By Mark A. Luzaitis
Some choices have a far greater impact on your life than you ever could have imagined. I was 12 years old when my older brother decided he would prefer one more day of swimming than attending what would have been our first day of classes together at Boston Latin School. He told me that the school year was starting the following day and so I tagged along not knowing that we were skipping school. I would never get to further enjoy the companionship of my brother at school or anywhere else as he was struck and killed by a car as we were making our way towards the Quincy quarries that warm September day. Considering how much I looked up to him, as well as the tremendous pain my family had to endure, I can’t recall a worse decision in my life.
Several years ago I received a phone call while I was waiting for a train at South Station. I had not expected this particular call but, as it turned out, it had an impact on me in a very meaningful way. The voice on the other end of the line was a neighbor named Steve. Our sons were friends but Steve was not calling me to arrange a play date for the boys. He was volunteering with Wellesley Little League and wanted me to know that there was a need for baseball coaches.
I have three sons and all them had been participating in WLL. There are many sports to choose from, but I knew early on that I would try and get my kids involved in baseball. It was a game I was familiar with and I wanted them to participate and be part of a team. Like many, I had grown up a true Red Sox fan. In fact, my mother was watching game 3 of the 1967 World Series on the day I was born. I played a lot of baseball with friends and neighbors in my youth and I was convinced my boys would enjoy the game just as much as I did.
I grew to learn that baseball was a thinking person’s game. Around the timing of Steve’s call, I had been thinking more about my kids. Specifically, the amount of time I was putting into my work at the expense of time spent with them. From the moment I graduated college, I worked many hours but, given the type of work I was involved in, that’s what I thought was needed and so I just kept putting in the time. I hadn’t mastered the work-life balance that everyone should strive for. Three kids later I was still in the same pattern and I felt like I was missing out on something. I don’t recall the exact words, but I know my initial response to Steve was something along the lines of “I really don’t have the time” and/or “maybe next year.” But to his credit, Steve did not let me off the hook and asked: “What are you waiting for?” It was a question I was asking myself but hadn’t yet come up with a good response. I paused and thought a little more about what he was asking. I had been assisting whenever I could but, for the most part, I’d been letting other parents coach my kids for years. Although I was concerned about the responsibilities that came along with coaching, I told Steve I would do it. I pledged to myself that I’d do whatever it took to make it work.
Since I was out of the game for years I knew I had some work to do to become an effective coach. The league offered coaching clinics that I was more than happy to attend. At one of those, an instructor asked us how we remembered specific coaches from our playing days and how we would want to be remembered. Did you want a child to recall you as a bad coach or the cause of a poor playing experience? Coaching was not all about fundamentals and the dual purpose of working with kids was going to challenge us. Fortunately, the WLL had a lot of good coaches and I was able to work with some amazing people who helped me learn how to teach fundamentals and keep the game fun. It took a little time, but I eventually got more comfortable leading a team and as one season ended I began to look forward to the next. The fact that I was spending more time with my family was a huge bonus.
Just when I thought the coaching experience couldn’t get any better, it did. I was fortunate enough to lead a summer travel baseball team. A couple of other coaches told me that I was about to have the most fun I’d have in a long time. Despite the pressure of playing in a more competitive environment, it was an amazing experience. The players and their parents were wonderful. Our team even won a couple of tournaments and a few playoff games (I am still not fully recovered from that last loss). The journey was something I had never experienced as a child, nor shared with my own father. As it happens, his health was deteriorating during that season, and while the games were not life and death, they helped me to stay positive through some difficult times. Unfortunately, my father passed away last year. I was able to draw on my coaching experience as I gave the eulogy. Among other things, I spoke of life being similar to taking part on a team. You invest so much into the practices, games and traveling and then, suddenly, the season comes to an end. The ending can be painful, yet you can reflect on the memories and recognize an extremely rewarding experience.
This past summer I was fortunate enough to coach another summer team and I was more prepared (or so I thought). We again had a tremendous group of players, all of whom had great moments they will be able to cherish for a long time. A personal one for me was during the last game of our regular season, a rematch vs. a feisty group from Quincy at their field. Surprisingly enough, the park (which also includes a golf course) was located among those same quarries my older brother and I had set out for that fateful day some 30 years ago. Needless to say, I had mixed emotions that week.
I had not visited the site of those quarries since that long ago summer. They are mostly filled in now, courtesy of 12 million tons of dirt from the enormous construction project known as the Big Dig. I recall thinking how I wished it were that easy to fill the void my big brother’s absence had left in my family.
As for the game, my son George was gearing up for this rematch and we even bought a new bat for the occasion. He was a little disappointed that we didn’t have time to break it in before the first pitch, as we focused on team defense during warm-ups. The weather was questionable with storms on the horizon and the game started with the intensity we all expected. The opposing pitcher threw hard but he walked our leadoff batter, bringing George to the plate. My son looked at a first pitch strike down the middle, and I shouted out to him to be ready to see the same pitch again. What happened next I was not expecting. George hit that 2nd pitch to straight-away center field for his first over-the-fence home run. The emotion of the moment did not overwhelm me, but I was feeling something. I also didn’t feel alone in the moment. It didn’t bother me too much that a rainstorm flooded the field the next inning and we never got to finish the game. It also didn’t bother me that it took a couple of weeks for the poison ivy to clear from my arms – a result of the subsequent souvenir baseball search by myself and the coaching staff.
We had dinner at the nearby golf course after the game but I was in a fog. That evening, I sent a note out to friends and former teammates regarding my son’s big hit. Days later, I spoke with one of my sisters regarding the dramatics and I was brought back to words spoken at my father’s funeral. I recalled how my mother would have a response for me when I asked for some form of payment for a random chore. She would often say, “Your reward is not of this earth.” I understood the guidance, but maybe coaching this team was just a special exception.
I didn’t anticipate how rewarding coaching could be. I thought you had to be more of an expert to qualify, but am glad I didn’t make that excuse forever. If you are motivated, you can get help and you may even have some success. Your child may not hit a home run and help you make something positive out of a difficult circumstance, but there are rewards to be had. If you are not as involved in your children’s lives as you’d like to be, coaching is a great opportunity. Thank you to all the coaches and assistants who volunteer their time and talents. Here’s hoping many more will answer the call.