Clash With a Clueless Coach

Dear Michael,

When you were little, I took you out to play. I always had to ask you. A little basketball? I might ask. We would go around the corner to the courts.

You always had this one move you liked to make. You would start maybe 30 feet from the basket and rush forward, dribbling fast, then veer to the right, around your defender, and flip the ball up at the basket.

Pretty good move. What always struck me was its elaborate detail, how early you always started, all the different steps, so choreographed. Still, you tended to score with it.

We tried some baseball, too, or at least wiffle ball. We would go out on the sand in front of our cabana at the beach club in Silver Point. You always took a strong cut at the wiffle ball, smacked it pretty far, too, a pull hitter, just like me.

For a while there, I suspected you might take a liking to baseball, more so than basketball. I saw some talent there and hoped you might recognize it, too, even relish it, exploit it, develop it.

And then we took a crack at tennis. We played at Cunningham Park, both indoors and outdoors, and at the beach club, too. Tennis, for whatever reason, left you uninspired. You never tried very hard, so we let it go.

Hey, it’s all good. You never really wanted to play sports. It’s a shame only because it’s something we could have done together. It’s a shame because I would have loved to see you discover yourself, your abilities and even your personality and character, as I have, through sports. We could have played anything anywhere anytime. But I’m proud I never pressured you or made you feel bad about it.

I’m right about that, yes?

One time I took a walk by myself around Cunningham Park. And near the baseball field on the Union Turnpike side, I came across a man and a boy playing baseball.

The man had a bat in his hand and was tapping out grounders. The boy, maybe all of 10 years old, had on a glove and fielded the grounders. The kid was having a tricky time of it and missing or bobbling the grounders.

“No,” the man would say. “That’s wrong. Get your glove down. Get it down low.”

And the man would hit the ball again, and again the boy would flub the grounder.

“You’re doing it all wrong,” the man said. “Do as I showed you. Listen.”

I had stopped my walk to watch all this. Clearly the man and boy were father and son.

At first I thought, How nice the father brought his son out here to this park to teach him to play baseball. My father had never done that, though I had a catch with my Uncle Leonard once, on our front lawn, him throwing the ball so hard it hurt my hand.

But as I watched this particular father and son, I realized something was terribly wrong here.

Maybe I should say something, I thought.

Then again, maybe I should mind my own business and keep my mouth shut. So I watched a few minutes more, giving the scene a chance to go right.

But the same dynamic repeated itself, in a pattern that came to appear inevitable. The father criticizing his son, belittling his performance, expressing his disappointment and frustration louder and louder. And the son, trying to apply the lessons delivered, but to little avail, looking stricken with shame and embarrassment.

And more and more I felt the urge to say something. (Oddly, I suspected that the father, aware of my presence, believed I was admiring him – might actually admire him for administering such needed discipline.)

Finally, I could take it no more.

“You’re the one doing it all wrong,” I said to the father.

“What?” the father said. He was maybe 10 years younger and 30 pounds heavier than I.

“All you’re doing is running him down, making him feel bad.”

The father looked at me in what I imagined had to be disbelief.

“Who asked you?” he said. “Mind your own business.”

“I’m making it my business,” I said.

He took a few steps toward me. He looked like he could be a fireman or a plumber, burly, broad in the shoulders, with meaty hands.

“Look,” I said as he came closer, “you’re ruining it for him. You’re ruining baseball for your own son.”

I said it more as a plea than out of outrage or anger. I wanted to reason with him, get him to understand.

“But you know what?” I said. “You’re right. It’s none of my business. It’s yours.”

And I turned to walk away. And as I left, I caught sight of the kid looking at me. And I swear he had a little smile.

So all I’m saying is this, I never was going to be that guy, that kind of father. And that’s why, whenever you and I played together – and I’m so grateful we did – I always encouraged you, no matter what. If you missed a shot, I said you would get the next one.

“Good, Michael,” I always said, whether it was baseball, basketball or tennis. “You’re getting good. You’re only going to get better.”

Question of the day: Ever play sports with your kids? How did it go?

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