I loved baseball from the start – but it didn’t love me.
When I started in tee ball, I was so short that if the catcher put the tallest tee on the far corner of the plate, I couldn’t reach it. Yes, I struck out – in tee ball.
Our first year of live pitching didn’t go any better. One game we were beating the other team so badly, we were about to trigger the “Mercy Rule,” and end the game. Coach Van pulled me in from my post in right field – where I kept company with the dandelions – and told me to pitch. I wasn’t a pitcher – I wanted to be a catcher, like Bill Freehan – but I’m thinking, “This is my chance.” I walked three batters, but miraculously got three outs before they scored any runs. We won – and I figured that was my stepping stone to greater things.
I was surprised my dad wasn’t as happy as I was. He knew better – but he didn’t tell me until years later: Coach Van was not putting me in at pitcher to finish the game. He was putting me in to get shelled, so the game would keep going. He was putting me in to fail.
The next game, I went back to right field, and the dandelions, never to return to the infield the rest of the season. But when Coach Van and his family moved, our assistant coach, Mack MacKenzie, became our head coach – and my world changed almost overnight.
Coach Mack wore a baseball cap on his big, square head, with his big, square glasses. He looked tough, with a permanent squint and the underbite of a bulldog. When he was smashing ground ball after ground ball, sweat dripped off his pointy nose. He occasionally swore, which was novel then, and we thought that was pretty cool.
But he thought I was feisty, and funny. I could tell he wanted me to do well, and that he believed I would. The effect was immediate, dramatic, and lifelong.
From the very first practice under Coach Mack, I started smacking the ball, as if I’d been waiting years to do it – which I had been. Our first game that season, he started me at catcher, and had me batting lead off. I got two hits – the first of my life – and my teammates voted me captain.
I was on fire for baseball, playing some form of it every chance I had, whether it was “Pickle,” “500” or home run derby. Didn’t matter. I wanted to play.
One Saturday morning, practice was rained out. But, this being Michigan, a little while later the sun came out, so I biked down to the schoolyard to check it out. There were a few puddles here and there, but the biggest one was behind the plate, where I would be, and it didn’t look that bad to me.
I rushed home and called Coach Mack. He told me if I made the phone calls, we’d have practice. I convinced enough of my teammates to come down to convince Coach Mack to come down, too – and we practiced.
After he’d hit ground balls to third, shortstop, second and first, I’d say, “C’mon, Coach Mack – gimme one!” Meaning, roll the ball out, for me to scoop up and throw to first.
“You wanna bunt, do ya?”
“C’mon, Coach Mack! You know I do!”
“There you go,” he’d say, and he rolled one out just for me.
The next year I became a better hockey player, too, and I don’t need to tell you the central role sports have played in my life. But that’s where it started.
I’ve always been too dependent on my teachers, coaches and bosses. When they don’t believe in me, I don’t go very far, but when they do, I’m capable of – well, more. And sometimes, much more. I’m sure this is why I’ve always attracted to coaching and teaching, too. I know how much difference it can make to have someone believe in you.
A couple years later, the MacKenzie’s moved to California. I have no idea where they are now. I don’t even know if Coach Mack is still with us. But he’s still with me.
“C’mon, Coach Mack! Gimme one.”
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!