The Boys Of Summer

I recall fearing some of my coaches over the years, the way they barked and growled, and their impatience as players didn’t always understand immediately what the coaches wanted. After a full day at the job and a quick dinner, the men would teach us baseball in the evenings. Today’s coaches look like Jack LaLanne and have all this enthusiasm. They wear lycra and spandex, and bike to practice. They have mottos and handouts and clipboards, and say things like, “Watch it all the way into your glove, Bobby.” A far cry from “Who the %$@# is up next? Get a @!#$%&* helmet on!”

And the parents, oh, have they come full circle. Sometimes I listen from the sidelines. “Good try. Good effort. Next time, buddy–that’s okay. Settle down, guys, we can come back from that.” Contrast that with parents’ comments from my era: “Oh, for cryin’ out loud, Eddie, what the heck were you thinkin’?” Parents are now so afraid to damage anyone’s psyche that we simply compliment the good, the bad and the horrible. I once had a kid walk to first base on a long ball that he thought was going over the fence. Instead, it was fielded cleanly, and he was still a step from the bag. At the last minute he hopped to the base. Had he been hustling he could have been to third base by then. As he stood on first, his dad yelled out, “Way to pick it up, buddy.” I dropped my head and shook out the noise. God forbid he should hustle all the way through.

A Fighting Chance

At the beginning of spring in our neighborhood, the coaches gather for “draft day” in preparation for summer leagues. The kids go through throwing, fielding and hitting drills, and the talent is assessed and recorded. A cumulative score is kept, and a secret list ranks the players from top to bottom–all intended to ensure the teams are evenly divided throughout the season. The draft is always handled in a gentlemanly fashion, and the talent is displaced fairly, but it seems so … professional.

I was an asthmatic kid who suffered the embarrassment of sitting out during some of the President’s Physical Fitness Tests in elementary school. I played pickup baseball because my friends let me play in my limited fashion. Mark and Pat Livengood, Kevin Iceman, Tim and David Elliott, they all bent the rules so I could play. They waited while I puffed around the bases, and stood patiently while I hacked up a lung when I finally got to home plate. By the age of 10, I was so sick of being the exception that I followed Patrick to organized baseball practice and asked his coach, Mr. Stewart, if he would let me practice with the team to see if I could even play on that level. He made me believe I could.

The following year, he contacted Len Thasho and told him I was a kid who needed some extra attention, but was a hustling and willing contender. Mr. Thasho and his son Garry helped me learn the game, and handled me with great patience. They were the type of people who didn’t swear, didn’t yell, and took the responsibility seriously for shaping boys into lovers of the game. By the time I reached eighth grade, I was strong enough to letter in football and baseball, and by ninth grade, my running and training had so improved that I actually ran on the cross-country team. Me. Running long-distance races. I was never in first place, but I always finished. Always.

There are rules today that ensure everyone gets a chance and everyone gets to bat and everyone is treated fairly, but I submit I am what I am today because I had to fight for that chance, and when people–coaches and kids alike–saw that I was willing to fight for it, they extended a hand. They didn’t carry me, they didn’t coddle me, but they stood next to me and helped me find my balance. In summary, we’re doing much more to protect and support our kids today, but in order for that to happen, we suffered the loss of “neighborhoods,” the diminished importance of pride and, most obviously, the will to make things better for oneself instead of complaining. Some parents still encourage their kids to achieve by striving, practicing and enduring. They’re the ones building capable, independent people with a “leg up” on their future.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.

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