Beware of phone calls in the night that wake you up with a start.
My air-conditioning was on the blink, it was eighty degrees in my sweltering furnished hovel of an apartment, and I was determined to ride out the misery by sleeping, the rotary phone sitting queenly on my bedside table differed. The jingle-jangle clanging produced a predictable cold-water effect; I emerged from my lake-like bed in a start.
“Shaun, sorry to bother you, this is Joe Dawson from the Jacksonville Little League Association, and I am calling you to see if you are still interested in coaching one of our teams this spring. You reached out to us earlier this winter, but we had nothing available then. So now – we do – and it’s, well – a special circumstance for us.”
I caught my breath and then intently listened when Joe summarized the problem. A handful of boys had just been cut from the local Arlington section of Jacksonville’s Little League. Nevertheless, they still wanted to play even though, according to Joe, they…“weren’t very good. As a matter of fact, some of them are terrible.”
I listened intently, and acknowledged his honesty.
“I know that this isn’t an optimum situation, Shaun, but these boys need you. Would you coach them? Your squad will play in the Arlington Little League, and we’ll call them ‘The Reds.’ The local Lions Club will sponsor them. How about it? “I informed Joe that I would be thrilled to be their coach. I also smiled at the number of who would constitute my team – thirteen, of course. When I hung up, I already knew that I loved the grit that these boys possessed. They might have been cut from Little League, but they still yearned to play. Resilience comes from within, and even if they might not be very good, they had the kind of fortitude that surmounts rejection. Because I had only been a player and had never coached anyone on any level, I hoped that I could measure up to their pluck. It was already apparent that I would have some tough little nuggets under my tutelage.
The following Saturday, I drove into the Fort Caroline Little League Field parking lot, situated in the one section of Jacksonville with discernable hills. Named after the historic French fort first constructed in 1564 and taken over by the Spanish the following year, the field was expansive and lushly green, with droplets of water framing its surface after an early morning shower.
As I alighted from my well-worn 1969 Dodge Dart with an equipment bag ladened with news balls, used bats, helmets, and some battered catcher’s equipment provided by the Lions Club, an energetic pack of boys circled around me.
A beaming wheat-colored boy with deep blue eyes, promptly introduced to me as Bobby Rice. He was a veritable stringbean with a broad smile and a confidence that I found beguiling then asked if he could help carry the equipment to an awaiting baseball diamond.
“Sure can,” I smiled. “Let’s take the other end of this bag and carry it over to the bench over there.” Like a covey of quail, twelve other boys followed Bobby and me onto the field. If my mother had been there, she would have exclaimed, “There goes Shaunie and his little ducklings.”
After we all introduced ourselves – most of the players didn’t know one another as they were from different neighborhoods in Arlington – I got down to business. “Boys,” I exclaimed, “I know why I am here, and you are here to prove to a bunch of adults that they were wrong. So let’s go out and work on that!”
As I glanced into their intent faces, I observed that my little troupe of merrymakers represented the demographics of Jacksonville itself. Five of them were white, five were African-American, two of them were Hispanic, and one was an Asian American.
After I asked them to sprint out to their favorite position – if they had one – I conducted an infield/outfield drill to teach them the fundamentals of the game. Almost instantly, I recognized why they had all been cut. Many of them had never played the game on any level. Joe Dawson had been right; some of them had sufficient ability, but the majority of them were downright awful.
After pondering my narrow options as their coach, I gathered the squad together on the pitcher’s mound. “Guys!” I barked. “I am going to provide an instant neighborhood pick-up here. We’re going to do nothing but play the game as you would if you lived on the same street and there was a park at the end of the road. I will stop and teach you when you need some guidance. Otherwise, let’s go out and have some fun. After all, that’s what this game is all about!”
Thereafter, Reggie North, my waggish and effusive first baseman, would greet me, “Let’s check out our neighborhood, Coach Shaun!”
Why did I choose to focus almost entirely on them actually playing the game? Because those of my generation had learned to play sports through the process of leisurely pick-up games. We garnered a mountain of experience just playing. We had learned on the go; those of us who grew up that way knew that failure, an essential part of playing sports, was the condiment that gave success its flavor. Given their novice abilities, it would take some time for them to give other teams a competitive game.
