Tonight I Cried
In the spring of 2004 I was a member of the Board of Directors at Bloomingdale Little League, when my youngest of 3 sons, Jake signed up to play in the machine pitch league. He was 6 years old. I was already coaching my oldest son, Ty, and my middle son, Ryan’s little league teams, so I decided not to be the head coach of Jake’s team.
But on the morning of the tryout, I attended and stood against the fence down the right field line, clipboard in hand, and watched. Why would a non-coach need a clipboard at a tryout?
I had an ulterior motive.
I had gotten together with the fathers of 2 standout T-Ballers, Tyler Bakich and Dylan Strickland, and we had decided to start an 8u travel ball team, even though our sons were only 6 and 7. We were to become known as Bullets Baseball (Later other Bullets teams were added on our age group, so we added the word “Gold” to our name).
As the tryout ended, I casually approached the parents of many of the more talented players, quietly told them of our plans, and invited them to our tryout the following Sunday. We also invited a few players we had heard about from surrounding Little Leagues
Among those first recruits were Doug Sandberg, Jared Gross, Justin Nardello, Jonathan Register, Bo Kelley, Mike Demarest, Luke Moore, Brandon Colbert, Jarod Grimes, and Sean O’Steen.
During the Bullets tryout, Doug Sandberg, who would later become an outstanding high school center fielder, got hit in the nose with a fly ball and had to go to the Emergency Room. We put him on the team any way, mainly because he could run like a deer. The rest of the year, we conducted all our fly ball practice with tennis balls.
The first season (we were playing up a year), we went 1-12.
We knew we weren’t yet good enough to win, so we changed our goals a little. If we didn’t get mercy ruled, all the families went to dinner and celebrated. I remember before one game offering to take the entire team out for ice cream if any outfielder caught a fly ball.
I think it was Luke Moore that had one land in his glove by accident.
You’d have thought we had won the World Series.
The ice cream was delicious.
When the next season began, we were more ready, but we were still weren’t great. I knew the teams we played would be more talented, so our only hope was to pitch well, play great defense, and play as a team. We practiced, drilling the fundamentals 3 days per week, and we made some great progress.
About that time I purchased a DVD by famous LSU baseball coach, Skip Bertman, called “Winning the Big One”, and I bought the classic ABCA Coaches Bible that featured a chapter by Coach Bertman. In both works, Coach Bertman shared the secrets to his teams’ successes, and for success in life – creating synergy through rust and teamwork.
Coach Bertman used a variety of techniques and stories to create team trust and chemistry. I was completely mesmerized and sold on the idea, so I stole and deployed every story, from the Fighter Pilot, to the Mule Pulling Contest, to The 3 Doors, to the Crystal Ball of trust, and Hold the Rope. I even researched and wrote a few stories of my own, and set out to build a team that would bond together and thrive in the face of adversity by loving each other.
The results were amazing.
The synergy we created helped us to actually start winning games… a lot of them… against teams far more talented than us. Over the years, some players left the team, and we added others. Cade Kelley joined us, as did Austin Bergner, Wes Davis, Logan Crouse, Drayden Williams and Keshawn Lynch, Patrick O’Donnell, Danny Miller, Brandon Ray, and Bryan Thomas (whom we nicknamed Moose).
One year, when we were 9 or 10 years old, we went 26-3. All 3 losses were to the same pitcher, Reeves Martin. The next year he was on our team. 🙂
Our shortstop, Justin Nardello, was my son’s best friend, and at age 9, on the day we won a championship at a tournament, we got the news that his mother — the heart, soul, and inspiration of our team had died of cancer.
For a year after that, I drove Justin to practice every day. Obviously saddened by his mother’s death, as were we all, Justin hardly said a word until one day, while Jake was asleep in the back seat, he turned to me and spoke.
“Coach, Jake and I got kicked out of class today.”
“Really?” I replied, “What happened Just?”
“Well,” he said. “The teacher was talking about the solar system and the planets, and she said ‘Uranus is a gas giant.’, and Jake and I couldn’t stop laughing, so she made us sit in the hall.”
I laughed out loud and said, “Buddy, I think I would have been kicked out of class too.”
As we improved and our team chemistry skyrocketed, we won a ton of games, and competed toe-to-toe in our age group with some of the best players in the country, When our boys reached 12u, we won the AAU National Championship, earning the opportunity to play in the National Youth Baseball Championship on the MLB Network.
When high school rolled around the team split up and went on to play for several different local program.
This year, many of the original Bullets were Seniors, and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting quietly and proudly in the stands, watching as many of them became top performers on their teams.
Jake, Cade, and Justin stayed together to make up the middle of a strong core group at Durant High School. Justin and Cade are senior SS and 2b respectively, and Jake is a junior catcher. Those 3 have had the privilege of playing for a coaching staff understands the value of what Skip Bertman called “synergy.” The idea that when a group of young men bond together in the spirit of trust and love, a special, mystical force appears that makes the group greater in total than the sum of their parts.
The coaching staff works hard to foster an environment where the players love each other and compete as whole for the sake of the guys next to them.
Tonight, I watched that team win on love alone.
In the FL 7A regional final, the Durant Cougars faced a team that, man-for-man, was bigger, stronger and more talented. In a 5 game series, our boys would probably lose 4. But in this tournament we only needed to win one game to advance.
As I said, tonight I watched a team win on love alone.
The Cougars rallied from a 2-0 deficit late in the game and won 5-3.
It was a joy to see.
After the game, Justin, who is now 6’2” and a defensive wizard, hugged me and said, “Coach, we’ve been winning since we were 7. That’s all we know.”
And that’s when I cried.
P.S. And best wishes to the Durant Cougars baseball team as they chase down their first ever state championship .
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