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LIFE WITH FATHER WHEN DAD COACHES SON, AN UNSAVORY KIND OF HARDBALL MAY BE THE RESULT

June 24, 1996
June 24, 1996

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June 24, 1996

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College Basketball [bonus Piece]

LIFE WITH FATHER WHEN DAD COACHES SON, AN UNSAVORY KIND OF HARDBALL MAY BE THE RESULT

One of my neighbors, a sincere young guy named Derek, recently
approached me for advice on a specialized aspect of father-son
relationships. That he should approach me about any aspect of
parenting is remarkable, considering that Derek has actually met
Graig, the 19-year-old product of my own efforts in this area.
But Derek's options were limited: He was considering coaching
his seven-year-old, Chad, in Little League. And given the
decadelong record I compiled as a father-coach (I won a league
title, came in second once and coached several All-Star teams)
before hanging up my lineup card for good last season, he
wondered if I might have any words of wisdom.

This is an article from the June 24, 1996 issue

There was a lot I could have said, and maybe should have said,
to Derek, but his request aroused mixed emotions. On the one
hand, well, he did ask. On the other, he was just so bright-eyed
and eager that I didn't want to make him feel unduly neurotic
about something I knew he was going to undertake anyway. In the
end I merely whittled down the insights of my lengthy service as
my son's coach to these points:

First, this was not a decision to be made on impulse. Anyone
considering this step should spend a summer at the ball field,
observing such relationships up close and personal.

Second, there should be a special plea available to fathers who
do bodily harm to their sons as a consequence of coaching them
in youth sports--something along the lines of "assault with an
explanation."

Derek began to laugh and then, noting that my face remained set
and unsmiling, thanked me and walked away. I don't know what he
made of me, but he is careful not to leave me alone with his son
these days.

In their attempts to shed light on the father-son coaching
relationship, sports psychologists invest a lot of time in
constructing intricate behavioral models, most of which reduce
to the fact that both man and boy lug much more than the
equipment with them when they travel from the home to the ball
field.

Sometimes the spillover from home is unmistakable: I think of
the day my frowning nine-year-old folded his arms over his chest
and plopped down in the outfield in protest over my refusal to
buy him a Slurpee before the game. More often the link between
cause and effect is foggy. On one occasion, when Graig, normally
a hard thrower, was 14, I yelled out to the mound that he didn't
seem to have much on the ball. "Come on, dammit!" I shouted.
"Chow [the family mutt] could hit that crap!" He glared at me,
and his pitches began arcing toward the plate in a high, defiant
softball lob. I yanked him at once, he stormed into the dugout,
and it was only when we talked about things days later that I
recognized the depths of the emotional morass I had carelessly
wandered into. "You say something about everything I do," Graig
sniffed. "With my homework, if the answers are right, you
complain about the penmanship. When I mow the lawn, you always
tell me I missed a spot. Why can't you ever just accept that I'm
doing the best I can?"

It's true that a coach's son struggles with his father's
shifting identities. And that's sad. But it is equally true that
kids can be world-class manipulators. Sensing that their
fathers, too, are far from comfortable with the situation, they
respond with the unerring, I've-got-you-over-a-barrel instincts
of, say, a woman you love very much who knows she has caught you
doing something you hoped never to be caught doing.

And that's infuriating.

Typically, a coach's kid wants all the special rewards of having
a coach who is also his father but is reluctant to accept any of
the special burdens of having a father who is also his coach.
His advantage-seeking is expressed in countless ways large and
small--from demanding "just one more pitch" during batting
practice to lobbying to be penciled in at a glamour position
such as shortstop regardless of whether he can actually stop,
oh, one out of every four ground balls.

Coaches' kids reject the notion that this favoritism should come
at the cost of any added responsibility. Graig despised my
constant reminders to "set a good example." His chronic
complaint was that he wanted to be "a member of the team just
like everyone else." (Except expecting to pitch regularly, bat
third or fourth and have the green light to steal at will even
though the backstop would have beaten him in a footrace.)