Over the next month, I held more than two dozen 90-minute practices betwixt a 12 games, all of which we lost. I set modest goals for the boys at the beginning. If they made less than five errors a game, that would be considered a victory. If the dreaded mercy rule – if one team were ten runs or more ahead by the fourth inning – the game would end then – that too would be considered a win. If we kept a team under ten runs or made five runs ourselves, we would consider it a team triumph.
Little by little, the 1978 Arlington Reds Little League Baseball Team commenced playing some decent baseball. My guys began to position themselves correctly, employed cut-offs and back-ups with precision, threw the back more accurately, and even commenced to hit a bit. Eventually, a few of the parents approached me and said, “You know, Coach Shaun, they just might win a few games this spring! This has been terrific watching their evolution!”
At the end of each practice or contest, I continually emphasized the team sport element. I also frequently reminded them that baseball was based on overcoming many failures more than any other sport. “You are doing that every practice, every game, and it is beginning to show, Gentlemen!” I told them that any player who razzed another for making an error would not only be taken out of that game immediately but would then sit for the first four innings of the next contest. I also enforced what I called, “The Kelly Rule.” Every player would not only play at least one inning in every game but also have at least one time at bat – no matter the circumstances. Finally, at the end of every practice and game, I had Team Captain Reggie North bark in a huddle-up: “WE WIN AS A TEAM; WE LOSE AS A TEAM; WE ARE A TEAM!”
However, it doesn’t mean that we didn’t have comical moments of ineptitude that made us all smile or even laugh out loud.
My slowest runner, Terry Daniels, swore up and down that if he ever got to first base – he was an uncertain hitter at best – he would steal second easily. When the big moment came in our seventh game – he had gone 0-20 previously, Terry took off on the first pitch. He then did a signature Pete Rose headfirst slide into second. To my horror, however, Terry began his dive halfway between the two bags, slid, and then stopped ten feet in front of the bag. Still prone on his stomach with his arms outstretched as if he were flying, Terry was effortlessly tagged out by the second baseman, who was hysterically laughing when he walked over to him and tagged Terry on the back. When he came back to the bench, he exclaimed, “The slide was perfect, Coach Shaun!” When I look at him in wonder, Terry commented, “If it had been an ice surface out there, I would have been easily safe!”
In another contest against the Braves, our loquacious first baseman, Reggie North, struck a scorcher down to third that was mishandled by the defense and ruled a hit. He immediately skirted to first, took the lead, and began chattering with the first baseman without so much as even looking at the pitcher, who promptly picked him off. In the end, Reggie was called out about five feet off the bag while he was still stammering away about his hit to his opponent, who promptly tagged him smack on the stomach. “But I was in the middle of my sentence!” Reggie clamored to me when he came back to the bench. “How dare they!” he cried.
And then, there was the bird saga of Tommy Quirk. Our intrepid right fielder, (“Coach, just put me somewhere where I can hide from the ball”) suddenly began screaming and racing in one game after a called third strike on an offending batter. Why? Because a passing seagull had deposited his lunch all over Tommy’s baseball red cap, which was now partially white. I had an extra hat in our equipment bag and gave it to him. Tommy then raced again out to the outfield to the applause of the people in the stands. As one of my friends said later on, even the birds shat on your team.
Even though my charges weren’t very good, they seemed to always show up on time, raring to go. Because I had graduated from college the previous spring and barely made enough money to cover my expenses, the boys knew when my Dodge Dart approached the parking lot for a practice or game that Coach Shaun was in the house. At the time, I had a hole in my muffler, and I didn’t have the money to repair it. (I smile now when I recall one time that May that I was down to $10 on a Tuesday – and payday was on Friday that I ate nothing but canned soup for the next four days). The grinding sound of my wheels was the clarion call to everyone at Fort Caroline Little League Field that Coach Shaun was approaching. Reggie North, in particular, LOVED my car and called it “ a badass.” I eventually realized that the Dart was a metaphor for my team – it was a wreck, but it worked and could even “get it done” if it had to. “Boys, the car and the team will survive whatever comes down the pike!” I informed them one afternoon after we had still another contest.
