Fathers and Sons
To celebrate my new book Diamond Days, I am sharing this excerpt from the book. I have spent a good portion of the last 17 years of my life at a baseball field, in every role from helper dad to coach to league president. That said, this is not some tutorial on the game. It is the stories of people at the fields. There is a little of the craziness on the fields, like parents fighting or yelling at their kids. But most of the book is more personal, the life lessons I learned from my kids, their friends, and the families of the children I met. I have attempted to capture not only my love for the game, but my love for the young people who were on my teams, their families, and our communities. I hope you enjoy the excerpt.
Top of the First
Like many of us, I am not someone who would ever be accused of being athletic. I am not incompetent on the field, but I am much closer to being Bob Costas as opposed to Bob Gibson. Or maybe Bob Newhart. Accordingly, when my older son began playing baseball years ago, I had no interest in being the coach of the team. It never even crossed my mind.
I remembered the coaches from my childhood as rough men, with big hair (after all, it was the 70s), who I never really felt any connection to. My parents, both immigrants, were lost when it came to kids’ sports, and so I had no real role model in the area of sports. When it was my turn to teach my first child how to play, the best I could do was donning a glove and playing catch with the kids in the field. At that age, it was mostly rolling the ball at them and then chasing the wild return throws.
Over time, the throws became better, and I began to learn more about the game at each level. One of the first things that I noticed is one of the greatest ironies of youth baseball: most dads get involved to spend time with their sons and daughters, but their children are ultimately the last person who they should be coaching. It’s not that the dads are bad people or that their kids are particularly unruly. It’s more that the father-child relationship is more complicated than any of the other ones on the field. To me, it seems that the relationship is not only complicated because of proximity, but also because of expectations stated and unstated.
I learned this early on, and today, when either of my sons is on the field, I am very careful about how we interact. One night, my older son was pitching and struggling in a tight game. It was time for one of the coaches to go and talk to him, and I was the head coach. Normally, that would mean me, but I knew that I was not the right person, so I sent one of my assistant coaches instead. My son calmed down and we won. Afterward, my son told me that he really appreciated what the other coach said to him, and I silently smiled. That dad still talks about that night to this day, and I have never explained to my son that I was really the one offering advice.
Although he has a completely different personality from his older brother, my younger son reacts the same way to my “teachings.“ A few weeks after my older son’s game, the younger boy was on the mound and, honestly, walking everyone. He was my best pitcher and a very hard thrower, so I left him in to see if he could correct himself. All the while, he was aging me prematurely in the dugout. I could feel the gray hairs spontaneously sprouting on my head with every pitch. Then came the sign.
Most of the time, the dugout sends signs into the pitcher (through the catcher). Throw a pitch outside. Watch the steal. Not this time. My son looked over at me and made the motion of locking his mouth shut. I immediately understood: “Dad, be quiet.“ And so, I said nothing else, and he did fine for the rest of the game.
There is another aspect to this relationship: parents and their children can be more alike than either will admit. I like to say that when my kids came home from the hospital, I thought they were perfect, and now I realize that they are improved versions of me, with many (but not all) of my flaws and limitations. Looking at my own children, I am reminded of my mother’s comment to my father when I was ten years old: “How does it feel to talk to yourself?“ Once I had a ten-year old myself, I understood more fully what she was getting at. Mostly, I am hearing the same jokes that I used to tell but from an admittedly different perspective.
“How does it feel to talk to yourself?”
— Christina Currie Chaumette
There have been other times when I have seen the converse of this effect at play as well. One spring, our team was playing the first game of a tournament and there must have been something in the water. Before the end of the first inning, one of our coaches got kicked out of the game (for saying something stupid to an umpire) and two other coaches got into an argument about the batting order. For my part, I only came into the dugout after the first coach had been kicked out. I had no role on this team beyond “helper dad,“ and even that seemed like too heavy a burden that night.
Things became more heated during the second inning. My son had pitched the first and had done well, but the defense behind him had not. There had been several errors in the field, and our team was trailing. In an effort to change the environment and our fortunes, our manager had brought in his son to pitch the second.
Not much changed: good pitching, but because of errors committed by our defense, the pitcher had to get six outs in the second inning instead of three. Let me re-iterate: the pitcher was doing well, but the boy himself did not agree. As a result, he started to meltdown on the mound. Unfortunately, when his dad went to talk to him, the situation got worse. Now, his dad is literally one of the best coaches in the area. He is calm, even-keeled, and fair, and I thoroughly enjoy having my son on his team.
Things change though when speaking to your own child, and before I realized what was happening, the boy then claimed to be injured and took himself out of the game. Our ranks are not so deep that we could handle that distraction and we ended up losing a game to a team that we had no business losing to. By the end of the game, the boy was begging to get back into the game and the dad was mad that his child had taken himself out — by that point, the rest of the team (including my own son) had checked out as well.
Stepping back, the lesson I learned was simple: Sometimes, someone else needs to carry the message. I hope that in our role as mentors we can be the assistant coaches for our mentees. It’s extremely important, and, in that role, we need to always ask what is the best way for the message to be heard. It’s not about us talking. It’s not even so much about others listening. It’s more about making the necessary changes — the improvements — in order to achieve the goals in mind. Too many of us forget this in our rush to be heard, and that’s a mistake.