Monday, May 9, 2011

Lessons from Baseball #4

The manager of my Little League team in 1955 was Jack Caddell. I have mentioned the kind and gentle manner by which my coach had handled both the age issue and the all-star issue with me. Mr. Caddell was a rotund man who owned a restaurant and was able to take off when we had practices and games. In 1960 he founded Jack’s Family Restaurants, Inc. Eventually Jack’s became a hamburger chain with franchises all over the Southeastern United States. Some of you may remember the chain’s jingle, “You’ll go back, back, back, to Jack, Jack, Jack’s, for more, more, more!”

Mr. Caddell was successful in business and in being a Little League coach. He left a lasting impression with me, more by what he was not than what he was. He took a rag-tag team and patiently guided us to improve. He didn’t harangue or berate us. He didn’t yell and scream at us. He didn’t criticize our mistakes. He seemed to be comfortable with the fact that kids make errors. He encouraged us by positive affirmation, a pat on the back, and gentle words of instruction. He taught us in practice, and then let us play the games without constant attempts to correct our mistakes. We “played” baseball without the pressure of winning at any cost. I know nothing about Mr. Caddell’s family or even if he had children of his own. I do know that he had a special gift for caring about the players on his team and investing through us in the future of our community.

I wish I had learned more from Mr. Caddell. Fifteen years later, I became a Little League coach. In February of 1970 I was called as pastor of First Baptist Church in Crothersville, IN. I had just begun my doctoral program in seminary; and during the pre-dissertation stage of my doctoral studies, my summers were free from the 80-mile round-trip week-day travel back and forth to the seminary. My first summer in Crothersville, I was asked to coach a Little League team. The similarities to my Little League experience were amazing. We also had a four-team league. I knew almost none of the boys who tried out for the teams, and the experienced coaches seemed to know just who to pick for their teams. I ended up with a rag-tag bunch much like the 1955 Pels.

We started the season poorly but improved with every game we played. When the end-of-the-season playoffs came, we beat the number 2 team to get into the playoff finals with the number 1 team. The final game was an outstanding example of baseball. The score seesawed back and forth, with our team going ahead in the top of the last inning. The other team tied the score, forcing the game into extra innings. I don’t recall how many extra innings we played, but it finally came down to the last team to bat winning the game—and that was the other team. It wasn’t a Hollywood finish to the season, but I was proud of our team’s struggling from the bottom of the league standings to almost winning the championship game.

I wasn’t a Mr. Caddell-type of coach, however. I was much more verbal, shouting instructions from the bench. I don’t think I berated the players for their mistakes, but words of encouragement when you make mistakes can be misunderstood. I pushed the team to be its best. I think the players had less “fun” than I had as a Little League player, and achieving more probably meant that the players felt more pressure from me as their coach. Maybe I was trying to re-play my own Little League experience through my team, hoping that I could achieve through them the “all star” status that I missed in 1955. Maybe winning is not as important as the other lessons that baseball can teach. I confess that when I see a coach today shouting a lot from the bench, I feel a little uncomfortable. I wonder if they, like me, are over-zealous about winning and if they are trying to re-live their Little League careers through the next generation. Isn’t it amazing that we can see the faults in others that we fail to see in ourselves?

The next spring we adopted our first daughter, and I turned down the invitation to coach again; but the summer of 1970 was one that lives on in my memory. I’ll conclude my reflections on baseball with the next post, comparing my role as coach with my role as pastor of First Baptist Church in Crothersville.

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