Part-time coaches like me sometimes fall into a perilous pit once we get out on the field. It’s even worse if you’ve actually played the game you’re coaching, because your mind gets flooded with all those memories from 20 years ago, and they smell fresh and new and so recent, and you forget that two decades have passed since you last laced it up and competed. It’s hard to push that mental DVR back into its proper place, but if you don’t, you’ll end up like me.

Thus far we’ve had 3 practices, and the kids are improving by leaps and bounds. A few even know where all the bases are, and if you think I’m joking, I’ll say this – I’m happy that SOME of them know we’re playing baseball at all, and I’ll be thrilled when a few of them actually face home plate when they’re on defense. But we three coaches are working hard at teaching them the fundamentals, and they’re slowly catching on. Already we’re starting to identify the good players, the players who need work, and the players who will perfect the fine art of ducking when the ball comes whizzing at their faces. We’ll keep lots of ice and gauze on hand for those little guys.

At the end of practice, we always have the players run. It’s good for them, it builds up conditioning, and after an hour or more of practice, more than one of them deserves it. We hold the threat of running over their heads as a punishment for talking while coaches are talking, disrupting practice, or other offenses, but we make ’em run anyway because…well, we’re all fathers, and we’re sadistic, and we all know that just because we may not have caught them doing shit, they more than likely DID shit, and were just slick enough to get away with it. And because we’re dads, it means we were boys, and we know how boys think, and that gives us the ultimate advantage in deciphering their chicanery. Running is like default punishment for the things we didn’t catch, and we use it as a tool to root out the weak. Oh, and it’s good for conditioning or whatever.

On the second day of practice, we had the kids all line up, shoulder to shoulder, preparing to run. We challenged the boys, egging them on to beat each other so that the default running won’t seem so much like default punishment. Once they were all jazzed up and competitive, we were gonna let ’em loose like the hounds of the Baskervilles, and watch as they damn-near ran up each other’s backs in an attempt to win the race. It was a nice day, folks…sunny skies, decent temperature, a slight southwesterly breeze blowing my lack of hair…it was an ideal setting for me to make a jackass out of myself. So as the kids were toeing the line and bending their knees like Olympic sprinters, ol’ Coach Damian sauntered up to the line, nonchalantly, as though he was the tall kid on the roster. I looked down the line and said “Boys, I’m running too.” And in a foolish display of stupidity, I then said “And don’t let me beat you!” Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to watch 11 8 year olds get uber-excited at the prospects of genuinely beating an adult at something, but it’s almost exactly like holding a chicken over an alligator habitat. Frothing. At. The. Bit. They looked at me, sizing me up, deciding their overall strategy for taking me down, but I was Cool Hand Luke, not even taking off my sunglasses. The other coaches looked at each other, then me. They weren’t ABOUT to participate, for they knew better. Coach F has a prosthetic leg, and Coach C is a bit on the round side for that level of physical activity. Coach F said “ON YOUR MARK,” and 11 kids focused on the backstop about 70 yards away. Coach F said “GET SET,” and I eased my sunglasses down, just a little, so I could stare at the little miscreants before I turned on the afterburners and left them in my dust. Coach F said “GO!”, and off we went. My long legs easily put me out in front (of a bunch of 8 year olds, lest you forget), and I was clearly out in front. 20 yards from the backstop, I looked back, expecting to see 11 kids so far behind me that I’d need to send them postcards, but boy did I get a shock.

As I turned, I saw something improbable – a kid BLAZING up behind me like a cheetah chasing an old, heavy gazelle. It was Ringer, and my GOD that kid can flat-out run. He actually scared me, ’cause the only thing I expected to see was my cloud of dust. I couldn’t back down though, so I did the only thing I could do – I started talking smack. “You’re not gonna let ol’ coach beat you, are you?” This I said as I increased my speed from You Got This to Um, Maybe You Should Take This Seriously, Man. I started running for real then, leaning into it and closing my mouth. I glanced to my right, and Ringer was literally right beside me, his face contorted in focus. “Oh, shit” I said, to myself, not wanting to explain to his parents why I cussed to their precious child. I started running HARD, like “Chariots of Fire”, and I swear I nearly heard the theme music.

40 yards from the finish line, my lungs started burning.

30 yards from the finish line, my knee said “You’re an idiot.”

20 yards from the finish line, Ringer pulled out in front, without much effort.

10 yards from the finish line, an invisible man came up beside me, pulled out a fillet knife, and started stabbing me in my left side.

5 yards from the finish line, I used the last of my afterburners and pulled slightly ahead of Ringer.

At the finish line, I won. I WON! And I realized at that moment how badly I wanted that win. I couldn’t let an 8 year old beat me. How sad is that? As Ringer crossed the line, he calmly sat down, waiting on final instructions from Coach C. I, on the other hand, was breathing hard, walking off the hurting knee, wishing an invisible cop would arrest the invisible man for assault, and wishing that my youth came in a pack of three, like paper towels. It was at that moment, that very instant, that Coaching Lesson 101 came into full actuality to me: I am not on the team. I am a coach, and moreover, an old man who shouldn’t be trying to prove himself to a bunch of kids who’d largely rather be playing Xbox than practicing baseball. The other coaches looked at me, smirks on their faces, and I looked at them through watery eyes and said “Don’t ever….let me do that….again.” I took their hands over their mouths as agreement. I love baseball.

Peace.

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