Friday, May 18, 2007

Coach Johnson

I don't know if I've told this story before, but all this discussion of junior sports, about winning and effort and what's important, has got me thinking about a time when effort meant more to my coach that the actual results.

Damn if I'm not forgetting my team name at the time, but I was in sixth grade in Akron, Ohio. We were playing the best team in our league. They could hit and field, and didn't have a weak player on their team. At least that was my impression. They would eventually take the championship trophy home. But on this day, they had to go through us.

We were pumped. Though we were huge underdogs, in our hearts we knew we could beat them. I played first base, and can still remember the intensity I felt on the field. The only play I can remember was a line drive shot over my right shoulder. I reached up with my glove hand (my left) and pulled it down to end their inning.

It was electric. We really came to play.

But in the end, we lost.

There were two traditions after any little league game in those days. You shook hands, and then the winners went for soft serve ice cream at the custard stand.

Shaking hands was always a perfunctory ritual. Get in a line, shuffle forward, slap hands on the way by muttering "Good game, good game, good game..." But today, as we passed by, I got real hand shakes. I felt the relief, saw it in their faces, heard it in their voices. "Great game, oh my God! That was close, nice snag you had there..."


Heads low, we gathered around the coach as he called us in for the obligatory speech. I'll try to reconstruct it, but keep in mind that this is only a reflection of the emotion I can still feel after all these years, after the details have faded away.

"You boys played one tough game out there today."

I thought, "Yeah, but not good enough."

"I have never been more proud of you than I am right now. By all rights you should have won that game, and it's only by dumb luck that you didn't. You played your hearts out."

He looked at each one of us, making sure we were paying attention. There was no mistaking his sincerity. "Now I'm not supposed to do this, but..."

We perked up like dogs hearing a sound outside the human range.

"I'm taking you all out for ice cream."

Today we have a thousand flavors to choose from, but back then it was chocolate and vanilla. I've probably sampled each of those myriad flavors since; but never, ever, has an ice cream tasted so sweet as that plain vanilla cone did that day.

His name was Paul Johnson. I'm betting that his son, Paul Johnson, Jr., my erstwhile friend, classmate and teammate, is a little league coach today.


Tee said...

This one nearly made me tear up. What a great memory. Well written as usual.

I only have negative memories when it comes to sports. (Being pegged with the dodge ball. Being purposefully hit in the face with the softball. Being ignored by the popular girls in field hockey... SIGH.) ... I hope my boys will have some good memories like yours.

Alan said...

Same here Tee. About the tearing. But I'm a girl, lol. (I'm not a girl.)

Again, a tale told so extremely well, Scott. Remember where you posted this and use it again somewhere. You'll be rewarded for this one ...

Moni said...

Awe that was sweet. A good and wise story. :)

I think we should reinforce to kids that trying trying their best is important and a reward within itself.

magnetbabe said...

That's a sweet story and I hope you call on these memories to guide you while coaching your own team. I don't have much to say about this whole topic, like your first comments, I have only bad memories of playing sports. I was so horrible. So. Horrible.

The Zombieslayer said...

And I hope he is. That's a good man there, and Little League coaches do make a difference in one's life.

My son had a wonderful coach in Texas. He's had LL since then, but I'll never forget that coach.

That game though, since you made that catch, you definitely have the reflexes in you. That's something that just doesn't get taught. It's like when Kevin Mitchell (SF Giants) made that bare-handed catch that's in a million highlight films.

Beth said...

What a good coach! Things haven't changed much. Coaches still do the ice cream bit, kids still slap hands and say, "Good game." (at least it was like that when my kids last played)

Jada's Gigi said...

great memory..and isn't that REALLY what is all about..the memories.. here's to making some good ones with your team..and with your sons...nothing like an All Star experience...:) i have a framed photo of my hubby at the age of 8 or 9 in his All Star little league uniform..dirty and ragged but with that look of sheer joy on his face....:)

Brooklyn Frank said...

little league baseball and ice cream cones = americana.

Kathleen said...

That's just one of the things that I love about hockey - after a hard fought playoff series the teams line up at center ice and shake hands and look each other in the eyes. I wish all major sports did that.

I can't compare little league stories because I take after my mother and have less than zero athletic abilities, so I never made a single team. I remember trying out for the high school soccer team. I remember going into Mr. M's room (he was the soccer coach and the physics teacher) to read the list of girls who had made it, knowing that I wouldn't be on it, but hoping against hope that my name would be miraculously appear. I felt cheated because I can remember only once him coming to watch me participate in the different drills and of course I was nervous so I flubbed up. I wasn't one of the elite athletic girls and I think he knew before he started who was going to make it and who wasn't. My sister, of course, made the team.

Oh yeah, and being a teenaged girl, I left the room quickly so nobody could see me crying. Why do we care so deeply at that age?