With three weeks left in the season, when we played the Twins, another rickety squad who had won only two games themselves in the sixth week of the season, I swelled with hope. Ultimately, we beat them legitimately by a 12-7 score – the kids mobbed me at the bench at the game’s conclusion! For our first 14 games, all losing efforts, I had divulged to the gang, “Every dog has his day, and they had theirs.” As we huddled up after shaking hands with the Twins, Reggie North began to bark like a hound dog!
In retrospect, the accumulation of experiences as fledgling players had finally paid off; the boys beamed as they left for their awaiting cars that afternoon. When we then secured two more victories over the next two-plus weeks, we now stood in second-to-last-place, one game ahead of the Twins! This was largely due to the pitching of lefty Kenny Edwards and the stealth hitting of the Rice twins, Bobby and Johnny. Our most accomplished player, Bobby Rice, admitted to me as we left the field after our third win, “If we DON’T finish in last place, that will be like winning the pennant!” Thanks to his experience on the Reds that spring, Bobby had not only developed into a decent ballplayer, but he was now an existentialist.
As the last days of our eight-week adventure wound down to a precious few, I took a final glance at our schedule and began shaking my head in exasperation. We were scheduled to play our last contest against the dreaded Dodgers, a squad that was undefeated and had already begun practicing for the States, the first in their quest to be the National Little League champions. “Quite a way to end the season!” I bellowed to the boys before our second-to-last contest.
“Wow, Coach Shaun,” Johnny Rice, Bobby’s twin brother, muttered when I informed them. “I hope they don’t steamroll us.”
After we lost a reasonably close game to the Yankees, 7-4, which made our record 3-20, we conducted our final practice on a dank Friday night at Fort Caroline Field. The boys were visibly tight before the first pitch that evening. They knew that their concluding game would be played in front of an immense crowd; the Dodgers’ team was now the talk of the town, and each of their contests was attended by a veritable sea of family members, friends, and local fans.
On an impulse, I asked Reggie North, our oldest and most gregarious player, to speak to the Reds squad. “They are looking at us as ‘a scrimmage game’! They aren’t even playing their best players! I was cut from the Dodgers two months ago. I’ve got friends on that team. They told me that they view playing as a reward to their scrubs for sitting on the bench. We need to kick their ass!”
I let Reggie say the last words and whispered to Kenny Edwards, our fiery lefthanded pitcher that he would start the game on the mound against them. “Get some rest, my friend, and we’ll show them all what we’re made of!”
“They won’t know what hit ‘em!” Kenny quipped.
Reggie North’s confidential information proved to be true. The Dodgers pitched their right fielder that day, a youngster who had never thrown on the mound. Their backups all played the primary positions – the infield, catcher, and center fielder – while keeping two starting outfielders intact. Meanwhile, my little merry band of Reds were playing the game of their young lives. Not only had we not committed an error, but Kenny was pitching the game of his life and had only given up three runs in the first five innings. We rallied in the bottom of the fifth and scored two runs to make it a one-run game.
By this time, I had put “The Kelly Rule” into effect. Even though we were down by a run with just two innings to play against the best team in the city, I inserted our “most challenged player,” Mikey Sutton, into the contest. Mikey wasn’t too bad in the field, but he was 0-25, with 24 strikeouts. A tiny wisp of a fellow, he seemed half the size of his peers and was inherently overmatched whenever he stepped onto the playing field. Indeed, Reggie had once told me that he could have probably eaten Mikey for lunch.
When we held the Dodgers to no runs in the sixth and seventh innings and were down by just one in the bottom of the seventh, I gathered the boys together and whispered, “Boys, a few breaks here and there, and we could BEAT these guys. Let THEM get nervous; they haven’t played a close game all season.” I had taken an exhausted Kenny Edwards out of the game after six, but Bobby Price had held them in check in the seventh. I knew that I had Kenny in reserve to hit if need be.
In the bottom of the seventh, Johnny Price led off with a single for us, and after Greg Davis sacrificed him to second, Brian Hopkins skied a flyball to left that the Dodger outfielder nearly let fumble out of his glove. Irving Furguson then hit a little tapper that no one could get to, and we suddenly had runners on first and third with two outs!
