"I love baseball.
You know it doesn't have to mean anything,
it's just beautiful to watch."
Woody Allen in Zelig
I hung up my baseball uniform today. Granted, I hung several of them up (uniform collection is one of the least glamorous parts of high school coaching), but I paused an extra moment when I came to number 20. Though I had picked it last year simply because it was the biggest jersey available (ahem), wearing it this year ironically corresponded with our JV team's final number of wins this season – the most victories for a JV baseball team in Westminster's 28-year history.
I mentioned the irony of my number to the guys in my pre-game talk last Thursday – the last game of the season and the one we needed to win to reach 20. As there are no playoffs or post-season games at the junior varsity level, total number of victories would seem all a JV team can shoot for to register its existence. But in baseball (as in most sports), record (we were 20-2 on the year) rarely captures what a season means to a coach and his players; relationship does that.
While we had our share of ups and downs, we loved one another even (and especially) when we didn't always like each other. Sure, there was plenty of competition for positions and no one wants to ride pine when his team is on the field, but the guys worked through a lot of that early in the season (sometimes with a little help from their coaches) and came to be each other's biggest fans.
Out of 22 games, no lineup was the same (Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is not the only one who can manage by "platoon"). At the JV level, our goal is to play as competitively as we can while playing as many as we can – winning games and preparing guys to be able to one day contribute at the Varsity level. In addition, JV provides the opportunity to call up some guys from our Freshman team (in only our second year, they went a very respectable 9-4 this spring) to see what various winning permutations the future might hold.
For some this season, action on the JV (or Freshman) team may have been all they saw, but they played a lot, learned a lot, and won a lot. For others, contributing at the Varsity level came sooner than later, as we played our last four games without three of our sophomores who got "called up" and are still playing as our Varsity just won districts on Wednesday for the sixth straight year.
One of our JV player's dads sent me a gracious email summing up our season this way:
"Our family appreciates the time you gave to coaching the boys the past two years. You somehow managed to get playing time for everyone, which doesn't happen much in high school baseball, and you did it without weakening the team's performance in any way. That's an impressive accomplishment for any coach."
I received several notes like this from parents, and being the affirmation junkie that I am, appreciated every one of them. Still, the one thing that meant the most to me this season happened after our 19th win. We were playing a 4A school (Westminster is 2A in size) and the opposing team's coach had told his team that we were not any good; he did not even have enough respect for us or our program to throw an actual pitcher against us, but simply plucked an infielder and had him awkwardly pitch.
We ended up winning, 18-3. After the game and our normal post-game meeting in the outfield, the guys made a few mini-speeches and handed my assistant coach, Slade Johnson, and me a manilla envelope with 15 tickets to a Cardinals game. Their parents had chipped in on so that we could all go to a game together (which we did Wednesday night after having the guys over for grilled hot dogs and wiffle ball – see below).
After handing over the tickets (and with even bigger "ah, shucks" smiles than before), the guys made a few more mini-speeches about my leaving for Oklahoma and presented me with an authentic Rawlings bat with my name engraved in the barrel and their signatures scrawled on the bat head. Marveling at both the beauty and the meaning of the piece of wood I held in my hands, I nearly cried at the classy thoughtfulness of it.
The next day, we won our twentieth and final game. As I was walking off the field after shaking hands with the other team, the Lord gave me an idea for our post-game meeting. Since I had received a bat from the guys the day before, I thought it might be a good idea to rightly set up my successor. Grabbing my coach's fungo bat, I made my own mini-speech and presented it to Slade, who will be overseeing and coaching the JV and Freshman teams next year. He was thrilled (notice Lil' Blue in his hand below).
After the meeting, as Slade and I were walking back to the dugout, the guys presented their final gift to me: my very first water cooler shower. Strangely (and after the initial cold shock), I was honored by this just as much as I was by the bat the day before. Why? Because my players felt comfortable and secure enough in their relationship with their coach to have some fun with me. The day before they had honored me with their respect; now they honored me with their trust. I don't know if they caught it or not, but it was a beautiful illustration of how we are to walk with and enjoy our relationship with God.
It was a special season – one that I will take with me to Oklahoma and hold onto for years to come. I told the guys that, if they work hard and commit themselves to each other in doing so, I believe they have a great chance of one day winning a state championship. I also told them that, if and when they make it that far, I will be catching a plane back to St. Louis to be there. I think they believe they can do it. I think they believe I will, too.
So, for all you baseball fans out there, there's your post-season wrap-up. Thanks to my players, their parents, my fellow coaches, and the Lord God who gave us baseball. The only season that can top this one is still to come…and will play on through eternity. Look for me: I'll be the one in the coach's box down the third base line…
(Thanks to Dale Froeschner and Megan for the photos. For Megan's thoughts, click here.)