Until I became a youth coach I didn't fully appreciate how fortunate I was to grow up in a baseball family. I owe my parents, sister, and grandparents for the experiences I've had; they all sacrificed so I could enjoy the game. The repayment of this debt, though, should be an enduring thanks and vigorous effort to pay it forward. That's how it has worked in my family.
Long ago, Grandpa passed his love for the game to Dad, who handed it to me, and now I'm giving it to my son, Alan. But how, exactly, does this happen? Where does this love, or passion for the game come from? There are two major sources. First is on the field playing the game, experiencing the strategy, complexity, challenge, and fun it has to offer. Ken Burns more than did this justice in his fantastic documentary.
Baseball passion, though, has a second source. We get it from the people around us. The experiences we share with one another while watching or talking about baseball nurture our passion. And, who better than family to provide fuel for the fire?
My grandpa loved baseball, but had to stop playing when he was in eighth grade. It was the 1920s and he quit school to get a job and help support his family. But his passion for the game smoldered until he had a family of his own, and then, through the years, coached his three sons. He had a wealth of coaching stories - some of them probably true - that taught me about baseball in the "olden days."
What's in a name?
One I heard many times was how he named my uncle's team.
"At the league meeting they went around the room and asked each coach the name of his team," he said. "I hadn't really thought about it until it was my turn. My mind went blank and the only thing I could think of was the name of our sponsor. So instead of being the Athletics, Red Sox, or Browns,* we were the Jasso Builders."
Thus, I understand, he started a trend in Sugar Creek, Missouri of naming teams after their sponsors. Grandpa also showed me how he threw a sidearm, or "roundhouse," curveball. I was fascinated with the tale of Ironhead, the "not-so-bright" catcher, who hit a home run in the bottom of the last inning to win a game in which my uncle and the opposing pitcher both had no-hitters. Grandpa was also convinced that all you had to do was watch a batter's feet to see if they were going to be a good hitter. When we'd watch the Saturday Game of the Week on TV, he'd repeat throughout the game, "Did you see his feet? Just watch his feet on the next pitch."
Dad, too, had his stories. I always enjoyed hearing him recall when he was playing against his friend Herbie. Dad was trying to steal second base and his friend came over to take the throw. At the last second Dad yelled, "Look out Herbie!" The boy jumped out of the way, missing the ball, and Dad slid in safe. I'm not sure Herbie was still his friend after the game, but that's another story.
My favorite tale, though, was the time when Dad rounded third base too far. His coach was the animated sort, and in the process of hollering at Dad to get back to the bag, he swallowed an entire mouthful of tobacco! I loved hearing Dad describe how his coach's face turned several shades of red and how, for the rest of the game, the guy was unable to talk - only cough, sputter, and spit.
As I look back on my childhood, some of my best times were listening to Kansas City Royals games on the radio with Dad. Growing up in Denver in the 1970s, we didn't have a major league team, and since our family was from Kansas City and it was the closest major league town, we religiously followed the Royals.
Somehow Dad found a radio station, KRVN's 50,000 watts in Lexington, Nebraska, that carried the Royals games. We could only get the station at night, apparently after they boosted their power. Because we were 400 miles away from the transmitter, the signal would fade in and out and we'd momentarily lose the voices of Denny Matthews and Fred White calling the game. (What an impact this broadcasting duo had . . . I can remember their names 30 years later!)
We would listen and talk about the game, statistics, situations, and players. This is when Dad taught me to calculate batting and earned run averages and what "games back" in the standings meant. The high water mark for me was in August and September 1980. I used my dad's new calculator to figure George Brett's batting average as he chased the magical plateau of .400. Calculators were rare and expensive back then (and large!), so getting to use one was a treat, and I'd update my detailed records of Brett's hits and at-bats by looking at the daily box scores in the paper.
Dad and I would often be playing a game of cribbage while listening. Other times we'd be doing our own thing - a high school math teacher grading papers and a kid sorting his baseball cards. It didn't really matter what we were doing - we were together, sharing a love for the game.
Passing on baseball stories
Now I'm in that position of responsibility of creating baseball passion and memories for my 12-year-old son. I've thought about the things I imagine Alan will remember. He loves playing in weekend tournaments because they compact a lot of baseball into two days while providing a lot of down time in between games where the kids can have fun goofing around together. He talks about eating out after games and playing the video games in the restaurant lobby. He also enjoys the sleepovers with teammates.
And, as we drive to and from practices and games, Alan asks me a lot of questions about when I played. He loves the stories, in part I suppose, because they take him to a far away place and enable him to know me at a different age at a different time. And, just like I pestered my dad to tell me about Herbie for the 40th time, Alan relentlessly asks me about my first home run, when I started pitching, and for other details of events and teammates I've long forgotten.
On the surface, it seems, I'm simply answering questions. I'm starting to realize, though, that I'm actually sharing the next batch of stories, something akin to an oral tradition where meaningful experiences are handed down from one generation to the next. They are, I believe, part of the bandwidth upon which we transfer our love for the game.
To confirm that I was on the right track, I asked Alan what he though he would remember when he's my age.
"You mean 30 YEARS from now?" he asked, only to jab at my age.
I gave him a crusty "whatever" look and redirected. "What will you be telling your kids about baseball when you were growing up?"
He thought for only a moment and replied, "You getting tossed."
All the effort I've put in this year to give him and the rest of the team the best possible baseball experience and my lowlight is his highlight? One small moment of indiscretion and getting ejected from a game (which is another story and I rarely get to tell my side!) becomes his most vivid and lasting youth sports memory?
"I don't think your kids will believe you," I said. "At that point you'll be the dad and I'll be sweet old gray-haired Grampy. They won't think I'm capable of such behavior."
Alan paused. Then, showing a remarkable natural sense of timing that debaters and comedians would kill for, he revealed his ace in the hole.
"Mom will sell you out," he grinned.
Dang! I thought to myself, "Nicely played," not wanting to admit defeat aloud.
As I reflect upon this tradition of transferring the passion between generations, I'm only now able to fully appreciate how much Dad gave while I was growing up . . . and how much Grandpa gave when Dad was young. It wasn't until I had a family, job, and life full of responsibilities that I realized the breadth and depth of his contribution. As parent coaches we lay down many sacrifice bunts to move our kids along the game's base paths.
However, it's not just the dads that sacrifice. My mom, sister, and both grandmas gave huge amounts of time to cheer at my games in lieu of other activities. Beyond that, they cooked meals, washed uniforms, patched skinned knees, comforted bruised egos, and offered unconditional support. Clearly it takes everyone pulling together to create a great youth baseball experience.
Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Laurie. Thanks Grandma Marion. Thanks Grandma Ursula. Thanks, Grandpa. Thanks, Dad.
I hope Alan says the same thing 30 YEARS from now . . .
Adapted from the book, A Perfect Season: A Coach's Journey to Learning, Competing, and Having Fun in Youth Baseball (Quiet Path 2010) by Dan Clemens. It is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and other bookstores.
Dan Clemens is a leadership and communications consultant, and has been a youth coach for 10 years. You can email him at Dan@CoachClemens.com.
*For those of you ask, who were the Browns, my Grandpa was referring to the St. Louis Browns, who, since 1954, have been the Baltimore Orioles.