The Coach’s Son and The Fungo Bat

Fungo is defined as: the art of tossing a baseball in the air to be struck with a bat for the purpose of hitting fly balls and ground balls during baseball practice sessions or warm-up prior to a game. Yes, “the art”. Sounds like a simple physical act however I’m here to tell you my father was an artist and as a baseball coach he practiced his art to perfection. He knew how to hit fungo. By definition, the long skinny bat used in this practice is called a fungo bat.

I have watched true craftsmen practice their trade. I have observed a skilled farrier work at the forge and anvil shaping a horseshoe with ultimate precision. I’ve seen a handy cowboy release his rope throwing the hoolihan opening a gaping loop sailing through the clear blue sky to fall gently over the head of a wild horse. I’ve watched musicians give life to inanimate instruments, expert carpenters cut with absolute perfection and a fly fisherman drop a midge in the exact location he noticed the slightest shimmer of silver a moment before. I have never seen an artisan wield a tool with more expert efficiency than my father swinging a fungo bat.

I can close my eyes and visualize the image: my barrel chested father, uniform worn with great particularity, hat bill shaped perfectly to match the outline of his Costa Del Mar sunglasses standing slightly behind home plate, two balls in his back pocket, right leg straight, left leg cocked slightly forward, barrel of his bat resting on the clay the grip held in his left hand, eyeing his players positioned on the field in front of him. Damn he was cool. And he had every shot, the high chopper (“Play the ball, don’t let the ball play you!”), slow roller, two hopper, back spin, top spin, dying quail, deep fly ball or the shallow line drive and you had better look alive ‘cause he could find the only rock on the infield for a bad hop just to keep you on your toes.

And he did it with style.

There are two basic ways to hit fungo, I like to call them the forehand toss and the backhand flip. Most choose the forehand toss in which the right handed batter holds the bat in the right hand or backhand tossing the ball in the air with the left hand or forehand. Not my dad, he chose the more rare and difficult backhand flip. He would hold the bat in his left or forehand and reach under with the right or backhand flipping the ball in the air to hang suspended like an 0–2 mistake (a curve ball mistakenly hung by a pitcher enjoying the advantage of 0 balls and 2 strikes) then a quick shuffle of the feet and the barrel of the bat snaps through the cork (the cork is at the center of the baseball).

He was particularly good at showing off his talents during pre-game warm ups but he always saved his most impressive feat for the finale. After bringing each infielder in with a high chopper followed by a slow roller he would stand at home plate with his catcher. Those familiar with the process know this is the point at which a fly ball is hit straight in the air for the catcher to play. No one was more adept at this than my father. In one motion he flips the ball, twists at the torso, points hulking shoulders skyward as if an ancient Greek tempting fickle Gods and drives the head of the bat though the ball. Its a site one might expect to see in Mudville at the plate however in this Case the Mighty swing meets its mark lifting the pill through the atmosphere and out of sight. Did I say he was cool? To the casual observer this seems a significantly impressive act of physicality. Truth told the spectacularity of this far exceeds mere athleticism. The magnificence lies in seamless blend of mental genius directing physical prowess. What the casual observer doesn’t know is that he is also a math teacher and as with all great mathematicians every action is painstakingly planned in great detail even if done so in fractions of a second. Electrical synapses fire in his brain calculating equations, deriving velocities, considering densities, shapes, planes and angles all to identify the precise intersection of bat and ball. Perfect execution of mathematic philosophy has prevailed and the ball travels a true and plum trajectory along a line whose terminal points are his position’s antipode and the apex of flight. 60…..70…..80 feet…..and rising overhead.

And, as is the case with all great artists he revered his canvas (the ball field) and demanded the subject of his masterpiece (the ball players) exhibit similar reverence.

I don’t know what sadistic mind concocted the brilliant concept of scheduling all double-headers throughout the summer for American Legion baseball in Florida when I was in high school but he deserves an unspeakable punishment. We loved playing ball back then, I mean we really loved it. If we didn’t my dad wouldn’t have coached us, but we did, so he did. Despite a deep appreciation for the sport, enthusiasm can tend to wane in the hearts of teenage boys playing back-to-back games on a Saturday in June when the rest of their friends are at the beach or on the boat. So it would stand to reason that on one crisp 105 degree mid-summer afternoon, on a ball field in Ormond Beach, FL, 18 teenage ball players and one 40 something year old baseball coach found themselves on the inevitable collision course of wills that seemed to have gained momentum over an eternity of generational divide. Well, 17 teenage ball players and 1 teenage ball player/coach’s son.

