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The Coach’s Son

July 3, 2008
 Untitled 
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.

35 comments

  1. 1.  Scary stuff. I recognized the photo from some other news stories I’d seen about the case, but this was the first I’d heard that they found the girl’s body. So sad.


  2. 2.  Holy shit.


  3. 3.  That last sentence was chilling, even when it became clear who the man in the picture was.


  4. 4.  Josh, man, sometimes I hate to even say a word after your stuff. Failure to add seems inevitable. But your great writing draws me in and makes me feel like a teammate and I just want to say something, anything to keep the swallowed-back cheer alive.


  5. 5.  This struck a cord with me. I had a coach who was also a family friend. He was a good guy as far as I could tell. He gave me my first glove, helped me overcome my fear of the ball, and gave me extra team shirts just because I really loved wearing them. Several years after I moved on from pee wee baseball, he opened a pizza place and married my neighbors daughter. It was a few years later that he was found in the parking lot of an abandoned mall. His car parked in the overgrown lot, the kind of place that once would be filled with cars and bustling with life, and he was dead at 32 of a heroin overdose.

    It seems there are a few people in life who leave their mark. My coach left two, one related to the rite of passages in baseball and the other relating to an end of an innocence. While unconnected, it seems the guy in your story is similar in some ways.


  6. 6.  My first thought was the same as 2


  7. 7.  4 : I appreciate that.

    5 : Thanks for sharing that story. That sounds like it must have been tough to hear about, especially since he was such a positive figure in your childhood.


  8. 8.  Talk about a pit in the stomach at the end of a story.


  9. 9.  There is a guy by exactly the same name in one of my Diamond Mind leagues.

    I was e-mailing with him just last week.

    I have this awful feeling. It’s not a common name, but it’s hardly unheard of, so I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m sure. I’m sure.

    Then I read Josh’s piece, and suddenly I’m not so sure.


  10. 10.  I was going to ask this as a joke early in the story. But after getting to the end, I ask it in scary seriousness: Do you ever wonder why the father was always driving around, past all the little kids’ houses?

    I’ve been seeing the “missing NH girl” reports on national TV these last few days. The whole thing is even more shocking and sad now.


  11. 11.  Jaw-dropping.

    Someone I went to junior high school with for two years, before he got kicked out of school for stealing, ended up killing his father a few years later. But I think this story hits me more. At the risk of making this about the writing, because it really is most importantly about the tragedy, you might have made me feel like I knew these people better than the guy I actually knew.


  12. 12.  10 : Don’t think that hasn’t occurred to me. As I’ve written about elsewhere on this site, there was another little league coach in my league who did a lot of “scouting.”

    I have seen the AP stories in places identifying the girl as being from “N.H.” and not Vermont; pretty alarming that that somewhat sizable mistake seems to have also been made in the national TV stories as well. Nice job, media!


  13. 13.  A college friend of mine later went batty and murdered two hikers on the Appalachian Trail. It affects the way I remember college sometimes. And you just expressed the sinking in-the-gut feeling I’ve never been able to shape.


  14. 14.  I had a feeling that this was where the story was heading. Absolutely incredible!


  15. 15.  When my wife was a teenager, she worked and lived in the campground her father ran — a spectacularly ill-timed venture that launched just before the second big oil crisis of the late 70’s. One of the people who was a long-term customer turned out to be a serial killer.


  16. 16.  Jesus Josh, that is beyond bizarre. There are some warped, bent, cats in this world. What goes on in a mind like that I will never know.


  17. 17.  Looks like he could end up getting put to death…

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080703/ap_on_re_us/missing_girl


  18. 18.  I was friends with the place kicker at my college. He was always really polite and wore a suit to all his classes. I thought he would be a successful businessman after he got done playing, but he missed a field goal that knocked the Raiders out of the playoffs and apparently went crazy, Ace Ventura-style. A few years later he tried to kill Siegfried and Roy. I didn’t even recognize him from his picture on the news.