I glanced at Kenny Edwards, who motioned to his bat that he was ready to hit. Mikey Sutton, swinging a few bats in the middle of the on-deck circle, seemed like the loneliest person on the planet at the moment. A mix of trepidation and chagrin framed his expansive face. I waved Kenny back to the bench. “You haven’t hit yet today, Mikie,” I reminded him. “Now go up there and win us this game!” He nodded affirmatively and then tiptoed toward home plate.
“You understand why I am doing this, Kenny – right? We win together, and we lose together, and everyone gets to play and have at least one turn at-bat.”
“I get it, Coach Shaun,” Kenny replied. “Mikie’s gonna come through for us. You watch!”
The first pitch to Mikey was right over the plate, a called strike one. I inwardly groaned, thinking that Mikey would simply watch three strikes whiz by when suddenly, THWWWACCCK, he proceeded to hit a scorcher over the third baseman’s glove. The umpire immediately turned around, and we watched as the blurred sphere hit two inches from the foul line. The umpire immediately belched: “Foul ball!”
Our two baserunners had scored, and Mikey had already pulled into second. The expression, “Close only counts in horseshoes,” was never more apropos than at this precise moment. After two close pitches called balls, the Dodger hurler crossed Mikey up and threw a curveball that buckled his knees. When the umpire screeched, “Strike three!” Mikey dejectedly walked back to our bench, where Reggie West was waiting for him. He then playfully tossed Mikey’s hair and roared: “MY MAN – you damn near won this game for us! That was a rocket you launched down the third-base line!” Mikey’s grin was still evident as he began to line up to congratulate the Dodgers and wish them well in the playoffs. Many of them keenly congratulated our players, who still had stars in their eyes that they had nearly won a contest against the immortal Dodgers. Happily, my players had finally learned that respect is usually not given in life – but earned.
After I congratulated the Dodgers and their coach, Joe Dawson, the Commissioner of The Little League Association, approached me. The man whose phone call had awakened me ten weeks earlier then pressed his left hand on my shoulder and declared: “Shaun, on behalf of the coaches, players, and parents, I want to thank you for all you did for these boys. They did deserve to both be part of this team and this experience. What you did at the end of the game reminded us all that honor is always more important than winning.”
After profusely thanking him for the genuine honor of coaching such an outstanding group of boys, I gathered the team together for one final chat. The team’s parents and friends formed a chaotic semicircle as I spoke to the Arlington Reds for the last time. “We might be 3-21, but – thanks to the Twins’ loss earlier today, we ended up in second-to-last place!” The boys and parents whooped together in a choir of authentic exultation. I then took a deep breath and exclaimed, “You boys are all winners both on the field and in life. You never gave up, and you proved that you could compete with anyone – even the best.”
After I thanked my team and our family members, Reggie North interrupted, “Coach Shaun!” he barked. “We have a little something for you. On behalf of the Arlington Reds Team, I would like to present you with a ball with our names written on it. We can’t thank you enough! We will never forget you – or this season.”
I blinked away a few tears and hugged each player and their folks before leaving Fort Caroline Field forever. The entire team escorted me to the parking lot, and when I opened the front door of my Dodge Dart, Reggie bellowed, “Don’t sell those wheels ever, Coach Shaun! After all, it’s the Official Motor Vehicle of the Arlington Reds!” I chuckled heartily as I got into my sweltering junkheap.
I then started up the Dart, put it into reverse, and the car began to rumble down the exit lane. The boys all commenced to sprint alongside me, shouting, “THANK YOU, COACH SHAUN!” their tinny voices echoing off the glazed gravel. Ten days later, I left Jacksonville and returned to Boston for good.
I never saw them again.
More than 40 years have come and gone, and “my guys” would now be in their early fifties. Some of the boys might even be grandparents by now. To me, though, they will always be twelve and searching for a team to call their own. While I have coached more than 60 squads from elementary school through high school in five different sports, the only artifact from all of those squads I’ve kept is a faded Arlington Reds autographed baseball. These days, it sits proudly in my classroom at school, an enduring reminder that occasionally in life, you might just have to fight a battle more than once in order to win it.