Happy Father’s Day, if you’re a father.
I’m a father to two rotten puppies and two old cats. They won’t be able to take care of me when I’m old, but them’s the breaks.
I have thousands of stories about my own father.
I’ve told him that when the Lord finally calls him home to his eternal rest, the funeral service will be quite lengthy because stories about Tom Smith are plentiful, and nearly all of them are hilarious.
Today, however, I’d like to focus on my memories of Dad as “Coach Smith.” I played baseball from the time I was 9 or 10 until I was 15. I played on youth league teams because I wasn’t good enough for varsity sports. Heck, I wasn’t really good enough for youth league. I was at least enthusiastic, most of the time.
My dad helped with every team I ever played for. If he wasn’t coaching, he’d bring a cooler of Cokes for after the game. If he wasn’t coaching from the dugout, he coached from afar.
“What are you swinging at?!?” I’d hear his voice bellow from behind the fence.
“God-a-mighty knows!” he’d yell if I stupidly swung at a ball over my head.
“Hustle up!” he’d yell if I got walked.
To his credit, Dad never gave up on his dream that I might some day be shaped into a major league-grade talent, despite the fact that I was a slow, chubby kid with slow, chubby kid bat speed. He’d regularly take me to the batting cages to hit balls, or we’d go to a field and he’d throw batting practice until his arm got tired.
I eventually became a decent hitter of little league junk ball pitching. If a kid was on the mound who had a decent heater, it was lights-out for me. I had a decent amount of singles my last two or three years, but — being no threat on the base paths — I can remember hitting one double my entire career. That may have been because the ball rolled under a fence.
I can’t think of a game my dad ever missed. He worked second shift at the Anniston Army Depot and would leave work in time to pick me up and take me to a game. Of course, an integral part of the experience was the car ride home after the game, when I would be asked about why I swung at a certain pitch or why I was caught looking on strike three.
My answers were rarely satisfactory.
Maybe my favorite baseball team was my 14-year-old team. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Bad News Bears,” you’d have a good idea what this team was like.
It was the only team I ever played for where my dad was the head coach. Because of that, he got to participate in a “draft” of available players. I never asked where I fell in the draft, but I assumed I was somewhere near the bottom.
My dad did not choose the top-tier talent. He mostly chose the kids who made him laugh, because monkeying with his players was just as important to him as winning a game. It’s a good thing, too, because we only won two games that year, both of which were because two opponents forfeited.
Yes, two teams forfeited to the worst team in the league because they didn’t have enough players to field a team. I’m pretty sure our team of 12 could have been easily beaten by a team of only six.
It was a motley crew of misfits, this team. We couldn’t pitch, hit or run the bases very well. To say I was usually the fifth or sixth hitter in the lineup is really saying something, considering I should have been batting seventh or eighth. That’s not because my dad was the coach; that’s because I was one of the better hitters on the team.
Dad was smart enough to realize that my work in the outfield was even more suspect than my hitting, so I became a de facto designated hitter. The league, however, required every player play at least one inning in the field, but my dad somehow found a way to shuck and jive the scorekeepers and make them believe I had in fact played in the field. I guess it was because I wasn’t the only chubby kid on the team.
The team was truly terrible. Scores were lopsided. Every defeat was humiliating.
Had I been the coach, I would have thrown in the towel after a few rear-kickings, but Dad didn’t. He kept trying to work with us and make us better. He’d throw with us and occasionally throw balls at us. He’d tell us to “hustle up” if we were lollygagging. He’d tell us to “shake it off” if we hurt ourselves. He’d laugh at our chronic goofiness and ask why we made a particularly stupid mistake, as if we had an answer.
He was not unlike Morris Buttermaker, the Bad News Bears coach played by Walter Matthau. He probably would have drank beers in the dugout if he could have gotten away with it.
No matter how bad we were, he made us go shake hands with the other team and say, “Good game.” No matter how bad I was, he’d keep working with me.
“It’s all in the wrists,” he’d tell me after I’d swing and miss another pitch. “Quit stepping out. Keep your eye on the ball.”
When I’d finally connect with one on that sweet spot of the bat, he’d say, “Good lick.”
Coach Smith was also my dad, but I think he was — in some ways — a dad to all the boys on the team. I didn’t realize at the time the other players likely had home lives that weren’t so great. Some kids had dads who didn’t care about them, some didn’t have dads at all, and some had stepdads who didn’t care. I erroneously assumed my dad was just doing what dads do.
Now that I’m older, I know better. I now know the time he gave us, the instruction (often dotted by off-color language) and the occasional berating set him apart from other dads. In fact, it’s what made him a father and not just a dad.
In many ways, I’m all the better for it. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
— Editor Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.