He taught me about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin and the golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah and The Jungle and the corruption of big boss politics. I did everything I could not to speak in his class. No eye contact. No raising of hands. I listened and learned.
He also taught me to think about which pitches to throw where in what counts and that walks are horrible and pitchers better play good defense, too. His deep knowledge of the game and wisdom from the game continues to amaze me.
He believed in me and pushed me to be the best I could be during those testy teenage years when I was full of doubt and absolutely terrified of making mistakes, whether in the classroom or on the field.
Coach Pittman coached the varsity team the last season I played baseball…on the junior varsity team. He coached 36 seasons and more than 750 players. His best day on the field?
We met at Kickapoo High School by the field that now bears his name on his conditions — it had to be at least 40 degrees outside before he’d play catch. The high school team was practicing on the field behind us; the sounds only distracted me a couple of times.
“It’s been at least three, maybe four years, since I last played catch and that was with my grandson.”
As we tossed the ball, Coach continued to both inspire and encourage me through his stories.
“Life is hard and will knock you off your feet over and over again. How will you respond? Baseball teaches persistence and courage. Do you have the courage to get back on the field, to not give up? This game can teach you how to think, how to live.”
What do you tell the coach who made you keep running and do the drills again and again and again and who made you think while you were playing?
Thank you for caring about me. Thank you for not giving up on me. Thank you for teaching me so much about the wonders of life through this great game.
Last year, because of Nathan Rueckert’s amazing vision for the America at the Seams project, I traveled to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time.
We told baseball stories of life and hope and how this game is more than just a game, how baseball truly brings people together. Again, thanks to Nathan’s brilliant work, this book is now for sale at the Hall of Fame which is the closest this benchwarming writer will ever come to getting a plaque or a display at the Hall.
In the epilogue of the book I wrote, “I’m convinced that baseball is ultimately a game of hope. Hope is born in adversity, in struggle, in failure…Tangible, practical, life-giving hope is as essential as breath for those warming up the bench or watching the season pass from the disabled list.
“Hope is why a baseball game is composed of nine innings and twenty-seven outs. Hope is daring to step into the batter’s box one more time. Hope is having the gracious humility to tip your hat to your opponent for a game well played and give your teammate a hug. Hope is a crack-of-the-dawn workout, travelling the country sleeping in a car just for the chance to wear the uniform one more time.
“Baseball is more than a game of failure. Baseball is more than all the statistics and numbers. Baseball is more than whether you win the last game of the season or not. Baseball is a narrative of persevering hope, helping us catch a glimpse of everything good about life.”
At Cooperstown, I closed with a short poem I wrote, both about the project and about life.
America At the Seams
The resolute cork —
history wrapped in a century of string
encased in two strips of cowhide
bound together by
108 red, hand-sewn double stitches
and ninth inning dreams.
Each ball, a narrative universe.
First hit. Last game.
Sacred stories preserved in the seams,
passed along from generation to generation.
An invitation for all:
Step on the field.
Find hope through failure.
Develop relentlessly dogged perseverance.
Having a catch with Dad,
a high five from coach,
a dirt-stained uniform.
Making a friend on the other team.
Though divided politically,
brought together through baseball —
America at the seams.
I gave Coach a copy of the book because he taught me to think long and hard about life both in the classroom and on the field.