A former player and I were conversing via social media. At the end of our conversation, he thanked me for putting up with the knucklehead he had been during his youth. Knucklehead was his word but he used it honestly. At the time, twenty years ago, I probably would have said worse…but with all the love in the world.
Damn him…his comment took me down a rabbit hole populated with knuckleheads jumping out at me as if I were riding a tunnel of horrors…well, not horrors, a tunnel of laughs. Instead of ghouls, skeletons, and ax murders, they were former baseball players dressed in clown paint with big floppy shoes. Ah, the memories.
My years as a high school coach were packed tighter than a sardine can with knuckleheads…as if I might have attracted them. Knuckleheads…not sardines. I would have never used the word knucklehead but I’m trying to remember what I would have used…that is fit to print…Goofy blond headed kid? Not likely.
I can slide backward in time and find one or two knuckleheads for every one of the forty-four years I coached. Some years entire teams were filled with knuckleheads. I’m sure it had nothing to do with my personality.
I had them in all of the sports I coached, but with the down time associated with baseball, between innings and when we batted, it seemed my dugout cup runneth over with knuckleheads…or maybe it is just the game of baseball itself. Baseball is a game fraught with player shenanigans.
It is funny odd. With all the successes associated with those days when I talk to former players, invariably, the conversation turns to “Do you remember when ‘so and so’ did ‘such and such’?” Yeah, I remember. During those days, I feigned anger when I really wanted to laugh…sometimes I feigned badly and laughed anyway.
As I continued down my rabbit trail, I realized that all the really good teams were loaded with knuckleheads, many as crazy as bed bugs, usually pitchers. If I were to award an All Knucklehead Team, the top five would include…four pitchers. I can think of two immediately who were crazy as bed bugs.
They all used their craziness to defuse tense situations…for themselves and their teammates. Gatorade bottles fill with rock noisemakers, Gatorade cup binoculars, rally monkeys, fins up hats, and hand jives. Dug out Voodoo one team called it. At least they didn’t cheer like softball teams.
The teams were much looser than I was or at least they hid it better. I sat on my ten gallon baseball bucket undergoing butt pucker while they chilled under fire, shaking their noisemakers or dancing with the rally monkey.
The teams taught me as much as I taught them, maybe more. Over time they taught me I didn’t have to be a cross between Attila the Hun and Billy Martin to be a good coach. I could use my own personality; I could be me no matter which version I was at the time.
They taught me that getting close was better than remaining distant no matter the pain closeness sometimes brought. Mostly they taught me it wasn’t about the game but the people who played it.
The knucklehead I was conversing with almost caused a brawl when he laid a bunt down late in a game we were well ahead in. He had broken one of baseball’s unwritten rules. You don’t rub another team’s nose in it, instead you call off the dogs.
My next batter received a fastball between the shoulder blades because of the faux pas. Ordinarily, such would not go unanswered, but it seemed an appropriate response at the time even if the wrong knucklehead got hit. To the original knucklehead’s defense, we failed to tell him the dogs were off…I guess I was the knucklehead.
I have learned a few things since retiring. Mostly I’ve learned I miss the camaraderie from those earlier years. I miss the youthful exuberance of teenagers. I miss watching them play the game. I still watch the game but it is not the same. I don’t know the players. They aren’t mine.
I don’t miss the long hours, the foot numbing cold of the early season games, or the long rear numbing bus rides to and from games. What I miss are the kids…the young men who grew from knuckleheads into successful citizens. I’d like to think I might have contributed to some of their successes.
My first attempt at writing badly was, “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…” It chronicalled many of the knuckleheads I was blessed to have coached. Winning wasn’t the only thing but it was written about the winners who made winning possible and my life much sweeter.
Don Miller’s author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2xmv7S1RJWskEhZZ2zdJyRNTfnKZaA-0fvcaXh2Qoht0TimSO42uLa6I4
The image is of Jose Lobaton with his Gatorade Glasses courtesy of the Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/