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  LIFE AS A LOSER #80: "GO V.F.W!"  

 My Lord, is it ever beautiful outside. It’s almost too much to take. I forget this every year. Spring seems to come out of nowhere. The season is even more beautiful in New York, as if the universe is finally smiling on us, spreading sunshine over even the most dirty, grime-infested, deserted alleys. Not even Gotham can escape spring.

And, of course, spring is time for baseball. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: The largest tragedy of my adult existence is that I no longer play baseball. Softball won’t cut it. I’m talking about real baseball.

Until the age of 18, all I ever did was play baseball, and this time of year fills me with both wonder and deep regret. Save for occasional wiffleball games in the park, my ball-playing days are over. Next year - every year at this time, I say I will do this next year - I would like to coach a Little League team. Nothing serious, just some kids running around, playing. My years devoting every waking moment to playing on such teams have laid the groundwork. I think I would be a wonderful coach. The world could certainly use one.

There was one coach, in particular, who current overbearing kids’ league coaches would be wise to emulate. I played for many, many teams and even more coaches, even people being paid simply to coach, and no one ever came close to the guy who coached our V.F.W. team in the Jaycee League, ages 8-10.

We all knew he wouldn’t be like other coaches when he showed up at our first practice with my cousin Denny in tow. Denny, despite being in the same grade as me at school, was a year above me in the baseball leagues, so he was a one-year Jaycee veteran when I came into the league. He’d played for Pepsi-Cola the year before, under the eye of Coach Louthan, a loud, abrasive and entirely awful woman whose son, Dustin, was renowned for running out of the batter’s box in fear every time the pitcher started his windup. After witnessing Denny’s first season with Coach Louthan, it wasn’t difficult to understand why.

Denny didn’t really like baseball very much in the first place, but under Coach Louthan, he quickly grew to loath it. You see, Denny was (and still is) very small. The smallest 8-year-old you ever did see. He barely even registered. The bat was almost as tall as he was. He was scared anyway, and Coach Louthan made it far worse. She would typically refuse to play him, but when his father complained, she would stick him in late in the game with explicit instructions, whispering in his delicate, underdeveloped ears, not to swing.

“Just stand up there. If you swing, you won’t play next game.” Denny was so little, it was darned near impossible to throw him a strike, and he would inevitably walk every time he came up. He would then be replaced with a pinch-runner, followed by a nasty glance from Coach Louthan in his father’s direction, as if to say, “There’s your goddamned at-bat!” Once, Denny, if just out of boredom, swung three times, struck out and was promptly screamed at by Coach Louthan. He quietly cried on the bench.

Thanks to a quirk in the Jaycee League rules - which typically did not allow you to switch teams until your three-year sentence was up - our new VFW coach signed on Denny’s dad, whom he knew socially, to be an assistant coach. That meant Denny could play for us now. And from the looks of this first practice, there was clearly a new sheriff in town.

“Denny is going to be our catcher. Put the gear on, Denny.” Now, Denny did own a glove, but under Coach Louthan, he was rarely called upon to use it, and then only as a harmless right fielder. Denny? As catcher? Any pitched ball would surely knock him over. Denny looked up at the coach with a look that somehow combined confusion, horror and, strangely, absurdly, excitement. Ricky Rodgers, a classy, smart 10-year-old with a firebrand younger brother who ended up in the Coles County Jail, was our best pitcher, and Coach directed him to warm up with Denny. Ricky was nervous himself; he certainly didn’t want to hurt the puckish imp. But he fired his best heater in there anyway. Denny, to his surprise, snatched it out of the air with his virgin catcher’s mitt. Through the mask you could see a huge smile. He popped back up and winged it back to Ricky. And we had our catcher, and V.F.W. had found itself an All-Star (Denny was perhaps too enthusiastic; he walked only twice the rest of the season). And baseball found itself a fan.

The fever swept through the team. There was this chubby 8-year-old named John Hawkins. He was so obese he could barely swing the bat, and when he did, it was with no extension, like a top spinning aimlessly. He also couldn’t catch with his undersized glove jammed uncomfortably over his plump fingers. Once, when “patrolling” right field during batting practice, he was smacked in the face with a pop-up because he’d been chewing on his glove and watching a nearby train pass. Coach was undaunted. The first game of the season, John was the leadoff batter. In a moment that couldn’t have been scripted more beautifully, he was hit with the first pitch and was given the steal sign by Coach on the very next pitch. He waddled recklessly toward second and belly-flopped into the base safely. That the catcher’s throw had sailed into center field was irrelevant. He was safe. His grin could be seen three states over.

Then there was John Bowman. A gangly, shy kid from a dirt-poor Mattoon family, raised by a single mother, he would cry every time she dropped him off at practice. He would often refuse to step into the batter’s box, then scramble to sit in the car with his mother, who, anticipating a moment like this, would always stay for the first half-hour. Coach would have an assistant run practice, then sit in the car with John and his mother as John tried to explain, through sobs, why he didn’t want to play baseball. Coach talked him into coming out, and, a couple of practices later, started calling John “Bulldog,” which, obviously, was the exact opposite of what he was. His mother even took Coach aside one practice and chided him for applying such a snide nickname. Funny thing was, John started to look a little less scared when he came to the plate, and about two weeks later, he showed up for a game with the name “BULLDOG” blazoned across his uniform. By his final year, he made the city all-star game, and years later, he hit a home run off me in the 13-year-old league that cost us the game. His family remains close with Coach’s.

