Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Stealing Home

Sports build character, Joseph C. Phillips writes in a column ahead of Father’s Day, but character is not built merely by picking up a ball. “Character must be taught,” he says. “And to whom does the duty fall? The youth coach.”

Put me down as skeptical. After coaching my sons’ Little League team this spring, I have concluded that sports do not build character so much as reveal it. Besides, a coach is too busy with his real job—teaching the fundamentals of a very hard game—to have any time to spare for moral lessons. Far more significant is that, according to Phillips, eight-five percent of the forty to fifty million kids who participate in youth sports every year are coached by the father of a player on their team. Maybe coaching is simply another way of being a father.

The only novel about the subject, as far as I know, is Stealing Home by the late Philip F. O’Connor. This time last year I pronounced it one of the Five Books of baseball. But it is more than that. On Father’s Day a year ago I complained about the scarcity of novels from a father’s perspective. Stealing Home is one of the few. Originally published in 1979 when O’Connor was forty-seven, it’s easily the best novel ever written about Little League baseball. The main difference between it and the more recent and better-known book about Little League—Michael Chabon’s Summerland—is the presence of the coach and father.

O’Connor does not mythologize baseball either. Instead of a magical bat which is a splinter off the Tree of Life, there are equipment problems. Benjamin Dunne, the bookstore owner who coaches Gray’s Cleaners, must shell out for new balls, a catcher’s mask, shin guards, and batting helmets. Nor is Stealing Home set in a magical realm between the gods and winter, but in a small Ohio city south of Toledo. (O’Connor taught for nearly three decades at Bowling Green State University, twenty-five miles south of Toledo.)

And the problems are human problems. Benjamin’s son Bobo is embarrassed by his father and asks to be traded. The team’s pitcher wrenches his ankle on the first day of practice, and the best player quits, saying that he doesn’t want to play for Benjamin (his real reason is more disturbing). Meanwhile, Benjamin’s store and marriage are failing, and when the divorced mother of one of his players makes it clear that she is available and willing, Benjamin tumbles into an affair with her. But his personal problems interrupt the baseball rather than vice versa. The Gray’s lose their first game by 4 to 2 to last season’s champs. “They was supposed to be better this year,” the shortstop says after the game. “They ain’t better,” says the first baseman. “Maybe they are,” Bobo replies. “Maybe we’re just better than we thought.”

Although they were the “Pee Wee League version of the original New York Mets” a year earlier, the new Gray’s under Benjamin’s guidance are good enough to challenge for the league title. Stealing Home traces their progress while Benjamin juggles the players’ troubles and his own. The boys’ personalities, and what they face at home, affect their performance on the field just as much as their talent for playing ball. This is the side of youth coaching that no one tells you about in advance. And it may also be the biggest difference between amateur baseball and the professional sport. Toss in interfering or indifferent parents and opposing coaches who take themselves too seriously—Benjamin calls them the “dandies”—and the result is an unstable mix.

As the Gray’s begin to come together as a team, they begin to have more confidence in Benjamin. But he does not make the mistake of exaggerating his importance: “Except for Bobo, he doesn’t want to be a father to any of them,” he thinks. He confines himself to coaching hints: “Try to watch the ball hit your bat.” And he “kills off the temptation” to deliver speeches about courage and discipline, knowing that they would probably hurt more than help.

What really turns things around, though, is when Benjamin’s relationship with his own son starts to improve. Early in the season, Benjamin gets a look from Bobo as if his pants were around his ankles when he says something “embarrassing.” But when Bobo stands up for his father against the team’s best hitter, the Gray’s start winning.

Something similar happened earlier this spring to the Camp Young Judaea Tigers. In the first days of the season, my seven-year-old son Saul took a ball off the chest. For weeks thereafter, he was too frightened to “hang in” the batter’s box against pitches. Toward the end of the season, though, he was able to overcome his fear. When Saul started hitting line-drives, the Tigers began to put together three- and four-run rallies.

The baseball action in Stealing Home is surprisingly well-described. You don’t expect Little League baseball to be very exciting, but O’Connor makes it so. The best thing about the novel, however, is how O’Connor shows that the game makes demands upon players and coaches alike, which prevent them from brooding over their off-field problems or kicking or congratulating themselves too much. Perhaps a good father ought to be more like a good coach, and offer only the instructions, moral or otherwise, that he himself can demonstrate.


Tommish said...

Young Saul isn't alone in getting gun shy after getting beaned. Hell, it even happens in the bigs. Sammy Sosa hit a six week slump in 2003 that shed over 100 points off his average after an errant pitch smacked his head, shattering his batting helmet (and his confidence). I applaud Saul's tenacity for fighting through it.

R/T said...

You say that baseball, as one sport, does not build character. You then say "the game makes demands upon players." Do not the demands include the potential for improvement of character, at least in terms of a person's conformity to baseball's precise rules and the game's warm embrace of sportsmanship? If players, coaches, and managers lack the necessary character, or if they do not improve their character (i.e., conform), then they are not likely to be involved very long in organized baseball. Compared to other organized team sports (and excepting the honesty and character demanded in golf), I would say that baseball is, in fact, one of the sports in which the improvement of character is encouraged.

(And so you have some thoughts from a veteran bench warmer. On a different personal note, I hope is well as you endure the hassles of moving. Hang in there!)