Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Bum’s Rush?

There once was a coach they called Donnie…sounds like the start of a limerick you’d be leery to repeat in mixed company, doesn’t it?

It’s actually the beginning of a cautionary tale.

I’d gotten myself selected to the Board of Directors for the Softball side of things at the Dad’s Club where our kids had begun playing ball. Coach Donnie’s daughter was a pretty good pitcher in the age group my daughter was moving up to, but Dee got drafted to a team with pretty easy-going coaches, similar to the woman who’d coached her 10-and-under team the year before.

Donnie was coaching his kid’s team, but there had been a concern or two expressed by some of the old hands on the Board before his approval. A win-at-all-costs attitude and tendency to dispute umpire rulings (though he himself was certified and called some ball) created reluctance and essentially just conditional approval.

The season was exciting and competitive – respectable pitching, some pretty darn good athletes, quite a few of whom had been around the game for some time. It was a lot of fun. Dee more than held her own, even though she was only beginning to learn the nuances of the sport. One time she got a walk-off hit, solid shot to the outfield, the winning run could have crawled home. As the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat was unfolding on the field, there was Dee, amidst the throng, still vigorously rounding the bases, determined to score, oblivious to the fact that the game was, ya know, over.

The best and most serious ballers comprised a talented and successful All-Star team, even qualifying to participate in a minor national tournament.

The periodic gatherings of the Board during the season included up-dates on all the various leagues. When it was reported that Coach Donnie had been behaving himself, it almost seemed as if there was as much disappointment in the room as relief. Some of those folk simply didn’t like that man.

It’s customary in youth ball for the coach of the first place team to become the coach of the All-Stars. In this instance, the husband-and-wife tag team who’d led Dee’s team to the championship was unavailable. You already know who was next-in-line, right? Donnie was ready to take the team and run with it – he recognized the talent on hand, especially on the pitching front. He was connected and respected enough to find a couple of preliminary tournaments for the team before the Metro Championships, even had come up with a sponsor to foot the bill.

Some Board members remained hesitant to offer their approval, theorizing that it’s one thing to allow a problem child to play in the backyard, quite another to turn him loose in public. But since no one harboring such reservations was willing to fight that fight, Donnie was again conditionally approved – now he was on Double-Secret Probation, I guess.

Donnie was a great coach, passionate about teaching the game and prepared to do so. Dee was seeing and playing the game a whole new way – and loving every minute of it. The team as a whole responded well to his approach and it showed in their play. While Coach’s game face was a grim mask and he did grumble over a close call or two, his conduct and demeanor were impeccable – for a softball coach, anyway.

Until…my kid went and ran herself into an out at third base during the Regional Tournament. Maybe Dee got around the tag, maybe she didn’t. From his perch in the coach’s box, Donnie was in the umpire’s ear in no time. He wasn’t way out of line, but his protest was vigorous…then it was over. The game went on, the kids finished well enough to qualify for the afore-mentioned Nationals.

But not before the Board – finally – was ready to take some action.

Coach Donnie was summoned and summarily dismissed. An assistant coach had already agreed to take the helm for the last leg of the journey. Several moms became involved to see that Donnie’s daughter remain with the team.

I’d cross paths with Donnie from time to time over the ensuing years, most often at an umpire’s certification clinic. A silent nod or brief “Hey!” was about the extent of our interaction – though he did resolve an issue two or three of us were once debating. Game face in place, he grumbled, “Bah, you can never call an infield fly on a bunt.” An “Aha” in three-part (dis)harmony was being heard as Donnie kept right on steppin’.

I was always uneasy when I’d see him, uncomfortable over my complicity in a reactionary “Gotcha!” Not that I could have altered the outcome, mind you.

But with the perspective of hindsight, this can and should be said. Never – not on the field or at the subsequent meeting – did he criticize the player (my kid) for a poor base-running decision. If anything, he had her back.

The final ironic twist to this little tale played out several years later. Two members of that contentious governing body came under suspicion regarding the misuse of Association funds.

I see some parallels between this grass-roots parable and THE Association’s current Clipper conundrum – set to come to a head next week at, of all things, a Board meeting.

There’s a feel of “Reactionary Gotcha!” to the owners’ expected-to-be overwhelming if not unanimous vote to oust Donald Sterling from their Dad’s Club. Despicably unfair housing practices? Own away, Donnie. The surreptitiously-recorded ramblings of a faltering old man? Go for the jugular!

Mark Cuban’s public support for the Commissioner’s actions has included cautions of a “slippery slope” as well as a reminder of how easy it is to misspeak insensitively.

Slippery slope, indeed…adorned with hidden passages, closets and skeletons.

The Moral to this Abacus Fable might be best put like so:

If there's fire, go get a hose.
If not, don't be blowin' no smoke.