugouts, between innings. We wanted to make them aware of the thinking half of the game. We taught them not to worry about the physical errors. They're part of the game, and everybody makes them; the place to work on the skills necessary to avoid them is at practice.
We also set out with the attitude that every kid who came to practice would play as nearly equal a number of innings as anyone else on the team.
The kids didn't believe us, at first. Several of our boys weren't used to getting playing time. All of them were used to getting yelled at for muffing a ground ball, dropping a fly. They didn't know the game was supposed to be fun.
As they began to learn, though, they grew "wings" - and there is nothing more joyous than watching a kid discover his wings. I always think first of Paul, who was so tentative initially, out there in the wide- open spaces of center field. An excerpt from my journal, dated June 2, 1973: "Paul let a ball drop in front of him today that he should have caught. Paul is long and lanky, a bit shy, and possessing much ability. The problem is in his mind, though. All his instincts told him to make a play for that ball: He got a good jump on it, moved in quickly, then pulled up at the last second, letting the ball drop in for a hit. The thought had occurred to him that he might err on the play, that he might muff it or miss it, so he decided to play it safe. Paul will make that play next time. He's not really afraid to fail. He just thought he was."
Paul did make that play the next time. I told him, "The center fielder is the captain of the outfield. Everything in the air belongs to you. A great man, Branch Rickey - the man who brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues - once said, 'I'd rather have the errors of enthusiasm than the errors of complacency.' That means try for everything."
We also turned him loose on the base paths. "Any time you get on base, and you think you can get a good jump on the pitcher, go for the steal."
By midseason, Paul was tracking down virtually everything hit to the middle half of the outfield and was stealing pitchers blind nearly every time he got on base. He had gotten a taste of flight, and nothing would ever take it away from him.
"Our kids won their way into the championship playoffs yesterday by hustling, scrapping, and pushing until the other teams just couldn't take the pressure," reads my journal of July 8. "By the end of the first half of the season, our kids began to believe in us and in themselves. Counting the last two games of the first half, they have won 10 of their last 11 games and are red hot." It was grand larceny on the wing, and it was wonderful to watch.
Tom, the son of one coach, grew into our team leader, working with our pitchers from behind the plate and gunning down anyone foolish enough to try and steal on him.
Another player, Little Don, started out the year as an awkward, befuddled kid who would not have gotten an inning of playing time anywhere else. At first, his teammates picked on him shamelessly, but we put a quick stop to that and tried to instill the idea of helping and encouraging one another. One day, after I got all over our best player in practice - showing him how it affected his own play and self image - our kids began to catch on to the necessity of pumping each other up. By the end of the season, our guys were counting on Don at third base. He later turned out to be a pretty fair golfer, and his dad still thanks me for that season of growth.
Tony, who played first base much of the time, was a shy, quiet kid who almost blended into the dugout shadows. He wasn't any less shy with people by the end of the season, but he was swinging the bat with authority and making every opposing pitcher take notice of his presence.
The playoffs were best two of three, and we lost the first game. Facing instant elimination in the second game, our kids came winging back on a hot, dismal day. They had worked so hard together all season that they weren't going to roll over for anybody. As we were taking infield for the third and decisive game, the half-dozen kids who would otherwise have been classified substitutes or second string asked to talk to our coaching staff. "We've decided that we want to sit out this game. We want the championship for the team."
That was a tough one. My inclination was to say, "Nice thought, fellas, but we got here playing everybody and that's that." Then again, it took some thought and courage to get together and make such a choice. We finally decided to honor their request as best we could. As it was, they were constantly on their feet encouraging their teammates. They were in the game from first pitch to last, so I suppose our decision was OK.
Mike, our pitcher that final game, was a strapping kid, big for his age, with a strong right arm and a hard, wild head. Mike was the closest thing we had to a disciplinary problem, and we kept him out of a couple of games for missing practice without an excuse. Once he learned that he couldn't throw his talent in our faces, he got his act together and contributed much to the team effort.
In that championship game, we jumped on the league's star pitcher for four runs in the first inning, and the game was all but over, because Mike was ready to toss a no-hitter at them. He was the master of that game, throwing harder than I had ever seen him throw. He was just wild enough to keep the hitters loose in the box, but hitting the strike zone often enough that they had to keep swinging on him, often as not at bad pitches.
Where many of the teams we faced throughout that season were yelled at by their coaches, and even yelled at each other, our boys worked like a team of winged horses. They claimed their prize - and themselves - by hustling, scrapping, and boosting one another when things got tough. They learned to spread their wings, and the sky became theirs.