The Magic Bat
Harry is every coach's dream kid: He shows up for every practice early, stays late and is enthusiastic. Harry is also every coach's nightmare: He has neither the instinct nor the physical talent for the game.
I stepped in as a stand-in coach for my son's Little League team when the regular coach got married. Somehow he thought a honeymoon took precedence over next Tuesday's game. How can you blame him? Our team hadn't won in more than two years.
As I accepted the fill-in spot, I promised myself that I would show no disappointment if we lost. That was the least I could do. The best I could do was give a good heart to the effort.
I met Harry at the first practice. A small, thin, awkward kid his best throw was about five feet, which made the choice of fielding position difficult. And he was scared. Every time he came to bat, he would glance at the pitcher, lean the bat on his shoulder, close his eyes and wait until the misery of three pitches was over. Then he'd trudge back to the dugout. It was painful to watch.
I met Harry before Tuesday's game, took him aside and worked with him on keeping his eyes open. He tried, but it's tough to overcome the habit of fear. We were about to play a team that had beat us 22-1 the last time. It didn't seem a fortunate moment for a breakthrough. Then I thought, Why not?
I went to the dugout, got a different bat and returned to our practice area. "Harry," I said, "I want you to use this bat. It's the one for you. It's a magic bat. All you have to do is swing and it will hit the ball."
Harry seemed skeptical, but he said he would try. I hoped I wasn't complicating an already tough problem for Harry, but I wanted to try to help.
Our team was trailing from the first inning. No surprise in that, but we had some loyal parents in the stands to give constant encouragement to the kids.
On Harry's first at bat, I noticed he wasn't using his special bat, but I didn't step in. He struck out, as usual, and I decided to let it ride.
We were able to score from time to time. In the last inning, we were behind by only three runs. I was thinking about a "respectable outcome" speech to give the kids while packing up the gear. As the home team, we were last up. We alternated for five batters between singles with players safely on base and strikeouts. We had bases loaded and two outs. Only then did I notice that Harry was our last chance.
Surveying the field from my spot by first base, I saw the left fielder sprawl on the grass as Harry came from the dugout. He obviously expected no action. The right fielder was bothering some butterfly that was flitting about. The shortstop had moved well in, I suppose anticipating the possibility of a miraculous bunt. Clearly, the opposing players were already tasting the double-scoop ice cream cones they would go for after the victory.
Harry limped up to the batter's box. I noticed he had his usual bat. I called a time out, ran up to him and whispered, "Harry, this is the time for the magic bat. Give it a try. Just keep your eyes open and swing."
He looked at me in disbelief, but he said he'd try. He walked off for the special bat as I trotted back to first base.
First pitch, strike one. Harry didn't swing, but he kept his eyes open. I pumped my fist and gave it a little swing, encouraging him to swing. He smiled, got into his awkward stance and waited. He swung, eyes open, but missed. Strike two. That was the first real swing Harry had ever taken. Who cared if we won the game? I considered Harry a winner already.
The other coach yelled to his pitcher, "Fire one past him and end this thing!" I grimaced.
The pitcher threw a straight fastball and Harry swung. The magic bat did its trick. It found the ball, which flew over the shortstop's head.
Pandemonium erupted in the stands, in the dugouts, on the bases. I was cheering Harry to run to first as fast as he could. It seemed like an eternity. The left fielder called to the center fielder to get it. "You're closer!
I kept cheering the runners. We had one in at home and three guys pouring it on from first to second, second to third, third to home. The second baseman yelled for the center fielder to get the ball to him. Excitedly, he obeyed, but the ball skipped across the grass and passed by the second baseman toward the right-field line. My job as coach was simple at this point. "Run, guys, run," I yelled.
Another guy scored. By this time, the entire team had joined the cheering, "Go, Harry, go Harry!" This was surely the longest distance Harry had ever run. He was panting as he headed for third and another guy crossed home. The right fielder's throw was critical, and it was pretty good, but the third baseman muffed it. The ball scooted past him out of play. The rule: one base on an overthrow that goes out of play. Harry, exhausted, kept the push on as best he could.
About then, the first cry of a Grand Slam!" hit the air. Everyone joined in. When Harry reached home plate, about to collapse, his teammates lifted him as high as they could and chanted, "Harry, Harry, Harry!"
I ran over to the team to hug the proudest kid in America. Tears streaming, Harry looked up at me and said, "The bat, Coach, the bat."
I smiled and said, "No, Harry. It was you who hit the ball, not the bat."