Wednesday, March 21, 2007

By Michael Turpin

“Well, beat the drum and hold the phone - the sun came out today!We're born again, there's new grass on the field.A-roundin' third, and headed for home, it's a brown-eyed handsome man;Anyone can understand the way I feel.
Oh, put me in, Coach - I'm ready to play today;Put me in, Coach - I'm ready to play today;Look at me, I can be Centerfield.”
~John Fogerty, Centerfield

At one point during a game, the coach called one of his 9-year-old baseball players aside and asked, "Do you understand what cooperation is? What a team is?" The little boy nodded in the affirmative. "Do you understand that what matters is whether we win or lose together as a team?" The little boy nodded yes. "So," the coach continued, "I'm sure you know, when an out is called, you shouldn't argue, curse, attack the umpire, or call him a butt-head. Do you understand all that? Again the little boy nodded. He continued, "And when I take you out of the game so another boy gets a chance to play, it's not good sportsmanship to call your coach 'a dumb ass' is it?" Again the little boy nodded."Good," said the coach. "Now go over there and explain all that to your dad in the stands".

It’s baseball season and for the first time in many years, my schedule has finally succeeded in not allowing me to co- head coach one of my son’s teams. I am already having withdrawals and have started to behave oddly at home. I yelled “ slide” to my eight year old as he was running to greet me at the door the other day. I asked my wife if it would be ok if we buy a radar gun. “We could clock all kinds of things - - how fast the kids get out to the bus in the morning, how quickly they come to dinner when we call. We could increase their allowance when they beat certain time thresholds …” She gave me that “you are a very troubled person” look. The sad truth is my job has finally gotten the better of my April and May and it looks like I would be too unreliable to once again become platoon leader for a small squad of budding eleven and twelve year olds. Anyone need an assistant?

Coaching is a catharsis. It’s the ultimate opportunity to be of service and help shape kids. It is also a mirror that one can hold up for self reflection. If done improperly, it can be a demoralizing experience for a child, a source of constant tension for parents and a Greek tragedy for the fatally flawed but well intentioned coach. When Reverend Joe Ehrmann came to New Canaan last fall, many coaches were introduced to the book about Joe, Seasons of Life. For some, it was given to us either as a gift or a stocking stuffer. For others, it was left surreptitiously on a front door step and in a few cases, tied to a rock and hurled through a living room window.

Joe’s message is priceless: each kid is a treasure trove of possibility and sports is a stage where we can discover each child’s potential. Coaches can cultivate each player to become a more confident and engaged citizen of our community and can help preserve and build self esteem which is the oxygen that fuels adolescence. I realize this is innate stuff to a lot of people who work with kids. Yet for others, including myself, Ehrmann’s talk was a great reminder of the gift that is coaching kids.

There are coaches, and yes I am one of them, that occasionally forget that it is really just a game and become a little obsessed with winning. It’s sort of like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom where two alpha males make eye contact across the watering hole (in this case the baseball diamond). I can almost see his antlers growing. I scratch the ground with my cleat. He picks up a bat and takes a few half swings. The rut is on. It’s a curse, really, thinking that the other coach is going home at night and instead of catching up on bills or reading to their four year old, he/she is calculating batting averages and comparing first to second base sprint times. Each season there is always one coach that “challenges my objectivity. “ Whether it is having their runner steal second while enjoying an eight run lead or invoking some double secret rule like the “Speed of Play” clause from the Cal Ripkin Official rules book that I get handed every year but never read.

At this point, I have to beg forgiveness from my pastor who views me as a “work in progress” as he preaches understanding and tolerance. There’s just something about that mixture of red dirt, chalk, and eye black that makes a guy a little, how should we say, less spiritual? I have had to learn the key to being a good coach is to realize that it is not about me. It’s not about the parents. It’s about every kid that I have been entrusted with- - every single one. It means taking pride in each kid’s progress and teaching them something new. It means telling them the story about when I was a kid and how I pretended to go to football practice but would instead hide in the bushes, in full pads , smear dirt on my pants and wait for two hours before going home, hoping a passing dog did not lift his leg on my hiding place. It’s me remembering when my son makes an error or strikes out and looks at me that I do not cringe, shake my head or make a face but smile and clap and say “ go get ‘em “ It’s finding humor in everything. Whether it is a food shack that is listed in Zagats and is rumored to be selling foie gras or the way people park their cars at Mead Park as if they have spilled an extra hot latte in their lap.

We all want our children to respect one another, try their best, work hard, and come back to play another year. We need to remember that great television commercial that appears during most NCAA games that says, “There are 30,000 athletes in American universities and most of them will major in something other than sports after college.” It’s a great time of year - - the smell of freshly cut grass, chalk lines faithfully edged around a red dust diamond, and the sharp ping of a well hit line drive mixing with the roar of a hometown crowd. Somewhere a kid rounds third base and tries to beat the throw to home while another player tugs on his/her coach’s arm and says, “Hey coach, put me in. I can play centerfield!”
Party On, Dude!

Today is my youngest child’s 11th birthday (Jack). Last year I figured that after 22 years of throwing parties for my one to four children, we were done. But apparently the rumors of their birthday parties’ demise were greatly exaggerated.

Over the years, I’ve thrown parties where magicians appeared, both young (age 13) and old (a 75-year-old magician). Barney, a Ninja Turtle, Captain Hook and Blue from Blue’s Clues have attended, as well as various clowns. We’ve had baseball themed parties, basketball parties, worker truck parties, Ghostbuster parties, 1950’s themed parties, gold-mining parties, pony rides, bowling, karate and manicure celebrations, and parties held at My Three Sons, Discovery Zone, the late great Mattie’s, and a semi-professional ballpark. Parties, parties everywhere and no relief in sight!

When publishing County Kids magazine, I began to feel like so much the party “expert” that we began putting out an annual party guide called “Partyline.” The tips and trends therein served to give me more fuel for the birthday party fever and fervor of my children. Over the years I practiced insanity as far as these age celebrations were concerned (the definition of insanity as doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results). I expected the events to be quieter, more manageable. I also expected my children to stop desiring them.

Kenny and Blake eventually conceded around age 16; Jack and Janet have yet to give up the ghost, no matter how hard I plead. And it’s probably because they have grown up with the myriad party people, places and things that have always existed in their world.

Last year when Janet turned 13, she had 30 of her nearest and dearest friends over for a swimming party. She had told us she was inviting 20, but that number morphed by party time and Jon and I sprouted more grey hair instantly.

“That’s it!” I cried insistently after the big to-do. “No more birthday parties!” I’m done, I thought. Put a fork in me, totally justifying – however – that Jon had thrown me a 50th birthday bash two months earlier.

But no… Jack’s wanting a gathering of buddies this year and all of my whining hadn’t stopped the planning.

Gone are the days of girls in starched party dresses, boys in blue blazers, a home-baked cake and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. In are paintball and laser tag parties; girls and boys in shorts and t-shirts wild with cake-induced frenzy. Goody bags cost a small fortune and are considered de rigueur; the quest for a new and different party venue is exhausting, yet always do-able. It’s frightening.

So I guess it’s party on, dude time once again.