It’s the top of the 6th inning in the 10U Minnesota State Baseball Tournament, and the sweltering July heat had both teams fighting for survival as to which side can outlast the other. The score is tied 7-7. The table is set for one group to continue into the next round of the double-elimination tournament; the other will close out their season on a loss.
We strike first with a walk, a stolen base and then a bloop single over the shortstop’s glove to take the lead 8-7. The boys were ecstatic with emotion, and the coaching staff was joyful too. I was the head coach and as joyful as I was, I had a dilemma brewing that was going to be unpopular with many. But, it was also going to be a test of my own beliefs as a coach, life teacher and person.
The dilemma was how to deal with a promise I made to a player who wanted to pitch in this game verses the possibility of winning the game. This player was everything I root for as a coach. He was undersized and slow, but displays the will and effort of someone who truly loves the game. What he lacks in skill, he makes up with his love for teammates and a smile that is contagious.
The logical approach at this point in the game is to bring in your best pitcher to give you the best odds of winning. The player I made the promise to was at the bottom of the list of pitchers we had. His work over the season consisted of pitching in non-pressure situations against opponents far inferior to what was about to happen. As the kids are still celebrating the go-ahead run with helmet taps, butt slaps and high fives, I turn to the player I made the promise to and said, “Collin, hurry up and warm up.” As soon as those words came from my mouth, the air of joy coming from my assistant coaches turned to disbelief. At any other time during the season, one of those coaches would have grabbed a catchers mitt and offered to help warm up the kid coming into the game. Not this time. No response. Just shock. I sensed one of the coaches almost had instant rage as if I just took away his birthright.
Since there was no prompt action of support, I quickly asked one of the assistant coaches to relieve me of my duties coaching third base so I could be the one to get Collin ready. My thought was, “If I’m going to be judged by my own staff, then I am going to be damn sure this kid is prepped for battle in a modern day David and Goliath situation.” Collin grabbed his glove and displayed that same contagious smile on his face I saw all year. He would keep that smile even when he had a three-strikeout day or a multiple-error game. The kid always put in the energy, but his deficiencies in speed and strength would get the best of him on most days. Would today be different?
As we walked down the left field line to warm up, I knew he was nervous, scared, and excited all in one bowl of emotional soup. As I walked down with him, I threw out some words of guidance like, “Remember to keep the ball down. If you get nervous, slow your breathing down and know that you have eight other guys behind you.” In my mind, I was somewhere else battling the decision I had made and previewing the upcoming inning in my mind. Ultimately, deciding on when I could pull Collin for another pitcher to save face from my choice.
The sweat came spewing from my forehead as I played a fast game of catch with Collin knowing we already had two outs in our at-bats and there wasn’t going to be enough time to prep him any more than 10 to 15 throws at best. Sure enough on our ninth throw, I heard the sound of the umpire call the third out of the inning on us. It was show time! It was Collin time! It was “parents are going to freak out” time.
As Collin and I hustled back to the dugout, the rest of the kids were outside the door, ready for me to give them a quick pep before they sprinted onto the field. My assistant coaches were out there too, but their enthusiasm wasn’t quite as high as the players. For some reason, the kids didn’t see Collin any less talented than them, because they weren’t tainted in a pool of opinion yet. What did they see that the adults didn’t? Was it the, “We are only as good as our 12th man” speeches I made all year? Was it the innocence of the age? Whatever it was, I wanted to see what they saw. I wanted to have the faith they displayed.
I aspired to muster up some memorable speech to get the kids, and specifically Collin, ready for the quest. In my mind, I envisioned me telling them something so motivating that it would be something they’d recite years later to others, like Washington’s speech at Valley Forge. It didn’t come out as memorable or moving. What came out of my mouth was simple, truthful and what everyone longs to hear. I BELIEVE IN YOU.
I said, “Boys, I believe in you.” They burst off to their positions, but Collin stood there looking at me with a look of fear. I looked at this 10-year-old boy and said, “Collin, I believe in you.” Collin’s look of fear began to wash away, and he said, “I know coach.”