from the Best Coach Ever
I got one of my greatest lessons on life, leadership and God when I was twelve years old. It involved an incident which, in hindsight, ranks among the most significant events in my life. It featured a wise and loving coach and an eager but high-strung and easily discouraged boy. Though neither of us knew it at the time, this lesson might well have shown me my first glimpse of the true face of God, the loving Father.
As a kid, I lived for baseball. My friend Johnny and I played endless hours of wiffle ball, home run derby, 'spectacular catches,' and grounders in the driveway with a tennis ball and racquet. My street was filled with kids my age, and we happily took full advantage of every sport you could play. But none was as special and magical as baseball.
An early growth spurt gave me delusions of grandeur. For a brief and happy span, I was one of the kings of Waukegan Bronco league, part of a team that was highly favored to win it all.
An early season game was hyped as a preview of the championship. I recall being too excited to even eat. Imagine how crushed I was when we were convincingly beaten, thanks to a no-show performance by yours truly, including several errors and strikeouts at key moments with runners in scoring position.
After the game, I was morose and defeated. Our team had a custom of drinking pop together after the game. I sulked in the distance where I could curse and cry alone. At this point, one Mr. Dave Schroetter came forth and showed his worth.
Coach Schroetter was one of those guys you could easily underestimate. He was slightly built, with salt-and-pepper hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and the ubiquitous eighties blue and white, mesh-and-felt ball-cap. He had dark, conspicuous tattoos adorning thin, veiny arms. He drove a beat-up Ford truck jammed with green canvas army-gear bags caked in dust and jammed with bats, helmets, and catcher's gear. He always wore his trademark t-shirt and dragged on a ubiquitous cigarette. From time to time, a salty phrase escaped those lips. He loved going for cold ones after games with the assistant coach. A polished suburban alpha dad, he was not. But, as J.R.R. Tolkien once famously wrote, "all that is gold does not glitter."
Mr Schroetter approached. I braced myself for the worst.
"Charlie!" He barked. "Charlie! Get over here. We need to talk!" I turned; there he was. "Come on. You and me are gonna take a walk." I was filled with shame and dread. Here it comes... Would he bench me? Would I ever play again? Would I ever get a chance to redeem myself?
He began walking me the long way around the field. I appreciated his discretion; if I was in for it, I was glad it would be far from my teammates. To my surprise, he put a hand on my shoulder. His voice was soft and gentle. Everything about him breathed reassurance and tenderness. Which was good, because what he said next was not pretty.
"So you want to tell me what this is all about?"
I began stammering lamely. He did not let me finish.
“You struck out when we needed you most!”
“And you made several errors!”
“So you basically lost the game for us, right!?”
I began wondering where this was going. It didn’t look good.
Try putting yourself in the shoes of an eager-to-please, overly sensitive twelve-year old at that moment. Imagine how easily he could have crushed me. It was a make-it or break-it moment.
At that point, he said something altogether unexpected.
“Well, get over it! Cuz you know what? I don’t care!!”
Huh!? I was young and inexperienced, but I was pretty sure this was not your standard coach's speech.
“That’s right. I don’t care! So you struck out. Several times. You made errors.
We lost. You know what? I don’t care! You know why?”
I hung my head, embarrassed and ashamed.
“Because you are my starting center fielder, that’s why! You are the star of this team! I don’t care if you struck out three times. I don’t care about the errors. You can strike out three more times next game! And the game after that! I don’t care! I don’t even care that we lost. Big deal! It’s the beginning of the season. We’re gonna get em next time. You know why? Because you are my center fielder! Because you are my star. There’s no one in this league that’ I’d rather have than you!”
Words can't describe the blessed feeling that came over me... unlike any other, something I will never forget, liberating and empowering. A huge weight was lifted. Coach believed in me! I was his star! Freedom! I could make a mistake! The pressure was off... I was loved and believed in. Coach said it was all right... I was alright.
Now, some people might criticize this approach. They may say, “give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile.” They may say, “Tough love! How is he ever going to learn? You are breeding mediocrity.”
Thankfully, Coach Schroetter was not “some people.” If he had lashed me at that moment, my baseball career...and perhaps much more... may have ended right there. Thankfully, I’ll never know. What I do know is, old Mr. Schroetter came through. He made a lifetime impact in that one crucial and formative moment.
The wisdom of his approach proved itself throughout the remainder of the season. I went on to play the best baseball of my life. And yes, I am happy to say: (cue Disney music) ...the team won the championship, behind my two-grand slam performance. It was the peak of my baseball career; and, let's be honest, of my young life.
It’s taken a long time and lots of life for me to realize just what Coach Schroetter did that evening. It’s no coincidence I played better after that. I began performing, all right; but from love, not fear. I began playing, not for approval, but from it. And that made all the difference.
I’m not sure where Coach Schroetter stood in his faith. I suspect he had his doubts, demons, and difficulties, like all of us. But he had the love of God in his heart – of that much, I am certain.
While this may seem a stretch, I am a priest, so go with it: I think Coach Schroetter, knowingly or not, showed me a glimpse of God that evening. Many years of pastoral ministry have taught me, further, that seeing this God is what Christianity really is about. True growth, real conversion, only begins when we at last realize how loved we really are. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The theologian Tim Keller has said that, while other religions obey God to gain his favor, Christians receive God’s favor and thus...obey. A subtle distinction, perhaps... but with massive implications. Whether you are playing little league, or playing life.
Mr. Schroetter passed away a few years ago. May he rest in peace. His memory, lesson, and legacy endure: there is a “coach” in me to this day trying to honor his example, trying do for God’s people what this great man once did for his young players. As a new baseball season begins, may every parent, coach, teacher and pastor grow a little in knowledge and love of the God that old Coach Schroetter once showed so clearly and beautifully to a forlorn twelve-year old boy.
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