It was a hot day in late June of 1970 when the Expos of the Manor Boys Baseball League in Rockville, Maryland lost their final game of the season to the Cubs. The defeat was their eleventh in fourteen games that spring, easily the worst record in the MBBL National League.
Coach Bruce Kenney called his young charges around him for the last time. He told them he had been proud to be their coach. He told them he was especially proud that every single member of the team had shown up for this final game, even though it had no bearing on the final standings. He told them to have a good summer.
As his black-shirted team began to scatter for the final time, he called out, “Thanks boys. I had fun.”
I was one of those black-shirted players, and I wanted to go over to Coach Kenney, shake his hand and tell him I’d had fun, too. But, like most 12-year old boys, I wasn’t good at telling what was in my heart and the thank you went unexpressed.
I didn’t know it then, but I had a lot to thank Coach Kenney for. It is this I believe: of all the things I can give to children, my own or others, encouragement – honest-to-goodness, more-than-words encouragement – is the most valuable and the most lasting.
Perhaps we should learn that from our parents. Mine, at least, never failed to encourage me in every way possible. But I recognize that because I learned the lesson from a baseball coach when I was 12-years old. And ever since, that coach has held a seat at my personal table of elders.
The fact is I stunk at baseball. But Coach Kenney either didn’t notice, or just didn’t care. He coached me like I was good. He put me in the starting lineup. And one glorious night, as Coach Kenney read out the batting order, my name was first. It was the only time in my life I was ever given the privilege of leading off. That’s more-than-words encouragement. And that stays with you.
I’ve been volunteering as a coach myself now for over 25 years. And I’ve never forgotten what Coach Kenny taught me — that geeky, awkward kids often love the game more than kids who play it a whole lot better.
One night – 22 years after the most memorable springtime of my childhood — I read off the lineup for a softball team I was coaching in Nashville, Tennessee. That evening, I had chosen one of our younger, more awkward players to lead-off.
When I read her name at the top of the list, I saw the familiar reaction: the jaw-dropping surprise, the bewildered look around to make sure she’d heard right. And then, the joyous call to her mother: “Mama, he thinks I’m good enough to bat first!” I thought to myself, Coach Kenney had made another child’s night and I wondered if that feeling would stay with her as it has with me.
Thank you, Coach Kenney. I had fun, too. You were the best coach I ever had.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.