  19. 19.  18 : I had to see if I could find that story, since I’d somehow missed it when it happened. I guess you weren’t alone in how you felt about the guy both before and after he fired shots at the house of Sigfried and Roy:

    http://tinyurl.com/6vs4n

    According to his page on Wikipedia, the kicker was deemed by the judge unfit to stand trial, a judgment he disagreed with, wanting to plead guilty.


  20. 20.  19 I saw his mug shot on the news as they said something like “Former Oakland Raider in trouble with the law” and thought it was a 1970’s Oakland (pre-LA) Raider, not somebody my age. Did you see the picture of the alleged niece-killer before you heard/read his name or did you already know it was him before you saw him?


  21. 21.  Josh:

    The mark of a good writer is someone who can write intelligently and creatively under pressure, with the world exploding around him, like a good war correspondent. Your spine was probabling chilled when you saw this photo and as you wrote this piece, but the writing, as usual, is superb. You should be writing for a top-line publication.


  22. 22.  18 – I remember that.


  23. 23.  6 Mine too.


  24. 24.  20 : Since I don’t live in Vermont anymore or moniter these kinds of stories in the national news very closely, I first heard of this story from my stepfather, Tom. he told me a local paper had recently shown a picture of the suspect, probably the same one displayed here, and that the picture showed a man who was, as Tom put it, “not well.” But even though I had that preparation, I was still stunned to see this guy’s face. It’s hard to look at, and to be honest I can’t wait to bury it deep below more pictures of baseball cards.


  25. 25.  I saw the picture, read the first paragraph and kind of knew what was coming. I still couldn’t stop reading.

    I don’t have the experiences others have shared; I’ve never been that close to something so horrible, not that life has been a bed of roses and all. But since I started to teaching, I’ve lost two students to violence and every one–I mean every one–of my students has been touched by violence in some way. I hate it.

    Great piece, Josh.


  26. 26.  good lord, if this is not final proof that real life is far more strange than fiction then i don’t know what is…..very chilling….very bizarre. and so, so terrible about the young girl. a slow, mutilating death by cuts with sharp knives is too good for this monster. rgds, will


  27. 27.  Yikes. What a haunting and creepy story.

    When I was in middle school there was this kid, I’m not sure you’d call him a friend, but more than an acquaintance. He was painfully quiet, didn’t seem to have many friends. He was raised by his grandmother because his parents either didn’t want him or couldn’t handle him. The grandmother did the best she could, I guess.

    I got to know the kid a little bit. Ate lunch with him a few times. We’d have conversations as we passed in the hall.

    We moved on to the same high school, but never had much interaction. A couple years later, he committed a double murder. Apparently his girlfriend broke up with him, left him for someone else. He drove over to the girlfriend’s house with a shotgun and opened fire. The girlfriend and her mother both died, the new boyfriend was shot but survived. The father, a well-known basketball referee who worked the Final Four several times, survived unscathed, physically at least. I always wonder what his life is like now.


  28. 28.  When I was young I was an altar boy. The pastor put us in teams so that we always served Mass with in the same set of boys. One of my teammate’s younger brother – a red-headed emotional pistol of a kid – was the same age as my youngest brother and the two of them were teammates as well. I can remember times when we were “in charge” of our brothers who were out playing on the church yard while we waited for our parents to pick us up. Our parents were both active in the parish: my father was a lector, their mother was also; she was the first woman in our parish to do so.

    Fast-forward a dozen or so years to when the youngsters are now very young men – college age. I pick up the L.A. Times and read an article about a double-murder and as I read the details it becomes clear that the little kid – little Stevie – had grown up to slay his parents in some fit of rage. As kids, we knew he was a hothead, but never would we have guessed how far to the extreme it would go.

    The other time I had such creepy feelings was when, unplanned, I attended the funeral of one of the youngest, underage victims of the Hillside Strangler. I had some reason to be at that church that night, but the person I was to meet apologized when I arrived and asked to reschedule so that he could attend the funeral – then suggested that perhaps I wanted to go, maybe to be part of the community support. I did not know this girl or her family, but the grief in the church hung like a thick, dense fog, entirely enveloping and unavoidable. There was no comprehending the horrible nature of this poor young girl’s last hours, nor the horrible nature of the beasts that had done this to her. I have no idea how her parents, or the father/referee in 27 ever come to grips with such a thing.


