Thursday, July 21, 2016

Greater Love Hath No Man: Life Lessons Learned From College Baseball

I often think about my time as a college baseball player. Not because I did anything spectacular worth remembering, but because it helped define my self-image and taught me some valuable lessons, about myself and life. I certainly wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

Unfortunately, we weren't a very good team. We had some good players, and some great guys, but not  nearly enough to compete with the teams on our schedule. We were a Division II team from a college with fewer than 1,000 students but were sentenced by the joker who made up our schedule to play almost one-third of our games against Division I teams. So we received symbolic if not physical wedgies on the diamond on a rather routine basis.

And by a metaphysical quirk of which none of us were aware at the time, our home field at Kentucky Wesleyan College, in the midwestern town of Owensboro, Kentucky was the furthest geographical point on the North American continent from Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, the location of the College World Series.

Our coach, David Stanton, was a good guy but was seriously overmatched by the multitude of duties that his job description at an underfunded small college entailed. These duties included, but were not limited to, equipment manager, trainer, groundskeeper, fundraiser, recruiter, van driver, dinner-time concierge on road trips, priest, mother, tutor, janitor and, on at least one occasion, bail bondsman.

Rumor had it that Coach used to be a wild man, but he had recently joined the church and he took his conversion seriously. He also took his role as an example for us impressionable young college kids seriously. He was never heard to utter a word any stronger than "crap." But surprisingly, this word served him very well. By subtle changes in tone and inflection, he was able to convey every possible human emotion with this one word. A dejected "crap" might render his opinion of an untimely error on our part. A louder, staccato "Crap!" might be heard after one of our guys smoked a line drive that was snagged by the opposing third baseman. And a full-throated, drawn out, "CRAAAAP!" could sum up about any catastrophe known to man.

Not only did Coach Stanton guard his every phrase for any indiscretion, he expected the same from us. He was known to pull a player or two from games after he heard them emit an unsavory word.

In my first season, I struggled with the nagging thought that I didn't quite belong. The fact that I was a pre-med/physics major did very little to give me street cred among the other players. I'll admit I was a nerd, albeit a nerd who loved baseball and possessed maybe a little skill. But the other players seemed much bigger and better than me, even if my percentage of base hits per at bat happened to be higher than some. So I usually kept my mouth shut and stayed in the background, content to watch, but not join in, the incessant ragging and revelry of the dugout and van.

One unforgettable day we were struggling, trying to finish off a miserable inning late in a losing game, but could not find the third out. If my memory is correct, it was well over 150 degrees and we had been in the field at least three hours that one inning alone.

Finally, I was relieved immeasurably when I watched the batter hit a routine ground ball to Dave Beitler, our shortstop. Beitler was our erstwhile leader and the most fundamentally sound player on the team. I can't seem to ever remember him letting a ground ball go through his legs, in practice or a game, until this time. As I was jogging in toward the infield from my left field position, not so much moving in to backup the play as fleeing the field to reach the safety of the dugout, I watched with surprise and horror as the ball trickled between Beitler's legs and rolled into short left field.

Have you ever thought something so forcefully that the words actually came out of your mouth by accident? I hadn't either; until that moment. I admit that I thought a very bad word that I normally would never admit to thinking in mixed company and, apparently, it did indeed come out of my mouth.

Very loudly.

I had no idea this had happened until I glanced over at our center fielder, Allen Buckles, who had a confused look on his face and held both hands turned up to the heavens in a gesture that could only mean, "What the crap?"

I was immediately possessed by a sense of shame--and dread. When the inning ended moments later, as I jogged slowly toward our dugout, I witnessed the sight of Coach Stanton, standing in front of our dugout with his hands on his hips, staring unmistakably in my direction.

He did not look happy.

I slowed my jog to a crawl, trying to delay the inevitable, all the while thinking, "Well, that's it. My career is over. He's going to kill me. And then he's going to kick me off the team. In front of everyone."

But as I neared the dugout, I was amazed--and relieved--to see him step to the side, directly in front of Dave Beitler. Coach Stanton leaned so close that the bill of his cap hit the bill of Dave's and said in his best disappointed-father voice, "Dave, I know it's hot and we've been out there a long time. And you feel bad about making that error. . .  [dramatic pause] . . . But when you say something like that so loud that everyone in the bleachers hears you . . ."

I suddenly realized that Coach thought that Dave had yelled that dastardly word. It made sense. The socially awkward, bookworm left fielder never said anything; of course he wouldn't be guilty of such an egregious sin. I began to understand that maybe my college baseball career was not going to end on this day.

Now, at this point I would like to pause and state that I manned up, nudged Beitler to the side, looked Coach square in the eye and confessed, "It was I, Doug Wilson, who yelled that atrocious word on the field of this Methodist-sponsored school," and threw myself on the mercy of the court, fully prepared to take whatever cruel punishment the crime certainly deserved.

I would like to say that. I really would. But I can't. Because I didn't.

Instead, I lowered my head, concealed my expression of relief--and maybe just a hint of a smile--sidled past them and slunk to the end of the bench like the miserable, spineless slug that I was.

To his credit, Beitler never said a word back to Coach. He stoically endured the long speech. I always felt that took remarkable self-control on Dave's part. Or something.

After Coach left the dugout to take up his third-base coaching spot, Dave walked past me in the dugout. I still had my head down, ashamed to look up. Dave uttered only a solitary word, dripping with as much sarcasm as possible:  "Nice."

I have often thought of that game and my admiration for Dave Beitler has grown with time. Looking back, I think he showed great leadership. He took a butt-chewing for me.

So if you read this Dave Beitler, wherever you are, I owe you one.

And if Coach Stanton or my mother reads it--I'll swear that it wasn't me. I made this up. It was Dave all along.

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