I was about nine years old when my parents would come home from work, shut their bedroom door behind them, and start arguing. There wasn’t a pillow large enough that could hide me from the sound. Parents try preparing their children for everything, but not this. I’d leave the house to the nearby junior high where boys my same age practiced baseball. You’d hear things like, “Two down,” from the chubby one with gear on behind home plate; his index and pinky fingers high in the sky. “Play’s at first,” from the kid who stood left of 2nd base, signaling to the other infielders. I’m not even sure I liked baseball but it was better than being home.
I didn’t know what days they practiced. Instead of asking, I would walk to the school to check every day. I was always disappointed to see an empty field or that it was being used for soccer. It was my reason to not be home; without it, I worried. As a boy, I didn’t know what divorce was. I didn’t know anything other than mom, dad, sisters and brother. Sisters were older, understanding a little more about what was happening. Brother was younger, still trying to figure out how to tie his own shoes. I was in the middle somewhere, knowing something was up and it was about to go down.
One day I walked over to the fields and sat back down on the water-damaged wooden bench. The players were there but I noticed they were one short, not quite enough for a full team. The coach walked over to me and asked if I wanted to play. I told him I didn’t know how but he didn’t care. He threw me a glove and told me to go warm up with the team. No bat, no ball, no cleats, no bag, and no hat. It was shorts, a t-shirt, a pair of British Knights, and all the knowledge gained in t-ball. I was the Scotty Smalls, far from being a Benny. After practice, the coach said to be at the game on Saturday. It was their last game of the season, my first game ever.
I remember running home to tell my parents but my mom left the house already. She found love in someone else; my dad did too. Within weeks, four new (soon to be) stepsiblings entered my life. Monday through Wednesday with my dad; Thursday through Sunday with my mom; they’d live 45 minutes apart. The best was the car rides, facing backwards in the very back of my mom’s blue station wagon, listening her sing with the Beach Boys with a sense of freedom in her voice. My younger brother and I would spend hours in the car every week, watching everything travel in reverse as we moved forward.
My mom settled in her new town and she signed me up for baseball; my stepdad to be the assistant coach. We had our normal practice, baking under California’s Central Valley sun in the middle of summer, looking forward to popsicles and swimming pools while muddy sweat dripped down our faces. My stepdad took it further, practicing with me on weekends, throwing pitch after pitch giving me bat after bat. He taught me the mechanics of being a pitcher, the reason for the leg lift, the hip turn and finding my rhythm. He wasn’t a fan of curveballs (or junk, as some call it). He wanted me to throw hard and straight. He taught me to pick my locations and understand what the batter likes to swing at. We had a great season that year and it was a great way for us to bond.
After the season ended he took me to the high school track and field so he could run laps. My brother and I were playing on the football tackling dummies, the ones with the large sleds on the back, impossible for us to move. My stepdad completed his run and jogged over. He saw us struggling to push the sled an inch so he offered to show us how it worked. I stood on the back, not holding on the straps, and when he hit it, I fell off, falling underneath the uplifted sled and watching it come down on my left leg. Broke both leg bones clean through. It was the most pain I’ve ever felt in my ten years. He carried me to the same fence we had to climb over to sneak in. We were on the opposite side of town from my mom. I sat in the back of our new minivan sprawled across the 2nd row of seats. When my stepdad ran inside to get my mom I told my brother, “If I die, you can have all my toys.” I was serious. I thought I was going to die.
Even though my stepdad broke my leg, there wouldn’t be another person in the world I’d want to break it. If anyone earned the right, he did. If there was a book on How to be a Stepdad, he’d be the author. I was very fortunate to have him in my life for the years that I did. He coached me in football as well, he didn’t let me disrespect my mom, and he was always sensible about things. Not once did I ever hear him talk bad about my dad or my stepmom. He was the coach asking me to play with him. He refused to let me be anything other than just a child.
That was over 20 years ago. Now that I’ve put my rookie season behind me as a coach myself, I get it. It wasn’t because my stepdad loved me so much that he dropped everything for me. It wasn’t because he was trying to get into my mom’s pants. It wasn’t because he felt obligated, or he was trying to impress anyone. He simply loved the same game I did and he didn’t like sitting around talking about it. We went out and did it. Stepdad or not, he was, and always will be, my coach.
You might be the boyfriend, the stepdad, or even the dad. You could be a grandpa, an uncle, or a family friend. You might be the neighbor, the gardener, or the mailman. If you ever consider coaching, I highly encourage it. You’re not a therapist, you’re not going to “fix” anyone. All it takes is finding a group of kids that love something as much as you do. In coaching, even if you fail, you still win.
This particular blog goes out to the 2014 Northwest Baseball Champion Yankees. Not many first-year coaches can say they won the championship but I can. I thank the team for that.
NOTE: Please consider contributing to my crowdfunding campaign, Genesis, a free mobile method of communication for single and separated parents. You can CLICK HERE to get to the campaign. I’d really appreciate your support. – Jon Vaughn