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RANDY HUFF: Little League Lessons for Life

Baseball in western Kansas was better than anyone knew. The Little League had eight teams and each team had plenty of players – it seemed there were four or five friends on the bench at any time. Our little field had real dugouts in 1973. You would actually step down a step or two and watch the game like you were in the big leagues. A year or two later they got rid of them and put in easy-maintenance chain link at ground level with a roof over for shade.

I missed the real dugouts. New isn’t always better.

There was always the wooden fence in outfield though, and some years we had infield grass. Someone worked really hard to make that happen. We were in Ulysses after all, a place on the prairie where very little grew unless you put water right on it, and lots of that. I loved that field. Sometimes after my afternoon pre-game ritual my Mom would drop me off early and it would be just me in the stands and the grounds guy working with the chalk marker. He would bring that batters’-box-shaped metal frame out from the maintenance shed, drop it by home plate, adjust it a bit, and then run the chalk thingy over it. Then he’d do the other side, and then the foul lines. Nothing better.

There are a thousand things and more to say about those days, and someday I hope to write a book about it. It went deep in my soul and the sights and sounds are ever with me. If I were to write a book, one chapter would be about my coach, Bob Heath. What a guy. A person never knows how he or she may be a hero to young’uns. And the young ones seldom are aware how much the coaches mean. The good ones – and Coach Heath was certainly that – become a point of reference, the one who knows everything and can be trusted. He tells you what to do and you do it just because. He’s Coach.

It must have been hard – of course it was. I vaguely remember a parent complaining because her son was not pitching. And there was the constant pressure of who gets to play, how much, and when. Coach Heath had to take it in stride, try to please everyone if possible, and teach these young men about life and baseball. Of course we’re always quick to say “in that order” – life before baseball. But I think you can’t teach baseball without teaching life. Whatever the case, we all knew baseball was great fun and we should play with all our heart. And we knew if we played it right, with a good attitude, we’d have a win no matter what the score was. That was Coach Heath.

A chapter on Coach would be easy, but I also wonder about a chapter on Joe. Joe Garcia. We had a lot of Mexican-American friends in the League – which was another happy chapter. One of them, however – a young friend named Oscar who struggled in life and baseball – died tragically when a car hit his go-cart on a country road. I was a pall-bearer at his funeral at the tender age of eleven. Another teammate was named Sammy Sosa – I am not kidding. When I heard about the Big League star by that name I wondered, because Sammy was really good.

But I was thinking about Joe Garcia. In my memory he was kind of like Bo Jackson. Big and strong for his age, intimidating on the field, a very good athlete. I was pitching one evening well into the game. I would guess I was almost 11 years old and Joe was all of 12. Joe came to bat, probably about the 4th inning. There may have been a few on base, I don’t remember. But I remember Coach Heath coming out to talk to me.

“What do you think, Randy? Should we walk him?” Joe was a far stronger hitter than any who might follow him.

“No, let’s don’t walk him, Coach. I can pitch to him. I’m sure I can. I think I can get him!” I heard myself say it, oblivious to the youthful zeal that carried my certainty. I just knew, somehow, I could do it.

Coach looked at me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Are you sure?” I nodded my head.

“OK,” he replied. “Give it your very best!”

He went back to the dugout and I watched Joe come to the plate. He was strong and seemed to have no fear. It has been over 40 years and I’ve never forgotten what happened next. I wound into my typical Little League pitching form and let loose the hardest fastball I could muster. Right down the middle, right over the plate, about stomach high. Joe swung and the ball came straight back toward me as a slow grounder.

Joe was fast mind you, as you’ll know in a moment. I had to charge the ball and when I swung around and threw to first he was almost there. My throw was straight and hard and I watched as Joe sped through first and hopped the sideline fence in one quick bound as the umpire yelled, “Out!” I had done it!! Somehow I faced my fear, barely knowing or caring about the odds, and gave it everything I had. My Coach knew what mattered most and gave me the opportunity to face possible failure. And I won!

I’ve had many a mishap in the years since, plenty of times I should have pitched but folded instead. And there were times I insisted on pitching and was hopelessly over-matched, outwitted, or simply defeated by unforeseen circumstances. But the life lesson is still in my soul: the mix of risk in winning, the fear of knowing you may lose, the joy of giving your best and finding it is enough to win the day and get the job done.

I doubt if Coach knew all that meant. He was just trying to help a kid do the right thing and help a team win a game. But his guiding word and giving heart meant he was in a place of influence that has made a difference all my life. So to Coach Heath and all the coaches across the country in Little League fields in unknown places, baseball is better than you know. When you teach baseball well, you teach life. And I think the two go together just right.

Randy Huff and his wife lived for 5 years in Roanoke (Hollins) where they raised 2 sons. Randy served as Dean of Students at a Christian school and then worked in construction. For the last 8 years he has served as pastor of a church in North Pole, Alaska.

 

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