My dad was very particular about everything he did and pre-game activities and warm-ups were no exception. When we crossed the chalk for infield/outfield practice before a game perfect preparation was demanded. We were expected to move as a well oiled machine, all parts flowing in unison. With every ball each player had a job and we were to hustle at all times. Run everywhere you go…..run….don’t walk.

As we took the field that sweltering afternoon a knot constricted in the pit of my stomach. Despite sprinting to my position at second base the overwhelming wave of lethargy that exuded from my teammates consumed me like a fog from behind. As I settled in my familiar spot I turned to witness the horror. My mouth grew dry and all optimism evaporated. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A third baseman shuffled his feet across the infield dragging a dust cloud behind him in a gate which appeared slightly more than a leisurely stroll. The two left fielders trotted shoulder to shoulder nudging one another and laughing undoubtedly planning their escapades for the evening to come, foolishly assuming we might actually survive the impending doom that awaited. And the right fielder, oh that right fielder, he was just one of those guys. He could be the thorn in the lions paw and he could be the mouse. Today he chose to be the thorn. He committed the ultimate sin, the original sin, the unforgivable sin. He walked. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Forgive me, he didn’t walk, he slothed. He moved at a pace seldom seen. I looked on in disbelief. What would coach do? Incinerate him with laser beams from his eyes? Consume him with a fire ball from his colossal right hand? Spontaneously combust from uncontrollable rage?

It was far worse. He waited. We all waited. Watching one.…lazy.…step....at…..a…..time. He reached his position and turned staring back at my father, arms folded in defiance. Space separated them by about 170 feet but in my minds eye they were nose to nose. A 16 year old apathetic young man and 46 year old grouch locked in contemptuous stare. Immovable Object vs. Irresistible Force. Who am I kidding, its not that poetic, just two guys picking an old fashioned fight with one another. Weak in the knees, I forced a feeble attempt at calming turbid waters by clapping my hand and glove together and softly pleading in a trembling, cracking voice “Lets look alive boys.” By this time everyone had picked up on what was going on, spectators, family members, umpires, even the unsuspecting visiting team. A hush settled the dust.

He reaches into his back pocket, flips, shuffles, swings and uncorks one shouting “Right field, second base, hit the cut-off!”. The right fielder had at least spared us by stopping his stroll in the shallowest part of the outfield. Coach could put the ball wherever he wanted. He chose the absolute deepest point of fair territory, the triangulated intersection of foul pole, chalk and fence. The ball, struck with such force, finds its destination and sticks the landing with no bounce as if heeding specific instructions. Baseballs aren’t stupid you know. They do what they’re told unlike some right fielders I know. Each of us watched in utter disbelief. The right fielder unfolded his arms turned and walked towards the ball. Had I not seen the preceding events unfold what happened next would have shocked me.

“1. Always hustle” That was the number one rule. Actually there were multiple number one rules such as: “1. Don’t throw equipment” but it seemed we were breaking rules today and coach didn’t want to be left out. I’m not sure where that fungo bat finally landed, I’m just glad it didn’t hit anyone. He screamed “DADGUMMIT, START RUNNING AND DON’T STOP UNTIL GAME TIME!” So we ran, and we ran, and we ran. I quickly found my way far in front of the pack so as not to hear the terrible names my dad was being called.

To my surprise I didn’t hear one foul word. It was as if this occurrence had been preordained and I was the only one caught by surprise. I couldn’t accept this as an unavoidable predestined fate. I wouldn’t accept this. It didn’t have to be this way. My dad didn’t have to be so rigid. That right fielder didn’t have to be such a pain in the ass. And I knew they all viewed the coach’s son with disdain, verbalized or not. And I knew Coach lumped me in with the rest of those lazy pricks behind me. Regardless what they say I know they transfer the blame for this punishment to me by association. I’m his son after all. Can’t I do something about this? And weather he says it or not, I know he places the responsibility for this laziness on my shoulders. He wouldn’t be coddling ungrateful teenagers in the summer heat if it weren’t for me and if I were a better leader they would all just “do right”. Another number one rule “1. Do right”. I’m aware these thoughts seem a contrived internal narrative created in the dark recesses of my subconscious but they most certainly are not. They all blame me for this and so do I.

So I run and continue a decent into my own thoughts. Why? Why did it have to happen this way? Why did he have to be so tough? Why did that right fielder have to be such a jerk face? Why do I have to be stuck in the middle?

Why do I have to be the coach’s son?

Why did he have to make us run?

I hated him for that (past tense).

I love him for that (present tense).

Perhaps that’s what sons do.

We hate our fathers until we love our fathers and then we miss them so much that we become our fathers.