Then there was me. By the age of 8, I had already begun my torrid love affair with baseball, memorizing Stan Musial’s statistics and rattling them off to my parents’ friends’ amazement. When I would later play high school baseball, my devotion to the game was unable to eclipse my lack of talent, and I sat on the bench. But at 8, if you loved the game, you were already better than three-quarters of the kids out there, who were plopped in the league just so their parents could have a few hours peace each week. I was one of the best players on the team and, to me, practice and games were just more organized versions of what I did in the backyard every day. And I was a throwback. I refused to use aluminum bats, finding them vulgar and against what baseball was all about. Besides, Ozzie Smith didn’t use an aluminum bat. What was good for Ozzie was good for me.

Problem was, Coach kept batting me near the bottom of the order, behind John Hawkins and Denny and Bulldog. My batting average was far higher than theirs, and I could play any position on the field (though I preferred catcher, which Denny unfortunately occupied, straining our friendship daily). I was good, dammit. Back in tee-ball, before I’d discovered the infinite wonders of baseball, I was horrible, often running to the wrong base whenever I’d happen to make contact with the ball. It had been awful, but now, now I was a force. I had earned this. I’d paid my dues. I deserved to be batting fourth, and pitching, and catching, and playing every damn position on the field if I had to. Why were those shrimps who were so obviously terrible batting above me?

Coach didn’t see it that way. I would complain to him regularly, whine about all the attention he gave to the other players, moan about receiving the least batting practice of anyone on the team. Everyone on the team loved Coach instantly, but I didn’t see it. Why? All he did was let crappy players on the field when it hurt us the most. I mean, we could have totally beaten the Elks Club if I’d have been batting fifth instead of Kevin Jones.

Yet Coach persevered. He would often drive out of town to pick up players whose parents couldn’t make the trip. If a kid wanted his name on the back of his jersey but couldn’t afford it, Coach would pick up the tab. He even would encourage me, one of the more popular players, to make friends with the ones the other kids rarely talked to. It seriously decreased my cool cachet.

Coach also developed this weird habit, inspired by one of John Hawkins’ at-bats. Despite Coach’s repeated attempts to change the laws of physics and motion, Hawkins’ girth made it tremendously difficult to get the bat around on even the weakest of fastballs. Most of his at-bats were strikeouts, walks or a hit-by-pitch (another of Coach’s impressive accomplishments was coaxing Hawkins - or “Hawk,” as he was inevitably known by the end of the season - to resist the temptation to cry every time he was hit). But one time, Hawkins happened to time his lunge at just the right moment, and POW! The ball had all of Hawk’s weight behind it and went soaring over the left fielder’s head. Hawk stood there in wonder. I did that? Coach noticed the delay, stifled a laugh and screamed “GO!” Hawk snapped out of his daze and took off, and I’ll be damned if the sonuvagun didn’t end up on third base. Coach, patrolling the third base coaching spot, hugged him as he stood, panting, on the base. From then on, any time any player would hit the ball, Coach would yell “GO!” I’m sure it annoyed the other coaches, but man, those kids, they ate it up (the best was when Bulldog drilled one down the first-base line and ended up on third, where he scolded Coach for forgetting. “Hey, you didn’t yell GO!” Coach apologized and smiled broadly). And, eventually, I ate it up too. It was impossible not to get caught up in the euphoria. We were just kids, playing baseball, just for fun. And we always got milkshakes after the game, whether we won or lost.

Coach led the V.F.W. charge for three years, all three years I played for the team. We never won a league title, only made the playoffs once, though we ended up a respectable .500 during his tenure. At the end of the third season, the entire team went out to Coach’s house for a end-of-the-year picnic. They shocked him with a trophy with the names of every player, with the inscription, “Presented to Coach for a wonderful year. Thank you, and go V.F.W.!” It remains on the wall of Coach’s home, having survived years of moving and chaos and upheaval and all the curveballs growing up and growing old throws you.

To this day, anytime I’m back in Mattoon and run into one of the old V.F.W. kids, they always mention that team and how much fun it was. Many of them played only one more year of organized baseball and learned right quick that most grownups weren’t like Coach, that most cared too much about winning and losing and not about making sure that kids - kids, after all - have fun and get to feel important and part of something, part of a team. Many of them have kids of their own now. Many of them have faced so much of the tragedy and the heartache and the disappointment and the sorrow that adulthood brings, it’s a wonder they can remember childhood at all. But they all remember V.F.W., and they all remember Coach.

If it isn’t obvious to you at this point that Coach is my father, you’ve either not read enough of these columns, or you’ve simply never met him.



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