Column: How Coaching Changes Lives

When someone believes in you – whether it's a baseball coach, teacher or mentor – it's possible to achieve more than you ever imagined
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

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

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  1. By Pam Daugavietis
    August 5, 2013 at 9:54 am | permalink

    Great article, John! You are such a superb writer of real stories, real people. I love your writing and your message. I’ll be sharing this with my sons, who were both baseball players in high school and college now grown with kids of their own and still big baseball fans!

  2. By James McKenzie
    September 1, 2013 at 9:44 pm | permalink

    Thanks for bringing back such great, distant memories! “Coach Mac” is my father, you may remember the scrawny goalie & 2nd baseman that went to King Elementary & was your teammate, Jimmy McKenzie. Your story brought my father to tears. It would probably amaze you, how many lives that my father has touched, in a positive way. Particularly since December 30, 1990, when he received a heart transplant at the University of Arizona Medical Center. He received a “Hon Kachina” award, given to only about a dozen people every year, as the top humanitarians in the state of Arizona. I saw you on a tv show last year on Big 10 Network, about the UM/ OSU rivalry. If you feel inclined, please e-mail me back… I remember you as the funniest kid on both my Little League & Hockey teams. Best regards, Jimmy McKenzie

  3. By Dr Jeff Harmon
    September 3, 2013 at 6:16 am | permalink

    John, I enjoyed reading your article very much. Your physical description of our friend “Mac” was spot on, and made me laugh. Even though our lives crossed paths with Mac in different decades, it was easy to picture him in my mind hitting grounders to you and your teammates many years ago. I was also coached by Mac in my younger years, and even though the coaching was not in baseball, his effect on my life was profound also. Mac was recently awarded a lifetime achievement award by Oral Health America for his selfless work in providing dental care and hygiene education for underprivileged children across America. It is an achievement that was well deserved and I know that it is only one of many humanitarian awards that Mac has received in his lifetime.
    I met Mac while I was a student at Southern Illinois School of Dental Medicine. While getting to know him over the course of several rounds of golf, he “coached” me about the importance of giving back to those less privileged. It was a life lesson that I will never forget. In fact, Mac inspired a golf tournament at SIU which bears his name: The Mac MacKenzie Prophy Cup Challenge. This tournament has helped raise money for SIU-SDM educational endeavors as well as funds for the dental needs of children in the metro St Louis area.
    My life, like yours, has been changed by coach Mac. His spirit and enthusiasm for life and will always be with us.