Before the summer of 1989, I didn’t know a fastball from a foul ball.
That was the summer that my town, Trumbull, became bigger than just a speck on the map of Connecticut. On a day in late August, we sat riveted in front of our televisions, watching as a bunch of 12-year old baseball players stunned our town and nation by beating the formidable Taiwanese team in the Little League World Series. It was the first time in over a decade that an American team had earned the title. People crowded the streets en masse, honking their horns and yelling out of their cars, whooping and celebrating the huge win of our pint-sized heroes.
An immense pride filled our town that has endured for almost 30 years. At one time, I knew the name of every kid on that Little League team, but I never gave much thought to the adults who had coached that team to victory. Not until now, as my own son enters a Little League of his own.
Before opening day this spring, life had thrown us some curveballs. We had decided to switch our son’s school from a small private one with 10 kids in a room to a diverse neighborhood school where he is one of 25 in his class. In addition, we opted to have him repeat the third grade to be in a more age-appropriate setting. Adjusting to different kids and a new school was a challenge for our 8-year old. He missed being part of a “crew.” With baseball season approaching, we held out hope that he might regain that camaraderie through our local Little League.
Coach Jeff knew nothing about that when he called on the phone about a week after baseball tryouts. “Hey, E! This is Coach Jeff. I just wanted to let you know that you had a great tryout and we drafted you for our team.”
A wide grin broke out on E’s face, and I imagine that he heard the same words I did: We drafted you. We want you. We think you belong with us. His chest puffed out a little at the news, and as soon as he hung up the phone, he grabbed his glove and ran outside, yelling that he needed to practice throwing right now.
That phone call created a space for E on that team, as I’m sure it did for each kid Coach Jeff called. Before he even went to the first practice, E felt part of something big and important.
The first practice confirmed my suspicion that we won the Little League coach lottery. The coaches spent time with each kid individually, evaluating their skills and listening to their baseball stories. At the end of that first practice, Coach Jeff gathered the group and told them:
“You guys are a team. When you are on the field, you’re a team. When you see each other at school, you’re a team. f you see each other in the grocery store, you’re a team. A team means we have each other’s backs and we are there for each other both on the field or off. Whether we win or lose, we are a team.”
And they are. At practices and games, my husband and I marvel about how focused the kids are in their positions on the field and when they are standing in the batter’s box. They cheer each other by name when they are at bat, and they throw an arm around the kid who struck out. They are goofy and they think it’s funny to spit sunflower seeds at each other. Their understanding of commitment–to the game and to each other– is bigger than Little League. And it is just what our son needed.
Recently, I brought E to a game against my better judgment. His ankles and feet were aching due to a recent discovery of a “pronated” stance. It hurt him to walk, let alone run, but he stuffed his feet into his cleats and was determined to play because he didn’t want to let his team down.
As he waited for his perfect pitch, wincing in pain, he cracked his first RBI single. He hobbled his way around the bases, and by the time he limped over home plate and back to the dugout, he was flocked by his teammates offering Gatorade, Big League Chew, and high fives. Coach Jeff sat him down and let him know he was brave, awarding him one of the “game balls.” The grimace on his face couldn’t conceal his pride, as his teammates applauded his efforts.
Teams like that don’t just happen without the dedication of great coaches who take the time to talk to kids and understand them; coaches who model compassion and inspire motivation; coaches who make kids feel like they matter, that they are a critical cog in the machinery of a team. Sometimes the scoreboard reflects a win, but that feeling of belonging transcends the baseball diamond.
So hats off to you, Tom Galla, Bob Zullo, and Ed Wheeler, coaches of the championship Little League World Series team of 1989, whose names, I have realized, are worth knowing.
Fast pitches, solid swings, and great catches will always be an important part of baseball. But having coaches who inspire commitment, cooperation, and character is the real home run for kids.