Thursday, October 13, 2016

Where Do the Ducks Go in the Winter? Ode to a Little League Coach

"You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? . . . By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? . . . I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something and take them away, or do they fly away by themselves – go south or something?"-----Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye

Everyone called him Duck. I never knew, and never thought to ask, what his real first or last name was. But for three summers he was the most important adult in the life of this almost-pathologically-shy, baseball-crazed runt. I don't recall ever saying a single word to Duck and I doubt that Duck ever appreciated the great power he held in his hands--to influence my playing time, experience and, most-importantly, my budding self-image. But he couldn't have been better.

I'm not sure how old Duck was when I first met him. The memory provided to me by my then-ten-year-old eyes is that he was ancient. And looking at the team picture from 1971, standing at the far right, he certainly had already seen considerable mileage.

Our league back then was peculiar; there were almost no dads coaching. In that regard, Duck was not unusual for the time. So we never thought it strange that an old guy like Duck was our coach even though he had no kids on the team. Looking back, I'm sure he was just someone who loved the game, enjoyed being around it and, maybe, wanted to pass on some of his knowledge.

Someone said that Duck had once played some minor league baseball but he never confirmed nor denied it. I don't recall him ever starting a sentence with, "Once I did . . . " There were no hoaky old war stories from the baseball fields of his past. He was content to leave his past exploits to mystery.

But there was no doubt in our minds that he had once played considerable baseball; and seriously. For one thing, he sounded like a ballplayer. He knew all the words of the arcane and important language of the dugout. He was forever talking about Texas Leaguers, cans of corn and the ever-elusive Baltimore Chop. He frequently reminded our pitchers to "Rock and fire, babe. Rock and fire," even though, alas, our pitchers could do nothing that resembled firing and probably had no idea how to rock. But we all knew that while pitching it was important to rock and fire because Duck said it.

When we showed up early to practice, Duck would always organize us to "play a little pepper" until the other kids showed up. Apparently, a fact known only to the most experienced baseball players, pepper was a magical game, but very potent; a little was all you needed. It was always "a little pepper." For some reason we couldn't understand, only an inexperienced fool would ever dare to try to play a lot of pepper.

While we were batting in games, Duck was always exhorting the hitter to "Pick you one out. How 'bout a little bingle." And that was another great thing about Duck. Other coaches may have badgered their players, demanding doubles or triples or even home runs. Not Duck. Duck was perfectly content with only a bingle. And a small one at that.

Duck seemingly always had a big chaw of tobacco in his jaw. Because, we reasoned, that's what real big leaguers did--we saw that much on the Saturday Game of the Week on our grainy black and white TVs. But this was a time in which tobacco was not second to only arsenic as a vehicle of instant death. I clearly recall watching other coaches hit infield grounders to their teams with a cigarette dangling expertly and casually from the side of their mouths (this was the early '70s remember).

But the biggest proof my memory provides that Duck had once played ball is the mammoth fly balls he would launch sometimes at the conclusion of practice, if we begged him enough. We often practiced on the high school football field adjacent to the worn Little League field, so that provides somewhat of a reference. I remember the balls traveling the entire 100 yards of the field, although the cloud of 45 years could obscure the exact distance slightly. What is not obscured in any way, however, is the jaw-slacking awe with which we watched those majestic--dare we say Ruthian--swats. I was proud to be one of the brave, and perhaps recklessly foolhardy, souls who tried to catch those lethal projectiles. 

I wasn't much to look at as far as an athletic specimen. I had always been the smallest kid in every class in school. But Duck saw something in me. I like to think that it was a little bit of talent and promise; but maybe it was just a kid who kept his mouth shut and tried to do what the coach told him in the midst of other half-crazed kids running in all directions. Whatever the reason, I have almost no recollection of any time spent on the bench, even as a 10-year old in the 10-12 league.

Sometimes Duck stayed after practice to throw me extra batting practice, which I lapped up like a starved pup. I would hit and hit until dark forced our sessions to end. And while doing so, I noticed that I could make a bat meet a thrown ball better than even most of the big kids.

I remember how proud I felt early that first year when I got one of our only hits against the Reds' Billy May. Billy was a hulking 12-year-old who was our town's closest imitation of Mickey Mantle. A mere two years later Billy would start in center field for the local high school varsity as a freshman. On this day, he was simply overpowering. After listening to the older kids returning to the dugout speaking in fear and awe of Billy's heater, I walked to the plate wielding my trusty wooden flame-tempered, 28-inch, Tony Oliva model bat and dribbled a double down the third base line.

Once when we at long last possessed a lead late in a game that first year, someone on the bench mentioned that it was tradition that Duck always sprung for milkshakes at the nearby Tasty Freeze after every victory. And when we held on to win and piled over to the Tasty Freeze in a mass of whooping excitement, he did.

Whether due to their relatively cheap cost in those days or due to the lack of overall talent on our teams, Duck never went broke paying for milkshakes. But, remarkably, he didn't seem to mind. I never remember Duck yelling at, or even questioning an umpire. And I'm pretty sure our umpires were not perfect. I don't remember Duck yelling at any of his players either, despite the fact that there were those on our team who were known to commit an error or two. Maybe it was because Duck was satisfied with what he had accomplished on a baseball field when he was young--he didn't need to prove anything to anybody by the proxy of Little League kids. Or maybe he really just didn't care about winning. But I like to think it was the former.

As I look back, I think Duck was the perfect coach for my personality and temperament at the time. He let us play the game, learn to win and lose, succeed and fail, and have fun, while providing guidance but not too much interference.

One of the proudest moments of my life, which provoked a completely surprising and unexplained lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, came when I answered the phone one day late in my last season and listened as Duck excitedly broke the news that I had been selected to the All-Star team.

That summer was perhaps one of the best I would ever have on any athletic field. Unfortunately for me, that would be my last year of relative equal competition. Very soon a testosterone-fueled arms-race would erupt and I would be the last to know. After the season, seemingly everyone else went home and hit puberty. And none of the sons-of-bitches bothered to tell me what they were up to.

The next year, a summer in which I was struggling with the impossible task of trying to compete with the behemoths of the 13-to-15-year-old Babe Ruth League, I was uplifted immeasurably when one of my former teammates told me that Duck had used me as an example while talking to the team one day. He had said, "We had this dude named Wilson last year. Never said a word. Just went out and did his thing . . ." Words cannot explain how proud I felt that Duck had not only remembered me, but held me up to his future players.

I never again saw Duck after that year. He had to have been at least sixty back then; you can do the math. I hope he had a long and happy life filled with countless little bingles.

Where have all the Ducks gone, in these past decades of winter? Kids don't have coaches like Duck anymore. That's sad. And unfortunate.

But I was lucky.

So here's to Duck.

 He was the best.

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