My father was often a mystery to me. Like most men of his generation, he lived in the void between what he felt and what he could say – except about baseball. Even the most inscrutable student of baseball reveals himself over time. When I played, my father was my quiet advocate, observing closely from a spectator’s distance and missing nothing.
To the untrained eye, baseball moves at a languid pace. But to the more discerning, it is a game of constant adjustment, endurance and focus. Mental discipline trumps raw skill. Some games have more action than others. There’s no clock. Innings build a game, games build a season and seasons build a life. The accumulation of daily efforts matters most. You have to keep showing up. Once you have figured all this out, though, you may have lost a step. And you just might raise your hand to coach.
My dad is gone now, and my playing days are long over, but I am not yet out of the game. For a few hours each week, I steer a squad of 9- and 10-year-olds.
What began as hesitant volunteerism (hey, maybe I can do this) has become a dedicated ritual. I don’t know if I’m a good coach. But I do know I’m a work in progress. I hope I’m not too set in my ways to learn new things.
In his memoir, “My Losing Season,” novelist Pat Conroy said “good coaching is good teaching and nothing else.” When I coach my son’s teams, I hold onto that thought. Much of coaching is knowing when to hold off. The best coaches understand it’s never about them. They know that all that ever truly matters is courage in the attempt and fidelity to the unit. Watching your small players devote their all makes you want to be a better teammate in your own world. I coach for my son, but I coach for myself too.
A boy is most alive when he discovers something he loves and devotes himself to working at it. It doesn’t have to be sports – it can be any pursuit in which he loses himself. I know distractions and complex life obligations will reach my son soon enough. But for now, there is baseball.
When my son was 5, he loved to play catch. So we did. A lot. When we’re not playing the game, we’re watching it. Now we sit in Camden Yards, or Fenway Park or Nationals Stadium whenever we can. We dissect the game, share strategies and confer about the status of the team we are rooting for that day. (Orioles first, always.) After this season’s inspiring run to a wild card spot and sudden heartbreak, my son offered a measured assessment: “We’ll get them next year.”
I hope my son maintains his gentle optimism for harsher disappointments ahead. When he stops playing – a long time from now, I hope – maybe he will pass on to another group of kids, or his own, some of what I have tried to impart. Despite replays and sabermetrics, the game hasn’t changed that much through the years and probably never will. At its best, it enables fathers and sons to know each other, however imperfectly, while they can. It gives us something to keep showing up for – a language for talking across generations.
Brendan Clary is a Maryland attorney. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.