The Coach’s SonJuly 3, 2008
The happiest I’ve ever been was when I was playing little league baseball. I’m not saying I was always happy during those years when I was nine to twelve years old, or that I haven’t had my share of good moments since, just that when I was playing, when I had on that baggy gray and green uniform, that green cap with the white felt M, when I was pounding my glove out in centerfield and waiting for the pitcher to pitch and singing to him in that cricketing chant that flowed in toward the mound from every corner of the field, nabada nabada nabada, when I was waiting for the game to kick in, waiting to make a catch and make a throw, waiting to run in a hop-skip-sprint back to the dugout to talk and laugh and take my turn at bat, waiting to feel that sweet numbness of connecting with a pitch, that was it, the most I could ever ask for from life, the summer coming on and baseball to be played. That was it. I can feel it even now at the top of my throat, like a swallowed-back cheer, like the sun about to burst free from the gray.
I still remember the car my first little league coach drove. It was a green sedan with a white roof. I don’t remember what he did for a job but he drove all over town all the time, sometimes even passing by my house, which was pretty far away from everything. More than once my brother and I were playing baseball in the side yard when he drove by. He’d honk and wave. My brother and I waved back. I felt proud, like I mattered.
At the end of each of my first two seasons we all gathered at my coach’s house and helped him take down the rubber tubing and metal buckets that he’d attached to all the maple trees on his land. It was fun walking through the woods with my teammates, working together, calling out to one another through the trees. Afterward, by his sugar house, the coach fed us sandwiches and told us funny stories. I don’t remember anything about the stories except that he punctuated all dialogue by saying either “he says” or “I says.”
He stopped coaching our team after my second year because his son was done with little league. He’d batted his son leadoff even though he wasn’t a very good hitter and used his son often as a pitcher even though his pitches were both wild and slow. He was not really the prototypical coach’s son in that the prototypical coach’s son is a kid without the talent to go with his overdeveloped technique, the coach pounding into the slow, undersized kid the textbook way to do everything. But our coach’s son compounded his lack of talent with clueless, histrionic stabs at technique, like Carmine Ronzoni in the early parts of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. Amazingly, he never seemed to doubt his clearly shoddy abilities. A few years after little league, my stepfather, Tom, went to get an oil change at the gas station up by the interstate. The coach’s son was the only one on duty, and he assured Tom that he knew how to realign tires. Tom was skeptical, but the coach’s son kept insisting that he had nothing to worry about. A little later, Tom drove away in a car that listed toward ditches. This was how the coach’s son played baseball.
But oddly enough I don’t remember any hard feelings on my team about this garishly obvious case of nepotism. Maybe there were some grumblings, but for the most we weren’t yet capable of bitterness, jealousy, spite. We were just glad to be playing baseball. And the coach was a nice guy to all of us, and though his son was sometimes kind of a fool he was harmless. Seemed harmless.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of my peak as a little leaguer, when as a 12-year-old I played in my town’s annual 4th of July all-star game against a team of players from nearby towns. I can’t imagine what that game is going to be like this year. Perhaps they’ll cancel it. The all-stars are the same age as a girl from the town named Brooke Bennett, whose body was found yesterday after she was reported missing a week ago. The girl was last seen exiting a convenience store with her uncle, a registered sex offender. This is the man who is pictured at the top of this page. He was already in custody for sexual assault at the time the body was found. According to the testimony of a 14-year-old girl who claims to have been getting sexually assaulted by this man since she was nine, the man seems to have been in the habit of telling girls his assaults were part of an initiation into a sex ring. He threatened to cut their throats if they resisted.
Many years ago this man batted leadoff and pitched for a team coached by his father. When he was on the mound I stood in centerfield. Nabada nabada nabada. When he threw a pitch out of the strike zone our mantra changed. Throwstraahks throwstraahks throwstraahks. When he did throw a strike a sound burst from my throat like laughter, sunshine, happiness. His name.