I’d coached high school-aged baseball players for years before I started coaching for Koa Sports, a youth sports organization based in Bethesda, Maryland. At thirty years old, I coached a group of rambunctious ten-year-old boys, and ended up spending several seasons with them. I coached them through a lot of fun and a lot of learning. Above all, I coached them with the mentality that the lessons you learn are what matter most. Even more than winning.
At the start of my third straight season with the same group, I quickly found out that they were no longer tiny ten-year-olds. Now, they were “about to grow up” twelve-year-olds, which apparently is the age they start to express frustration by throwing equipment.
That very first weekend of games, several players chucked whatever they could find. Bats. Helmets. Gloves. I let this slide and went home that day without mentioning much to the team. I needed time to consider my approach, something I rarely do. By the time the next practice rolled around, I laid out one of my only hard rules. “If you throw equipment,” I told them, “two things will happen. One, you’ll be taken out of the game. Two, since we bat the whole team, we’ll have to take an automatic out every time your vacated spot comes around in the lineup.”
Nobody threw equipment the next weekend. Or the weekend after that. Or after that. At first, I thought silently, Holy shit, they’re actually following my rule. More than halfway through the season, I shared this sentiment with them. “Even though it’s a real rule, I still can’t believe everyone’s followed it,” I told them before practice one day.
Then came our final weekend of games.
We were down 10-4 in the game when our number three hitter came to bat. A skinny kid with a mop of blond hair, Justin watched what he believed was ball four go by on a 3-1 count. Justin wasn’t wrong – the ball came in above his shoulders. Unfortunately for him, it was called a strike. Now faced with a full count, Justin swung at the next pitch – which really was a strike – and grounded out.
He returned to the dugout and slammed down his helmet. Then he started chucking other things, picking up a water bottle and catcher’s gear in order to throw them. I went in after the inning was over and told Justin that he’d be sitting for the rest of the game.
He started bawling right there on the bench, his bony body heaving up and down. All I could do was sit next to him and try to comfort him. I didn’t want to take him out of the game, but I couldn’t let this slide. Not even a little.
“Can you just let me bat?” he asked.
But I couldn’t. That was the rule. It didn’t matter that he was the third hitter in our lineup.
By the last inning, we were down 14-4. If we got some runners on base, it was possible for Justin’s turn to come up, but ten runs down, the game was basically over. I informed the umpire and the other team’s coach that if Justin’s at-bat came around, we’d be taking an out for it.
Then our players started getting on base. The score became 14-5. Then 14-6. Then 14-7. 14-8. All I could think was, oh shit. Because I could see where this was heading: straight into a meaningful at-bat. As much as I wanted Justin to learn a lesson, I didn’t want him to learn it this much.
When his at-bat came around, the score was 14-9 with the bases loaded and no outs. I called to the umpire that we’d be taking the automatic out, and the umpire signaled and shouted “One out!” Meanwhile, Justin was sobbing on the bench.
Our cleanup hitter then roped a line drive to make it 14-10. But that’s as close as we got. Our next two hitters got out, and we lost the game by four runs with the bases loaded. This left the very obvious question: what would’ve happened had Justin been allowed to bat?
I took my players into left field for our post-game talk and, while I addressed them, Justin sat behind me, sobbing. I talked about how enforcing a rule like that wasn’t something I wanted to do but was something I had to do because if I didn’t, then it wasn’t a real rule. After I was done, the players dispersed, and I plopped down on the grass beside Justin.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Do you just want to get it all out?”
He nodded his head.
By this time in my coaching life, I’d realized that it was okay to give players time until they were ready. Justin’s sobs started to break up as he tried to gather air.
“I’m…I’m such an asshole.”
I almost lost it. In all my years as a coach, this was by far the funniest thing that I’d ever heard a kid say. The kid called himself an asshole. To his coach.
He was right, that’s exactly what he was for letting the team down. More importantly, it was impressive to see him take full ownership. So I refused to coddle him in that moment since doing so would undermine the amount of courage he was showing.
I spoke to him about how he needed to understand the difference between the teammate who throws his helmet and one who encourages his teammates to pick him up by getting a hit. I also told Justin about a game I’d played in a couple years ago when our best player got ejected. We ended up losing in extra innings, and he felt like an asshole when I told him the next day that we would’ve won had he played the whole game. Justin nodded. He understood.
But what truly made this a special experience was, well, let me ask you – do you remember any games you played in when you were twelve? I played in tons of baseball games, yet I can’t remember much except for a few snapshots. That game would be just like that for the kids I coached. None of them were going to remember much of it.
Except for Justin. He might actually remember the game in which he was benched for throwing his equipment. He might actually remember that because of his behavior, he wasn’t allowed to bat at a crucial time in the game. He might actually remember that the automatic out we took cost his team the chance of achieving an improbable comeback.
He might actually remember this experience, which turned an otherwise forgettable game into a lesson that he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life. That’s not a part of the game you can keep score of because it’s the part that’s more important than winning.