by Jerry Keys
We all recall the handful of teachers we did not like in school. We also remember the handful who inspired us. Others come into our lives during our childhood and only stay a brief moment. But what they leave are foundations of learning we will carry with us for decades. The year was 1983, thirty years ago. Ron Kittle was the new sensation in baseball, Pac-Man was 'the bomb,' and stores began selling some crazy new music thing called compact discs.
I had moderate success playing baseball as a youth. My first three years were spent at Fullbright Park, now a multi-story bank across the street from Cleveland High School. My first year at Fullbright I saw one home run hit, by Scott Gurley. I remember thinking he was going to be the next Babe Ruth. Most coaches were willing to teach the game to all the children who were present. In my last year playing at Fullbright, I was picked by the Cardinals. One coach was Ralph Collette.
He always could tell I was stepping away from the ball as I swung. No one wants to get hit by a pitch, but you can not be afraid of the ball. He placed a large tire behind me. If I stepped away, I would fall. I fell a few times. But it did not take too long to realize, straighten up your swing or have fun dusting yourself off constantly. Another drawback I brought to the team was my inability to pay attention in the outfield. Being, then, someone with undiagnosed ADHD, Coach C would have a fit with me.
Coach C had an assistant coach in the summer of 1982 who worked extensively with the younger players. At the time, the league was a two-year one and the upcoming players had to fight and claw for playing time. I did not get to play as much, granted the older players were quite a bit better than I. The other coach taught us how to field properly, to throw correctly, and how to utilize pitch selection when at the plate. And to beat it all.....after practice, he would make us run!
As the season wore on, the best record was on the line between a few teams. Two of them were, the Cardinals....and the Cubs. I kid you not, the Cubs pitcher (then) resembled Randy Johnson as a child. Excellent control and a fastball which screamed. The best I recall, Kenny Geren hit a home run off of him and came back to the dugout telling us to keep our eye on the ball, it's not that fast. The game entered the last inning tied and I was the fifth player to bat. I was placed in the game late and to be honest, was not expected to have an at-bat. If you asked me that day, it would have been fine with me.
As karma likes to do, two players reached base, two did not. Yeah....there I walk my nervous butt up to the plate. Thanks a lot karma. I tried to dig in and not look scared to death. On the third pitch I eyed the ball best I could and swung. I felt the bat hit the ball and I knew....run to first. I never saw where the ball landed (was told it was a liner to right field) but I was mobbed at first base. Cardinals win! Coach C gave $1 to the 'star of the game' and I can't remember if that was my first hit the whole year. But it was nice to be the hero for a change. The other coach mentioned to me after the game, it was a great swing but I still stepped a tad away from the plate. At first it was a buzz kill but it let me know, he expected more from me.
The next season was at the 'then' new complex, Industrial Park. Dudley Smith was one of the coaches and I will never forget, if you lagged on a play, he would call us a "washwoman." The coach from the year before returned and expected better things from all of us who returned. The mental errors and not giving 110% was not accepted. 100% was good last year, not 1983. He convinced us we are now the leaders of the team since the older players advanced to an older league. Coach gave a lot but he expected a lot from us.
I was hesitant to buy into his system at first. After the first game, I realized....he knew what he was talking about. At this time, me getting a hit in a game was awesome! Getting three....unheard of. He told us that no one will believe in us until we believe in ourselves. Fast forward to May 13, the Cardinals were playing the Braves. Coach stressed us to stay focused and keep our eye on the ball. I hit my first home run (as Coach S said)....with fifty feet to spare. I ran the bases like I was running on clouds. I thought to myself, this is what Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy feel like.
1983 was the best year I had in baseball by far. Coach C from the year before and Coach S did a lot to help me along but the other coach, held me accountable. He saw the potential in me and the other players from the year before. After hitting a home run in our next game, I got a little 'big headed.' After showboating on a couple of plays, Coach pulled me from the game. I was flabbergasted! At first he would not tell me why but he eventually come over and said, "You are a good player, you're a leader for this team. You think you're better than everyone else and you may be. But you are not bigger than the team. So ride the pine hotshot."
He sat me for the rest of the game and most of the next. At the time, I was appalled at his action. Later, I was so glad he did. No matter what you did in last week's game or the game which just ended, baseball is a team sport....not individual. He taught us how to be winners, how to give everything we had, and to accept defeat in grace and victory as humble as possible. Personally, I learned about teamwork, sacrifice hits, being a leader, and always believing in yourself. At the end of the season, I was told I made the City All-Stars. Not bad for a kid who went from a few hits a year to a few hits in one game. Yes, I was a year older, taller but if it had not been for Coach, none of this would have been possible.
It's depressing to realize, this was thirty years ago. I remember when being thirty years old meant you are old. I ran into Coach about ten years later, all dressed in heavy metal attire, long hair. He probably did not recognize me or I'm sure he would have told me to cut my hair (LOL). I was brought up to say yes sir and yes ma'am....especially to people who shaped who you became. I ran across my home run baseballs recently as I was cleaning out a room. I never forgot them but as John Lennon once stated 'life is what happens when you're busy making plans.' I reflected on that summer with nostalgia and the childhood innocence....then my aching knees brought me back to reality.
It may have been thirty years ago, but the summer of 1983 will always hold a place in my memory. Reflecting on things never entered my mind until I was older....well the setting of The Wonder Years on reruns did help a bit. For the first time I went to a game thinking, not will we win (being a horrible hitter and fielder) but how can I help the team win tonight. Coach C and Coach S would call anyone out in a heartbeat for not giving it our all. Each left positive impacts over those two years but one coach was there both years. He taught me dedication and a solid work ethic. His lessons I carried with me and still incorporate to this day.
Thank you Coach A......Arnold Truelove.