  29. 29.  It’s always weird to know the story first, then find out you know the person involved. (Kind of like when you’re familiar with a song from an album and THEN it gets released as a single and becomes a big hit.)

    For me it was a month or so ago, when I heard of a guy getting shot and killed by cops in a drug raid in Connecticut, at a house where there’d previously been a drive-by shooting. Turns out I went to middle school with the guy who got killed. Also, I was at work one day a few years ago, and a plane hit a skyscraper five blocks down and one avenue over from where I sat. It wasn’t till later we all found out it was Yankees pitcher Corey Lidle in that plane.


  30. 30.  Frightening stuff, Josh.

    I grew up a few doors down from Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski and we’d let him play stickball with us.

    We had no idea.


  31. 31.  You just never know . . .

    One of my classmates from nursing school surrendered his license after he was caught having sex with one of his patients.

    Recently I’ve been checking out some of my former classmates from grade school in the local criminal court databases (beats going to the reunion). So far no crazy stuff but there is still some potential out there for a headline grabber down the road.


  32. 32.  A couple years later, he committed a double murder. Apparently his girlfriend broke up with him, left him for someone else. He drove over to the girlfriend’s house with a shotgun and opened fire.

    Same thing happened in the block I live in except the new boyfriend & girlfriend both died, it came out on the news & everything. I don’t know, stuff like this kind of freaks me out man.

    It’s funny how different minds work this guy killed his girlfriend because she broke up with him, same thing happened to me but I just got all depressed…

    Josh Wilker this is one of your more creepier work.


  33. 33.  Deeply disturbing.

    I went to school – grade one all the way through high school – with this guy. We both wound up having an interest in theatre, and by the time we were in high school, were in some competition for roles, and certainly did a number of shows together. I’d say I knew him fairly well, although while we were on good terms, I wouldn’t have necessarily considered him a friend.

    Our junior year, he got cast as the King of Siam in The King and I, and there was one show where he was nervous in a way I’d never seen before – sweating profusely, clearly a mess. After the show, I saw him talking to a young boy, probably no more than 11 or 12. Thought nothing of it.

    A couple years into college, I come to find out he’s been arrested for child molestation – apparently, he’d been sexually abused by his father, and had taken a similar path. I also found out that the boy who’d come to see the show was one of his victims. When that all came together in my head, it was completely stunning, and even moreso when I realized that here’s this guy with this horrifying pathology, and he was doing a show with about 20-30 children in it, none of us the wiser to the terrible possibilities.


  34. 34.  My freshman year in HS I had geometry and the teacher was one of the “cool” teachers. He’d talk during class about random stuff instead of geometry, so many of the kids liked him because if they were sick of hearing about obtuse angles they could just blurt something random out and that would be the new topic of conversation.

    He also told us all where he lived and said that if any of us were ever in the neighborhood we could stop by anytime and say hi. Well, where he lived was like a block from my house and I went by there pretty much every day.

    I moved a little ways away after that year and the next year was playing a game in the living room with the news on when I heard his name. He had been arrested.

    Turns out any of the boys in school who ever wanted to stop by were offered marijuana and then after they got high he’d pull out a gun and demand certain favors. He’d been doing it for a long time and finally a couple of the adult men he had done this to came forward.

    Lucky for me I was always to cool to want to hang out with even the cool teacher.


  35. 35.  I was visiting vermont this past weekend- my parents live there, and I was home for two family events- a wedding and a memorial service. Took a drive out to Randolph on saturday for various reasons, passed the laundromat twice, I remember noticing it quite distinctly. Saw the news when I got home that it was the last place Brooke Bennett had been seen alive.

    It’s a strange feeling to look back on your associations/memories and overwrite them with new, terrible information about the people who inhabit them with you. Creepy, sad, unsettling. I don’t know what else to say about it.

    Thanks josh.

    -josh



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