Every once in a while there are moments in life so crystal clear that they strike you like a bat. I had one of those moments last week at the baseball diamond as I helped coach my son’s team. It was at this exact moment in time that it dawned on me.
Lyle Hunter lied; and so did Brad Farnsworth, Larry Cagnet, Russ Johnston and John Crates as well as the many other coaches I’ve had over the years.
I had knelt to talk with a young man – who had been struggling at the plate – right before it was his turn to bat. I told him, with every ounce of sincerity that I could muster the exact same, word-for-word, lie that Lyle Hunter had told me back in the early 70s. With the exact same results. There is no point in detailing it here, if you’ve coached, or been coached at any point in your life, you know the basic premise. That young man plastered that ball into the outfield and while rounding first base he smiled so wide you could have fit his bat in his grin, sideways.
John Crates had tried his very best to get me to swing the bat. He had given me all the tools and strived to teach me the mechanics of hitting a baseball. He had spent countless hours encouraging, and convincing me that I could do it.
It was a warm summer day back when I was just a boy, Lyle Hunter, the mysterious father of my friend Matt, was home from working in the Alaskan Tundra. He welded on the Pipeline there as I recall. He was often away for what, at that point in my life, seemed like great lengths of time. His appearance there that day was no small deal for us. We all wanted to talk about Alaska and polar bears, yards-deep snow, moose and highways made of gravel. Baseball that day – and most days for a struggling player like me – was just something to kill time.
It was after my second time at bat, spent as usual waiting, even praying for a walk, when I struck out looking, as was my routine. This man, this legend to me, met me at the fence. As I was dragging that heavy wooden bat back to the dugout, he knelt down on one knee looked me square in the eye and lied like a cheap rug.
Needless to say, it worked.
Next time up I had a hit, then another. It was the greatest game, even to this day, of my life.
I’d like to say that I went on to a lucrative baseball contract in the big leagues, but I didn’t. I’m not even sure how many more hits I rung up that season, but there were more, and every one was a direct result of Lyle Hunter’s properly placed words – true or otherwise. I do know that my career was short, but my love for the game and all the intricacies it entails – including the well placed fibs – still hold immense value to me.
The story was basically the same for Larry Cagnet and Brad Farnsworth. Take a kid like me with little or no athletic ability, give him a basketball and the fundamentals of the game. Then convince him, trick him, if you have to, into thinking that he can do something that he, and possibly the rest of the team, thinks that he can’t. Ultimately, if you have to tell something other than the God’s honest truth to make it happen, I can live with that.
In fact, just two seasons ago as I returned from Iraq, my latest coach and mentor, Kevin Selking had held a coaching spot for me on the team through the entire spring in my absence. He had reminded our players – including my young son Jack – that even half a world away, I was part of the team. He told them where I was, and to the best of his ability what I did over there. On that warm spring day in May 2006, just one day home from Iraq, we knelt, as we always do, in the grass. As a team we asked the Lord for safe play, health, and good sportsmanship and then finally for the safety of the troops serving overseas.
And with my ball cap covering my grownup adult eyes, in a supposedly prayerful pose, I cried. I lied telling the players that my eyes were just red from the long trip home. And it didn’t bother me a bit.
I was never so happy to be home. Never so happy to be a part of anything so small, yet so very, very large, as that team. Never forgetting that the learning process of life for young men, sometimes takes place one second at a time. And when that learning process stops, you die. Because while on one hand there is no child so despaired as one who has no hope, there is also nothing greater to give than hope and happiness and encouragement to all our children. Even if you have to stretch the truth to make it happen.
As we stand around the dugout between innings and chat with friends and family, I often remind them that I’m not there to teach baseball, Coach Selking can handle all that. I’m there to keep everyone moving in the right direction, and share the lessons that so many people have shared with me over the years. I tell them, more times than they ever wanted to hear, what Uncle Russ told me a long, long time ago. He said, “In a year from now, no one will be able to tell you who won this game, but they will be able to tell you how we behaved, win or lose.”
I currently have a baseball coach with 70 + years experience who is helping me along the path of life. The subject is usually Veterans of Foreign War issues, and getting those who have served their Country the help and services that they have coming to them. However, baseball, and the life lessons it teaches is never far away from any conversation I have with Don Grabner. Here is a guy who has, much like Uncle Russ, coached, tutored and molded several hundred young men over the years. As I talk to their past players, some much younger than me, and some much older, you can’t find a person who doesn’t have some level of gratitude for what these men have done for us, and for our community.
It’s too late to thank Lyle Hunter, Larry Cagnet and John Crates, but to Brad Farnsworth, Don Grabner and Russ Johnston as well as the countless others, who for reasons as varied as their personalities, choose to spend their free time, and a lot of their non-free time, coaching a sport, and slipping those little life lessons in there one at a time, thank you. From the very bottom of my heart. Thank you.
Last week as I knelt to talk with that young man, in that moment of crystal clear clarity, when I remembered Lyle and his contagious grin, I once again realized the importance of every single act of kindness that you ever give – and receive.
That kid might just as well have hit me with that bat.