Saturday, September 1, 2007

Some Coaches Just Don’t Coach

The story of a really lousy coach
by Charlie Leck

This is the 4th and last blog in this series
about my 50th anniversary class reunion
coming up in 2008. These essays seek to
explain why I won’t attend the reunion.

There is a 50 year class reunion coming up. I graduated from dear old Roxbury High School in 1958. As I wrote in my last blog, I don’t have much desire to look old classmates in the eye, to tell them what I’ve been up to the last 50 years. How in an evening does one do that? And, who wants to relive one’s high school years, especially when they were as insignificant as mine were?

I think I would return only if there was a teacher or two who might be there, to whom I want to say a very special thing or two. I’d thank Mrs. Call for introducing me to literature and opening up the wondrous world of books to me. I’d thank Miss Dehaven, too. She was the finest teacher I had in public school – bar none! I love history to this day because of her. I don’t remember my typing teacher’s name, but I’d give her a big kiss if I met her again and thank her for giving me a skill I use continuously. She convinced me it would be one of my most important skills and I’d never regret working hard to learn it well. I made a lot of money in college, thanks to her. I typed papers for many, many fellow students; and for cold, hard cash. I also had a very patient, lovely algebra teacher. I remember her name as Miss Garrison. I’m probably wrong about that. She was so patient. I just couldn’t deal with advanced math and it stumps me even to this day. She worked so patiently and tirelessly with me, just to get me through her class. I’ve always been grateful.

I’d like, too, to have a chat with my baseball coach. I wouldn’t thank him. I’d like to tell him he was one of the biggest jerks to ever try to coach in high school sports. What a bean brain! I don’t think he ever said one kind thing to me. I played for him only in my senior year. I had not gone out for baseball before that, even though I’d had remarkably good careers in both Little League and Babe Ruth League. I had to forego sports because I had a very ill mother and only I and my father were home to take care of her. He worked round the clock in the general store he owned. I would rush home from high school so I could relieve him and either take over in the store or stay close to mother and meet her requests and needs.

In my senior year, my old man told me to forget the nursemaid stuff and stay at school and try out for the baseball team. He was a great baseball fan and it killed him that I had given up playing. So after a three year layoff, I went and gave it a try.

The coach was a big, giant sort of a guy. I want to remember him as Coach Schiffner, but I may have it wrong. He was also the assistant football coach. He had a really dumb look on his face all the time and he was not the brightest guy on the planet – by far! After my first batting practice, which went pretty well because one of my brothers helped me get some of the rust off my swing, he asked me where I’d been for the last few years. The question was loaded with sarcasm. It wasn’t the time or place to explain about mother, so I remained silent. He basically decided I hadn’t come out before because I was too lazy and didn’t have commitment. I remained silent. He would have cut me if I hadn’t kept hitting hard line drives to center and left-center. He threw to me himself during one practice and put a few up around my chin. It’s the kind of mentality he had. He didn’t realize that my brother did that to me all the time. I didn’t back down and drilled a couple of line drives right up the middle. He did some ducking himself.

Before the first game was ever played that season, my relationship with the big, goofy looking coach was an uncomfortable one.

I ended up in the starting line-up and I played there all year. In my first high school game ever, three years after I should have played in my first one, I went four for four. My first hit was a sharp line drive over the shortstop’s head. I must have been pretty excited. A day later the assistant coach – a great guy and a real baseball man under whom I would play some semi-pro ball – pulled me aside and told me that I should look like I’d been there before when I got on base. Evidently I was pretty excited when I reached base in those games and I was showing it too much.

It wasn’t all sweetness and cream that year, however. I ran into some real problems playing third base. I developed a case of the ‘yips’ as they’re called. I had no trouble fielding the ball. My range was good and I grabbed most anything hit my way. My throws to first were the problem. I never experienced it before in baseball, but I couldn’t deliver the throw anywhere close enough for the first baseman to catch it. I hit 421 that year. It was the second highest average in the state of New Jersey’s high school ball. However, thirteen throwing errors in an eighteen game season cost me an all-state position.

My heart ached terribly a number of years later, when Chuck Knoblauch, a second baseman for the Minnesota Twins, developed this same condition. One day he was a fine defensive player and then, all of a sudden, he could no longer get the ball to his big first baseman. Sometimes he’d throw the ball twenty feet off line. The condition never went away and his career quickly came to an end.

After the season, in my last year of high school, and a couple of days before commencement, I went to the coach’s office to request my bat that had been so hot all year long. I wanted to keep it as a memento. One of my best buddies, Leon Wojna, was with me. Coach Schiffner gave me the bat, but not before he dressed me down in a totally embarrassing and humiliating way right in front of my friend.

I had been taught to be polite to my elders and to never ‘talk back,’ so I didn’t. However, I have always wanted to ask the stupid, son-of-a-bitch of a coach, why he didn’t coach. He never once walked out to third base to spend time there with me. He never once initiated any kind of special practice drill for me. He never talked about throwing theory or form. I don’t believe he ever shared a single bit of instruction with me for the entire season. He never tried to build my confidence, but, rather, only tore it down. I got the feeling he didn’t know crap about baseball and I know he knew nothing about human motivation and inter-personal relations – or coaching!

If I went back to my high school reunion, and Coach Schiffner was there, I’d tell him that I think he was one lousy human being back then. I hope, at sometime over the years, he learned a thing or two.

I retreated from his office completely humiliated that day – with my beloved bat in hand. Andy, the assistant coach, caught up with me and patted me on the back and told me he wanted me to come over to Rockaway and play with his semi-pro team. He promised we’d solve my throwing problems together. I found out that Andy was a real coach. We worked hard and we did find some flaws and we solved them. If he was at my 50 year reunion, I’d give him a big hug and thank him for sticking with me.

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