Sunday, July 12, 2015

Put Me in Coach, I Can Pitch

            One of the more memorable players when I was coaching Little League was Nolan (not his real name). Long on enthusiasm but short on talent, Nolan was 10 years old, bigger than most kids his age, but much less coordinated. He wore thick glasses with a frame that was too big for his face and was invariably crooked. His grandmother brought him to the first practice and explained an alphabet soup’s worth of labels for his learning disability and emotional problems. Although he had trouble staying focused, he was hard not to like. He lapped up adult attention with puppy dog-like zeal.

            At the first practice Nolan informed me that “I pitched all the time last year and the coach said I was real good.” I watched him throw and, to put it delicately, he was not real good. In fact, he was terrible. Because of his obvious effort and determination, I stayed after each practice and let him pitch to me.
            “I’m getting better, ain’t I coach,” he would state with authority after each practice. 
            “Sure Nolan,” I would reply while rubbing my knees and ankles which were covered in bruises from bad throws.
            “You know, I pitched all the time last year and the coach said I was real good.”

            We were scheduled to play the last-place team the final game of the season. “Can I pitch the last inning if we’re ahead?” Nolan asked me the day before the game.
            “Okay Nolan,” I told him. “You’ve been getting a lot better in practice.”
            “Because, you know, I pitched all the time last year and the coach said I was real good,” he replied.

            The next day, we held a comfortable lead late in the game. “Am I really going to get to pitch the last inning Coach?” Nolan asked between innings.
            “Sure Nolan,” I answered trying to keep from falling as I tripped over him while he followed me around the dugout.
            “Well, I didn’t exactly pitch all the time last year,” he confessed with just a hint of uncharacteristic sheepishness. “But I did pitch a lot. And the coach said I was real good.”

            As we prepared to take the field for the last inning, I gave Nolan a few words of encouragement. “I didn’t really pitch a lot last year,” Nolan quietly admitted. “But I did pitch some.” Then, he quickly added, “And the coach said I did real good.”

While the team was warming up before the start of the inning, I was talking to some of the players on the bench. After a few minutes, sensing something was wrong, I looked toward the field. The umpire was standing behind homeplate, his arms spread with the palms facing skyward, looking at me as if to say, “Can you do something?” I looked out to the mound and saw Nolan, his face as white as the baseline chalk, visibly shaking, holding the ball with a death grip, unable to move. I called timeout and walked out to rescue him.

            When I was about ten feet from the mound, he tearfully erupted, “Coach, I’m sorry. I lied. I’ve-never-pitched-before-in-my-life. I can’t do this.”

            I put my hand on his shoulder. “Nolan, you’ve practiced all year. You’ve got a good team behind you. You can do it.” I walked back to the bench congratulating myself on my sports psychology know-how, sat down and looked up just in time to see Nolan plunk the batter in the back with the first pitch.

            I closed my eyes and hoped for divine intervention as Nolan threw the next pitch. The batter swung at a ball two feet over his head and hit a little popup back to Nolan. To the amazement of everyone, except himself, Nolan caught the ball then threw it to first to catch the runner off base. A double play! I don’t remember how Nolan got the next batter out, but he did. With an expression of unadulterated joy, full of confidence, as if he did this every day, Nolan walked off the field and into the Hall of Fame of my memory.


 I always like to think of the conversation Nolan surely had at the first practice of the next season with his new coach: “You know Coach, I pitched all the time last year and . . .”

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