The little guy was standing at third base. Seven years old. His fellow teammate at the plate had swung furiously at the first two pitches. And missed.
I knelt down on my knees in the third base coaches’ box and leaned out over the chalk line that fairly shouted ‘proceed no further,’ and spoke as softly as possible so that the opposing coaches behind me – and the opposing youngster playing third base who was looking at me – hopefully would not hear:
“This next pitch your buddy up there is going to connect. He’s got two strikes on him and he’s not one to take another pitch. So he’s going to swing. It doesn’t matter how far he hits, or even if it’s a foul ball. Look at me. I don’t want you coming back here. Do you understand? He hits the ball. You take off. It’s a one-way trip. Do not come back to third. Give it all you’ve got. You’re going home. You’ll probably have to slide. Get dirty. OK? Let’s finish this. Got it?”
Sure ‘enuf our batter connected. That’s the good news. The bad news is that while it was a fair ball, it dropped exactly in front of home plate and just sat there. The runner at third took off for home, his little legs pounding and no doubt his heart too.
The coaches from the other team behind me were screaming, “pick up the ball! Pick up the ball! Tag him! He’s coming home!”
Not even half-way to the plate, in what always seems to be a stand-still moment at least in my memory, our little guy saw the catcher pounce on the ball as the batter charged up the line toward first. Without pausing, without breaking stride let alone standing still (he had, after all, been told to finish this), my little gambler gave it a go.
“NO!” shouted the opposing coaches in unison – one with his hands clasped as if in prayer (although the grimace of his face belied the prayer part); another with a ‘whatever-can-you-be-thinking’ wave of his hands overhead – as they cascaded from the dugout behind me, the source of their dismay being the catcher with ball in hand.
Without even looking toward the runner coming from third, perhaps oblivious to the impending disaster because he’d not removed his mask, the catcher turned – TURNED – toward first and threw the ball.
He did get dirty. Lost his helmet too. A great cloud of dust at home plate. Umpire’s hands – both of them – stretched wide: safe.
Safe at home.
One of the other team’s coaches – with a despairing one-word sigh – exclaimed no doubt in my direction: “Really?”
Without turning around I smiled.
There’s an ancient proverb written for fathers – coaches really – that begins “Listen, young man . . .” addressed to their sons. And it ends, basically – the truth of the proverb does like this:
‘If you would win at life, you must listen up to your dad. You’re gonna get dirty. But to finish well, you’ve got to pay attention to what your dad says.