It was not yet 9 a.m., but the sun was already beating down as I reached for my iPhone. It wasn't there. Lovely. Emet would have to figure out for herself why what I thought would be a 20-minute exercise would be three times that, at least. I couldn't even see the front of the line.
Twenty minutes later, I'd moved halfway up the hill when a familiar face walked by. I coached her son last year and the two of us had commiserated during the Little League season about the less than nurturing attitude of baseball coaches (as opposed to my egalitarian methods on the pitch). She asked about Friday night's playoff game between AJ's D-Backs and the Yankees, since the loser would play her son's Rockies later in the afternoon. We talked about how the playoffs seem to have "ratcheted up the stupid" among the adults. Finally, she asked if I was going to coach soccer again. I sighed and said yes.
"What made you decide to do it?" she asked, knowing I'd been on the fence for some time.
"I didn't want AJ's coach to be a dick," I said. Then, in near unison, we said, "Like baseball."
I've learned over the course of the baseball season to settle my ass down. For a while there, I was hawkish, tunnel-focused. As much as I tried to stay outwardly calm, my son perceived the stress. And it had a negative effect on him. He dreaded games. He complained about umpire calls, the unfairness of it all, always having to play the outfield. I wanted to fix it for him. That's what I'm supposed to do, is it not? And so I obsessively looked for holes in his game.
When all I really needed to do was relax.
In our first playoff game, we met the Phillies, losers of all 17 of their regular season games. I was keeping score for the game alongside another parent with whom I'd struck up a friendship during the year. We'd talked about the competitiveness of the league. Of the coaches (we've all heard of the near-fight between two of them one level up). Of the parents, like the one who came up at the end of one game to ask me the score--it was 19-0, this particular dickface for some reason needing to know the exact total of the drubbing.
At one point, the Phillie second-baseman made a play. His face lit up like Fourth of July. "That's why we should be out here," the parent said.
Right. The next inning, our coach was screaming at an umpire.
The line was moving at a decent clip. I talked with a guy on my soccer team as we waited to register as coaches. I told him about a kid I had last year who cried at the end of the season. He was sad it was over. The kid didn't have any real skill, was chubby and slow. But, by the last game, he was an asset. He was aggressive. I could count on him to give his last breath. And I'd managed to make it worthwhile for him, a positive experience.
Look, I'm no saint. I'm competitive. I got yelled at twice by a referee last year. I would like my team of 8- and 9-year-olds to win. But I will not treat them poorly in pursuit of such a thing. I will not leave sportsmanship and teamwork out of the lessons I teach them. I will not focus only on the good players, while letting the others fend for themselves.
I think the best trait a coach has to have is to remember the kids are infinitely more important than the coach. To take delight in the slightest improvement and to make sure the children know they are valued, regardless of their ability. They don't need me to tell them they are awesome soccer players when they are not. They know plenty about where they stand in the pecking order. No, what they deserve is simple regard, to know their coach is on their side.
AJ's D-Backs beat the Phillies and matched up with the Yankees in Round Two. Last time the teams met, the Yankees won, and the D-Backs were deemed to have played so poorly, the coach sent them on a run after the game.
There would be no repeat. I was late, but showed up in time to see AJ single in his second AB (after a walk in his first). I saw him hustle to a ball hit down the right field line, hit the cut-off man and hold the hitter to a single. He was happy, confident, like he has been the last half-dozen games or so, once his Dad stopped telling him what to do all the time.
The score was 18-5, a comprehensive shellacking. The Yankees came up for their last ups and AJ ran back out to right field, as he has all season (though sometimes it's left, sometimes it's center). Earlier in the season, I'd have bristled. The game is over (teams are only allowed to score a maximum of 5 runs per inning), let the kids play a different position (not just AJ, but the other kids who've been relegated to the OF all year). AJ's been dying to play second base all year, as he did last year to decent effect. But he's over it by now. And so am I.
And then...as the pitcher warmed up, his coach made changes. The left-fielder came in to play third, the centerfielder came in to play short and AJ...and AJ...came in to play 2nd.
I'm telling you right now I nearly cried. Not because he was getting his wish, but because the smile on his face was beautiful, the excitement was beyond anything I've seen from him since he scored his first goal in soccer.
And that, right there, is the whole point, is it not? Is that not why a man (or woman) donates time to coach sports? To give a child that feeling, that experience? I don't know why it took AJ's coach so long to make a move like this. There were numerous chances over the course of the season. But I'm not going to complain. It happened for AJ and it made all the difference.
The fact he expertly played a grounder for a routine 4-3 putout made it all seem like a dream (X did begin to weep at this point). When he snatched a tough throw--in-between hop--from the catcher and put a slick tag on the base-stealer for the third out, it was like God himself reached down to touch the child, to reward him for sticking it out, to reward his father for remembering--belatedly--to focus on the positive aspects of youth sports. And when AJ's teammates sprinted over to second base to high-five him...well shoot...I couldn't begin to put the feeling into words.
Fortunately, I don't have to. I have this:
I finally got through the soccer registration line. Took almost 90 minutes and without my iPhone to entertain me, I was on substantial tilt. But that was the easiest part of the season. Now it's on to practices and games and time- and soul-sucking meetings and dealing with administrators and coaches and parents and that feeling I get abour 2/3rds of the way through the year when I just want it all to be over.
But this year, I'll carry around the picture of that perfect smile above. That smile that can't hide how proud that child feels inside. And remember it's my job to make that happen for each and every child under my charge.
I'm not saying it will be easy. We all lose sight. But I'll do my best. It should be interesting. AJ will play in U-10s for the first time this year. And unlike U-8s, the U-10s have playoffs.