70: Life with Father

70: Life with Father

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

Life with Father

Children have more need of models than of critics.

~Carolyn Coats,
Things Your Dad Always Told You But You Didn’t Want to Hear

One of my neighbors, a sincere young guy named Derek, recently approached me for advice on a specialized aspect of father-son relationships. That he should approach me about any aspect of parenting is remarkable, considering that Derek has actually met Graig, the nineteen-year-old product of my own efforts in this area. But Derek’s options were limited: He was considering coaching his seven-year-old, Chad, in Little League. And given the decade-long record I compiled as a father-coach (I won a league title, came in second once and coached several All-Star teams) before hanging up my line-up card for good last season, he wondered if I might have any words of wisdom.

There was a lot I could have said, and maybe should have said, to Derek, but his request aroused mixed emotions. On the one hand, well, he did ask. On the other, he was just so bright-eyed and eager that I didn’t want to make him feel unduly neurotic about something I knew he was going to undertake anyway. In the end, I merely whittled down the insights of my lengthy service as my son’s coach to these points:

First, this was not a decision to be made on impulse. Anyone considering this step should spend a summer at the ball field, observing such relationships up close and personal.

Second, there should be a special plea available to fathers who do bodily harm to their sons as a consequence of coaching them in youth sports—something along the lines of “assault with an explanation.”

Derek began to laugh and then, noting that my face remained set and unsmiling, thanked me and walked away. I don’t know what he made of me, but he is careful not to leave me alone with his son these days.

In their attempts to shed light on the father-son coaching relationship, sports psychologists invest a lot of time in constructing intricate behavioral models, most of which reduce to the fact that both man and boy lug much more than the equipment with them when they travel from the home to ball field.

Sometimes the spillover from home is unmistakable: I think of the day my frowning nine-year-old folded his arms over his chest and plopped down in the outfield in protest over my refusal to buy him a Slurpee before the game. More often the link between cause and effect is foggy. On one occasion, when Graig, normally a hard thrower, was fourteen, I yelled out to the mound that he didn’t seem to have much on the ball. “Come on, dammit!” I shouted. “Chow [the family mutt] could hit that crap.” He glared at me, and his pitches began arcing toward the plate in a high, defiant softball lob. I yanked him at once, he stormed into the dugout and it was only when we talked about things days later that I recognized the depths of the emotional morass I had carelessly wandered into. “You say something about everything I do,” Graig sniffed. “With my homework, if the answers are right, you complain about the penmanship. When I mow the lawn, you always tell me I missed a spot. Why can’t you ever just accept that I’m doing the best I can?”

It’s true that a coach’s son struggles with his father’s shifting identities. And that’s sad. But it is equally true that kids can be world-class manipulators. Sensing that their fathers, too, are far from comfortable with the situation, they respond with the unerring, I’ve-got-you-over-a-barrel instincts of, say, a woman you love very much who knows she has caught you doing something you hoped never to be caught doing.

And that’s infuriating.

Typically, a coach’s kid wants all the special rewards of having a coach who is also his father but is reluctant to accept any of the special burdens of having a father who is also his coach. His advantage-seeking is expressed in countless ways large and small—from demanding “just one more pitch” during batting practice to lobbying to be penciled in at a glamour position such as shortstop regardless of whether he can actually stop, oh, one out of every four ground balls.

Coaches’ kids reject the notion that this favoritism should come at the cost of any added responsibility. Graig despised my constant reminders to “set a good example.” His chronic complaint was that he wanted to be “a member of the team just like everyone else.” (Except expecting to pitch regularly, bat third or fourth, and have the green light to steal at will even though the backstop would have beaten him in a foot race.)

The successful management of such schizophrenia requires of father-coaches an even-temperedness bordering on the divine. Further complicating matters is that we fathers are not quite sure how “professional” we want the on-field relationship with our sons to be. The identification between man and boy, after all, is never so close as on the athletic field, where the kids become walking advertisements for the potency of the father’s testosterone. Any other child strikes out with the bases jammed, and you pat him on the fanny and say, “Tough break.”

