The Unnatural

James O'Brien

My first experience as a baseball coach was not good. I was in high school, and I'd agreed to help a buddy with his junior high team. I tried hitting some fly balls, whiffed a few times, and endured the sort of merciless barbs that only junior high boys can hurl at a faux authority figure falling on his ass in front of them. They made me blush, question my manhood, and figure I had better things to do. After two practices, I quit.

Saturday morning, I returned to the site of my coaching debacle--Kenny Park in south Minneapolis--for my official coaching debut. The head coach, Tom, went up north for the fishing opener, and I was drafted to coach the Orioles, the team of third-graders I've been assistant-coaching in practice over the past month. For our first game, Tom issued me a clipboard and an orange jersey and hat that matched the players' uniforms. I was happy to see "COACH" emblazoned on the back of the jersey, just in case some of the junior high ghosts were hovering, waiting to sabotage my shot at redemption.

As I pulled up to Kenny with a station wagon full of bats, helmets, gloves, and two Orioles, I could feel another nervousness rising up in me--the kind that happens when a first-time coach weighs the awesome responsibility of tampering with young psyches. It happened to me the first time when I was in third grade, attending an after-school instructional basketball camp.

Up to that point, the most rigorous athletic activity I'd engaged in was some spirited floor hockey games in my buddy Bob's basement. So when it came to layup drills at the school gym, I basically bounced the ball a few times, ran at the hoop, and threw the ball at the rim. My third time through the drill, the two coaches rolled their eyes and said, "Here comes the bad boy again." It was an innocuous crack, but it pierced me, and stuck.

A few years later, I was playing baseball for Lynnhurst, the same park I'm coaching at now. It was a beautiful summer night, perfect for a ball game, and I was up to bat. We were in the last inning, my team was down by a run with two outs, the bases were loaded, and I was hanging tough with a full count. I wanted to prove something to myself, and I didn't want to let my teammates down. The pitcher wound up and threw a ball that skipped in front of the plate by at least two feet, but as I got ready to walk to first base, the ump hollered, "Strike three! You're out!"

My teammates were horrified--not at me, who stood stunned at home plate, but at the ump, who obviously wanted nothing to do with an extra-innings game. I choked back tears, got on my bike, and, even though I don't remember his name, I can still feel my coach's arm around my shoulder. "If Tom hadn't struck out before you, and if Billy hadn't dropped that ball in the third inning, we might have won," he said. "This wasn't your fault."

As I got out of the car at Kenny, I wondered if I'd have the opportunity to impart such wisdom, or to crush someone's spirit. I went to the field, recruited a couple of parents to serve as base coaches, met the coaches from the other team, and told the players to gather around for their position assignments. Standing above them, clipboard and pen in hand, the Orioles' squealing faces looked up to mine like baby birds waiting for worms.

Substituting volume for confidence, I barked out the birds' positions. Some whined or whooped, but miraculously, all did what I said, and a few called me "Coach." I got behind the pitching machine that's used at this level, started feeding it balls, and promptly got shelled. Balls were going through the infield like missiles, the other team was running around the bases like Smarty Jones in the Preakness, Orioles were throwing to phantom bases and cut-off men like they'd never even practiced, and the "COACH" on my jersey was burning into my back.

The other parents started yelling instructions to their children from the sidelines. Complicated stuff like, "The play is at first," which I could barely muster, since I'd been raised on the Jimmy Piersall biopic Fear Strikes Out, and I didn't want to breed any backstop-climbing nutcases. Finally I got with it. I started telling my charges which base to throw to. I shouted, "Do your thing, Orange!" a few times.

At this level, parents may not keep score, but kids do. By Leif's and Lucas's count, the Orioles were losing by about eight runs, and our birds were restless. I could tell some of them were looking for someone to blame, and I could hear the junior high harpies screaming in the distance. Then something happened. Jake made a catch. Max made a play at second. Cory fielded a grounder. We almost got out of the inning on our own, but mercifully, the other team had batted through the lineup, which meant it was our turn to bat.

Celia got a single. Aidan hit a home run. Henry hit a grand slam. Back in the field, we made a few plays, muffed a few others, and the bench chanted encouragement with tractor-pull volume and enthusiasm. When it was over, one of the more score-conscious Orioles said we'd won by a run, but what I remember most is Aliya's face. She struck out three times, and each time when I said, "nice cuts," she looked at me with a scowl that said, "Don't patronize me." As I packed up the helmets and bats, her dad had his arm around her, and they were giggling about something.

After the game, for the first time in my life, I called my godfather, Frank Hinnenkamp. He's 79 years old, and he spent 50 years as a Little League coach in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He has coached thousands of kids, including each of his seven sons, and he has a roomful of trophies and memories to show for it. Me, I'd just finished coaching my first game, and I needed some advice from the don.

"First, lots of encouragement, light on the criticism," he said. "If somebody has to be told how to bat or shown how to field, that's okay. I'd get on their case if they weren't listening or hustling, but constant praise and encouragement, even for the little things. After every game, we always went out to center field and I had two baseballs, and I'd give one to the two players that did the most for that game. And I always made sure that by the time the year was over, every player on the team got at least one ball.

"The second thing is, I always wanted the players to hustle. Wherever they were on the field, if they were going somewhere else, they would run. They'd run, not walk, out to their positions--except for the pitcher and the catcher. I'd tell them to run, and the reason I did that is because to my mind, baseball, especially for kids, so much depends on hustling--being aggressive and running the bases. I constantly told them that: 'Run, run, run, all the time, and you'll get in the spirit of things.'

"This is the best time of your life, Jim. If I could do it all over again, I would. Enjoy it. Enjoy your kids."


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or jwalsh@

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