The Coach

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Coach held the stop watch in his right hand at eye level and when the lead runner passed clicked. At least two seconds later as Robert ran past dead last, he clicked the second second hand on the watch.

Coach examined the time, looked to be suitably impressed with the one. From the expression on his face he was obviously not so impressed with the other.

The runners were gathered in a cluster nearby breathing hard. A couple were bent over, palms on knees, heads bowed. A few ran in place. Robert paced in a small circle lifting his legs high like a trotting horse.

“Good sprint Joey,” Coach said singling out the first to cross. He did not comment further.

Robert asked, “How bad was I, Coach?”

“Let’s just day you’re not cut out for short hops.”

Last year Robert’s endurance in the mile run won him first position at 5:02:27. Today, he could not place.

“All right youse guys,” Coach shouted in his best Brooklynese. He was not from the East Coast. “Let’s play ball.” He pocketed the watch and hefted a wood bat to his shoulder and tossed a ball in the air and swung a high pop fly to the scattering group of high school juniors. Each picked up a mitt and ran, but none was fast enough to reach the pop up which landed before anyone could get under it. Another high fly came toward earth, but Bobby Pimm managed to pick it out of the air and returned it to Tim Stanton who was the only one of the twenty young men who had not fled to the field and now stood beside Coach as catcher collecting the incoming, tossing these gradually and carefully to Coach who plucked them from the air and threw them up one-by-one and swung with a rhythm and pace that kept everyone in the outfield moving.

“Coming at you Waters, look alive,” and the ball went out to right field. “This one’s for you Thompson,” Coach said selecting a fielder by pointing out where he wanted the ball to go Babe Ruth style. Coach elected to send the next ball to center. “Think fast!” and sent another to Waters who fumbled, chased, picked up the grounder, threw it awkwardly toward Stanton who had to lean left to catch it, one foot on home plate.

“There’s a art to fielding a ground ball Waters, and you ain’t got a paint brush!”

This time the fly was short and Waters ran toward the ball as it bounced once and disappeared into his glove. His return to second was right on.

“Atta boy.” Coach continued popping them up. Mike Jenson was quick on his feet as Coach belted one his way.

By now each boy assumed their true positions. Paul Orr relayed the ball home from the pitcher’s mound. Ted Maschal and Dave Barkman dove together in right field; Ted came up with the ball. Short stop Kirby Whitehead was fast, got under the ball, threw it to third baseman Gene Ober. Coach singled out Robert who had the presence of mind to step back and under the fly but instead of relaying to second, he threw it home where the ball hit the ground and rolled.

“That would be considered an error!” Coach shouted even as he swung and sent another ball to left field.

Fielding morphed into batting practice. There was a lot of swinging but little hitting as Coach encouraged each boy in his stance. Wind sprints followed and Robert heard his name called several times as he turned and sprinted, turned and ran, turned and ran. It was said that if Coach singled you out like that, it meant he liked you.

Robert was not so sure of that.

Practice ended and the team was sent to the showers, all except Robert whom Coach pulled aside. One arm over the boy’s shoulder, Coach sought to give counsel. Robert was almost as tall as he would be later in life, half the weight, nearly Coach’s height. It looked like two pals, not leader and follower, teacher/student.

Robert did not feel intimidated. He respected his coach and sometimes thought how Coach could act, if not exactly fatherly toward him, at least as an adult friend who only wanted to help Robert become successful. This made Robert want to excel, to make the man proud as Robert was proud to be on the team with the other players, out in the field with Jenson who everyone said was headed for the Big Show, professional baseball on television, or Barkman who had already won a football scholarship, or any of the other guys who, coach said in the avuncular, “are destined because they are athletic.”

“But Bobby, I gotta tell you like it is. You can’t field for crapola. I mean, it’s not that you’re the slowest on the team, but you’re the slowest on the team and you can’t seem to field for crap either. That’s what you gotta work on. I mean, you got endurance up the ying-yang. You’re like a Faulkner character, you’re like Dilsey: You endure.” Coach taught English literature in addition to P E. English had been his minor. He majored in Physical Education. “But you can’t field a freaking ball. That’s what you gotta work on, fielding to first. Fielding to second. Heck, fielding to center field when you’re way out in left and you get a grounder, but you don’t field home. You get me boy? You gotta work in your fielding.”

Robert said, “Right Coach. I will.”

The words stuck as Coach let him go, gave him a pat on the butt and said take your shower. Robert ran as fast as he could toward the locker room hoping this demonstrated how important he took the words to be.

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