The successful management of such schizophrenia requires of
father-coaches an even-temperedness bordering on the divine.
Further complicating matters is that we fathers are not quite
sure how "professional" we want the on-field relationship with
our sons to be. The identification between man and boy, after
all, is never so close as on the athletic field, where the kids
become walking advertisements for the potency of the father's
testosterone. Any other child strikes out with the bases jammed,
and you pat him on the fanny and say, "Tough break." The one
time Graig watched a close pitch sail by for strike 3 in a
championship game, stranding the tying run, I did not say,
"Tough break." I meant to say it. Honest. I even formed the
words. But something diabolical took hold of my larynx, and what
I heard come out instead was, "How could you take a pitch that
close with two strikes on you?" Then I kicked myself over it for
the rest of the weekend.

Of course, my behavior toward Graig, like that of most
father-coaches toward their sons, was marked by erratic cycles
of indulgence and volatility. I would let him goad me, push me
to the limit. I would look the other way as he cut up and did
his best to undermine my authority over the team. All of this I
would let slide until I would explode at him in a rage far out
of proportion to the stimulus of the moment.

The worst of these eruptions came during the last year I coached
Graig, when he was 15. We were having batting practice on a
languorous afternoon in late May. Nobody felt like being there,
yours truly included. It was too hot, too humid. But the team
hadn't been hitting, and it struck me as a lousy time to be
canceling a scheduled workout.

Wise guy that he is, Graig decided to liven things up. I would
yell instructions to the batter, and from behind me I would hear
my words repeated in this moronic voice that brought to mind
Bullwinkle from Rocky and His Friends.

It took awhile, but I finally got so fed up with the lame echo
from deep short that I whirled on the pitcher's mound and fired
my best fastball in Graig's direction. It was an act I regretted
at once, even before the ball had completely left my grip. But
it was too late.

What happened next took a split second. And yet, amazingly,
there was time enough for me to be aware of several things.

I was aware that around me, everything--everything--had ceased.
There was no movement, no sound, no nothing.

I was aware of feeling more helpless than I had ever felt in my
life.

And I was aware, in that terrifying instant before impact, that
I could no longer see my son's mouth because it had been
eclipsed by--and was about to merge with--the speeding ball in
flight.

Graig was standing no more than 30 feet away. Had he not been
looking directly at me and had he not been able to get his glove
up in the nick of time, I might now be occupying the Bing Crosby
chair at the College of Dubious Parenting.

As it developed, he made the catch cleanly and no damage was
done. He just stood there for 10 or 15 seconds, holding the
glove right where he had intercepted the ball, like a catcher
giving the umpire a long look at a close pitch. His facial
expression was a curious hybrid: half fear, half mirth. Several
of the other kids, meanwhile, were staring at me with mouths
agape, no doubt wondering what their psychotic coach might do
for an encore.

I felt awful, ashamed. Above all, I was sickened by a thought
that kept nagging at me for months afterward: What I had just
done was not something you did to anybody's kid but your own.
Graig had come within a whisker of being maimed, solely because
he was the coach's kid.

Somehow we put that incident behind us and finished the season
without trying to throttle one another. That winter Graig and I
decided to go our separate ways. I would stay with our current
team; he would graduate to "colt" ball, with a different coach.
We both knew it was better this way.

I now ask myself whether I have a moral obligation to share
these reminiscences with Derek. Should I tell him that when you
are your son's coach, you are always your son's coach, even late
at night and hours removed from the field? Should I tell Derek
that as long as a son's coach remains his son's coach, the two
of them will never be able to watch a ball game together in an
unspoiled, purely recreational way? That the son's coach will
find himself turning every play into an instructional video or
an opportunity to critique the son's skills?

Maybe I should just tell Derek how much nicer it was for Graig
and me after the breakup. In particular, I would tell him about
the catch we had before the next season's tryouts. We threw
freely, easily, without pressure. No longer were we coach and
player. For the first time since Graig left kindergarten
(kindergarten!), we were just a boy and his dad tossing a ball
around in the sun.

Then I watched Graig go out and pound the horsehide, make
graceful running catch after running catch and fire strikes to
second base from the depths of the outfield. And you know what?
Beaming on the sidelines, I thought, I wouldn't mind having that
kid on my team.

Steve Salerno is the publisher and editor-in-chief of American
Legion Magazine.

TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOM CURRY [Boy sitting down and man with baseball; man throwing baseball to boy]