A tale of two coaches.
Coach Garner and Coach Lael.
More than five combined decades of coaching and baseball wisdom accrued through fungos and fastballs.
They both greeted me with comments that their arms were shot, then proceeded to tell me that they both played catch last week. For close to thirty minutes, we tossed the ball and swapped baseball stories.
I was glad to see Coach Garner sporting a Royals hat; he’d love to play catch with George Brett if given the opportunity.
“April was brutal, pretty much dimmed my dreams for the team this year.”
I thought Coach Lael was wearing a Boston hat.
“We coached in Branson together,” he said. He would love the opportunity to play catch with Lou Brock.
I have exactly one Branson baseball memory. The old Branson baseball field was about 290 feet down the left field line. I had never hit a home run. As a rather confident sophomore in high school, I thought that I could take one yard if I was given the chance. Coach put me in as the starting second baseman so I could literally swing for the fences.
I had to wait through the varsity game, and then heard the supportive, bellowing cheers of friends Travis and Jeremy when I stepped into the box for my first at bat. I knew the wisdom of not swinging at the first pitch, but this pitch was perfect. I turned on it and drilled it. To this day, I’m not certain I’ve ever hit a ball further than that one.
It traveled over the left field foul pole. Both Travis and Jeremy were calling out my name and laughing loudly. I was already running toward first base when the umpire called it foul. I worked the count full before I struck out on a foul tip.
The coaches laughed.
Coach Lael once met Satchel Paige on a field in Springfield, Illinois.
“Heck, he met everyone there, he was kind of a greeter by that time. Still, a good memory.”
Coach Garner once witnessed a death on the field during his fast-pitch softball game.
“It was a freak accident, back when we used wooden bats. Pretty much ended any interest I had in playing.”
I have never heard a story of someone dying on the diamond. I can’t begin to imagine what that would have been like to witness as a player.
While tossing horrible knuckleball after flat slider, I picked their brains about all things baseball.
Favorite baseball movie?
“The Natural,” said Garner.
“Not that one with Kevin Costner,” Lael said with a pause. I thought he was going to disrespect Field of Dreams, but then he continued, “For the Love of the Game. I don’t like that ‘Clear the mechanism’ stuff. Bull Durham’s my favorite.”
We talked about coaches we all knew: Pittman and Rippee and Stratton.
We talked about best seasons. “Made it to the final four multiple times,” Garner said.
“Never won the whole thing. Kind of the Buffalo Bills of Ozarks baseball,” Lael added.
Most important things baseball taught you about life?
“No transfer of blame,” said Garner. “You accept responsibility for what you do or don’t do.”
“Perseverance. You learn to get over failure, find the good in it, and move on. Baseball’s better than football because you get to play the next day. There’s always another at bat coming,” said Lael.
We found a mutual connection in Sam Perez who played in Branson before he pitched at Missouri State before he was drafted by the Florida Marlins.
I used to visit with Sam before the games when I was on the field crew at Hammons Field. Whenever Burger or Paulsen hit homeruns, I’d snag the baseballs and throw knuckleballs back to Sam.
Advice to young players who chase MLB dreams?
“Kids need to be students of the game, the whole game. Not just learning fundamentals and techniques, but the history of the game. How we got to where we’re at,” Garner said.
“Play everything while you’re young. What you’re good at when you’re 10 may not be the same thing you’re good at when you’re 16. Explore and practice,” Lael said.
And then I learned that we had another mutual friend.
Coach Lael’s son-in-law is Tony Lewis. I met Tony a couple years ago through Kim Bell. Tony played for Coaches Stratton and Bell at Glendale and now organizes a competitive wood bat league at US Ballpark — The Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League.
“I’m headed to the K tomorrow to sit in the fountains with him,” Lael said.
The Royals are 13 – 30 and have lost their last 5 games. The Yankees are coming in town this weekend. Stanton and Judge and Sanchez, oh my. I don’t have a good feeling about this weekend.
“That’s the joy of this game,” Lael added. “You never know. You just might be surprised.”
Tip of the hat to Coach Garner and Coach Lael for the game of catch, for all the stories, and for passing on your love of the game to the next generation.
Tonight, Lester the Umpire (Day #105) will achieve his 2018 dream, working the district championship game at Halfway, Missouri. Congrats, blue!
Side, side note:
Playing catch every day has taught me a few things I’d pass along to graduates. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.