The one time Graig watched a close pitch sail by for strike three in a championship game, stranding the tying run, I did not say, “Tough break.” I meant to say it. Honest. I even formed the words. But something diabolical took hold of my larynx, and what I heard come out instead was, “How could you take a pitch that close with two strikes on you?” Then I kicked myself over it for the rest of the weekend.

Of course, my behavior toward Graig, like that of most father-coaches toward their sons, was marked by erratic cycles of indulgence and volatility. I would let him goad me, push me to the limit. I would look the other way as he cut up and did his best to undermine my authority over the team. All of this I would let slide until I would explode at him in a rage far out of proportion to the stimulus of the moment.

The worst of these eruptions came during the last year I coached Graig, when he was fifteen. We were having batting practice on a languorous afternoon in late May. Nobody felt like being there, yours truly included. It was too hot, too humid. But the team hadn’t been hitting, and it struck me as a lousy time to be canceling a scheduled workout.

Wise guy that he is, Graig decided to liven things up. I would yell instructions to the batter, and from behind me I would hear my words repeated in this moronic voice that brought to mind Bullwinkle from Rocky and His Friends.

It took awhile, but I finally got so fed up with the lame echo from deep short that I whirled on the pitcher’s mound and fired my best fastball in Graig’s direction. It was an act I regretted at once, even before the ball had completely left my grip. But it was too late.

What happened next took a split second. And yet, amazingly, there was time enough for me to be aware of several things.

I was aware that around me, everything—everything—had ceased. There was no movement, no sound, no nothing.

I was aware of feeling more helpless than I had ever felt in my life.

And I was aware, in that terrifying instant before impact, that I could no longer see my son’s mouth because it had been eclipsed by—and was about to merge with—the speeding ball in flight.

Graig was standing no more than thirty feet away. Had he not been looking directly at me and had he not been able to get his glove up in the nick of time, I might now be occupying the Bing Crosby chair at the College of Dubious Parenting.

As it developed, he made the catch cleanly and no damage was done. He just stood there for ten or fifteen seconds, holding the glove right where he had intercepted the ball, like a catcher giving the umpire a long look at a close pitch. His facial expression was a curious hybrid: half fear, half mirth. Several of the other kids, meanwhile, were staring at me with mouths agape, no doubt wondering what their psychotic coach might do for an encore.

I felt awful, ashamed. Above all, I was sickened by a thought that kept nagging at me for months afterward: What I had just done was not something you did to anybody’s kid but your own. Graig had come within a whisker of being maimed, solely because he was the coach’s kid.

Somehow we put that incident behind us and finished the season without trying to throttle one another. That winter Graig and I decided to go our separate ways. I would stay with our current team; he would graduate to “colt” ball, with a different coach. We both knew it was better this way.

I now ask myself whether I have a moral obligation to share these reminiscences with Derek. Should I tell him that when you are your son’s coach, you are always your son’s coach, even late at night and hours removed from the field? Should I tell Derek that as long as a son’s coach remains his son’s coach, the two of them will never be able to watch a ball game together in an unspoiled, purely recreational way? That the son’s coach will find himself turning every play into an instructional video or an opportunity to critique the son’s skills?

Maybe I should just tell Derek how much nicer it was for Graig and me after the breakup. In particular, I would tell him about the catch we had before the next season’s tryouts. We threw freely, easily, without pressure. No longer were we coach and player. For the first time since Graig left kindergarten (kindergarten!), we were just a boy and his dad tossing a ball around in the sun.

Then I watched Graig go out and pound the horsehide, make graceful running catch after running catch and fire strikes to second base from the depths of the outfield. And you know what? Beaming on the sidelines, I thought, I wouldn’t mind having that kid on my team.

~Steve Salerno
Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan’s Soul

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