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Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Blackhawks

I thought about it for a really long time. I had made a commitment that I would do some kind of community service project in 2012, perhaps a different project every month, so that I could write about the experience and create a “Monthly Message”. I came up with a few wild ideas, one that even included standing on a street corner handing out free food and advice. (How crazy is that one?) But nothing seemed to be quite right.

Then I got a phone call. A local Little League Team didn’t have a Coach and would have to forfeit their season if someone didn’t step up to help them. My friends and family know that I love baseball and kids, and since I am heavily involved with the Halo Baseball Club already, it makes me a logical choice to be someone who might be good at coaching a team of 13 year old boys. Except for two things…..I haven’t coached Little League in almost 20 years and I am absolutely overwhelmed with work owning my own business. Where would I get the time and the energy to tackle such a heavy commitment?

So I pondered the decision and told the League I would get back to them soon. As it happens I had signed up to attend a baseball camp in Arizona in early January to hopefully become a better ballplayer myself. But as I boarded a plane to fly to Phoenix, it dawned on me that participating in a four-day baseball camp would also give me a huge amount of training and practice tips that I could use to help coach a Little League Team…that is….if I decided I was going to do it?
Taking a "photo" break at Pro-Baseball Camp!
Bill, Vic, Joe & Bob
At the “Pro-Baseball Camp” in Arizona I spent a lot of time with Alan Trammell. “Tram” is a former six-time “All Star” who played for the Detroit Tigers. Midway through the camp I asked him a question that had always haunted me. “How do you handle the stress when you’re in a big game and need to relax in order to play well?” It was something I often struggled with but Tram gave me some advice that I instantly took to heart. He told me everyone handles stress differently, but what I do is remind myself to, “See It. Feel It. Trust It.” He went on to explain how those three things can apply to both fielding and hitting. “See the ball into your glove, feel your grip and trust your throw.” For some reason, those three ideas seemed really familiar to me.
My locker at camp - right next to Alan Trammell’s!
As I headed back into the players locker room, it suddenly hit me. At Church the previous Sunday, the Pastor spoke about God and reminded us that whenever we are struggling all we have to do is, “See His Face. Feel His Love. Trust His Presence.” At that moment, I knew God was giving me a message, “See It. Feel It. Trust It.” I knew the choice I had to make…and I made it! I am now the coach of the Rancho Santa Margarita Junior American Team called The Blackhawks!

And that got me thinking….. When we were created by God, because of His love for us He gave us the power of choice. By doing so He empowered us with the ability to choose how we live our lives, to choose our priorities and to choose between right or wrong. God has the power of choice and He always chooses what is right. So perhaps…when we see people make the right choices…. we can sometimes see glimpses of God in the people He created!

We were short a few players, but not short on smiles!

Decisions become easier when your will to please God outweighs your will to please the world. ~ Anso Coetzer

So for at least the first six months of this year, I have a part-time community service project. Except that it is more like a part-time job! I have no less than 2-3 practices per week, 2-3 games per week, at least 50 emails to return per week, coaching clinics, umpire clinics and the most time consuming thing of all….making out the line-up card for each game. The line-up card is the hardest part of the job because I have to somehow balance playing time for all the boys, and keep the parents happy, and somehow win a few games.

Our first game was two weeks ago and I guess I didn’t have things balanced quite right yet because we got hammered 17-9. The boys on the team didn’t seem too upset, but I sure was. I felt like I had let them down and let down the parents as well. But then I remembered something my own Dad taught me. He said, “Winning is defined by more than just the score. If you can come away from a loss having learned even one thing that will make you a better player, then you have truly won!
So I gave that speech to my team at the next practice. I then handed each kid a 3x5 note card and asked them to write down one thing they learned from the game that will make them a better player the next time out. The responses I got back were truly inspiring. What was really cool was that every single boy wrote something very different on his card. No two responses were the same. One response, from one of the smallest yet hardest working boys on the team, really hit home with me. It’s shown below. 

Wil's Contribution!
Wil Holt-Hillis

Yesterday we played our 4th game of the season and got hammered again 10-2. Our boys are all 13 year olds but the other team was filled with 14 year old players. They had their ace pitcher on the mound who was at 6’ tall and threw bullets. We didn’t get one hit the whole game. Even our best players struck. After the game I noticed that the boys were kind of quiet. Two of my players had been injured, so that didn’t help, plus it was cold, late at night and everyone was tired. As I gathered our team together to give my “after the game speech”, I struggled to say something inspirational. I started out saying I was sorry we lost the game and that I definitely could have done a better job of managing but was interrupted by one of my players who said, “That’s okay Coach, we trust you and we’ll win for sure next time!” Trust…what an important concept!
I looked around at the team and realized that what he said was true. They do trust me and that’s an important responsibility. They trust me to be a good coach, to treat them all fairly, to give each kid a chance to learn and grow, to show respect to the umpires and the other team, to demonstrate good sportsmanship and to maybe, just maybe, win a game once in a while. I felt that trust inside and realized I had to keep a positive attitude myself. I guess all I needed was to remember that note card that Wil wrote above and realize “my attitude affects the team” as well. I don’t know how other Coaches feel, but I tell you what, my boys are absolutely the best!
Some of the Blackhawks scratch their heads after a tough loss!
And that got me thinking….. Trust really is an important concept because it means letting go of the worry and opening up your heart.  When I didn’t know what to do, I decided that I would Trust in God and it worked out really well! And…. isn’t it interesting that the very first line of the Little League Pledge, which we recite together before every single game is.... I Trust in God!

I trust in God.
I love my Country.
I will respect its laws.
I will play fair and strive to win.
But win or lose,
I will always do my best!

When I volunteered to coach a Little League Team I knew it was going to be a heavy duty time commitment. I just didn’t know it was going to be such an emotional commitment as well!

The emotional strain occurs when your team loses almost every game they play and nothing you do as their Manager seems to help. Through ten games we only had one win, but in a way it wasn’t really fair (which is true of a lot of things in life) because our team is all 12-13 year old boys whereas the other teams have 13-14 year olds. Fortunately the first half of the season ended at Spring Break and it gave us a chance to recover and regroup.
After the Spring Break I told our team to forget the first half of the season, we’re starting over! Everyone worked really hard at practice and our spirits were pretty high until our first game, where we got clobbered once again. That was painful and really demoralizing to everyone, so I decided I had to do something drastic. I decided to break out the Magic Bat! I went home, took the Magic Bat down off the shelf and wiped the dust off of it. The following day, right before the start of our next game, I gathered the team together in the dugout and pulled out the Magic Bat. I then proceeded to explain the story of the Magic Bat.....

The Magic Bat is a huge 35" baseball bat that once belonged to Larry "LP" Poland, a tall, handsome, outgoing and very skilled baseball player who worked for the Los Angeles Angels and was a member of my Halo Baseball Club. When I first joined the club, LP took me under his wing and taught me how to be a better ballplayer. He was always laughing, always smiling, and always full of life because…..well, he was just bigger than life! Men admired him, women loved him and I was fortunate enough to have him as my friend and mentor. What most people did not know was that Larry was also in the midst of turning his life around and becoming a Christian, which was something that really hit home with me.
The Magic Bat of "LP"
 Several years ago LP was playing centerfield when he fell and tore up his knee. He wouldn’t let us take him to the hospital until after the game was over, that’s just the kind of guy he was, but we knew the injury was serious. At the hospital, LP had an operation and it looked like it was going to be at least six months before he would be back on the field again.  But in truth, LP never made it back onto the field. A few days after his operation, a blood clot in his leg caused a stroke, which suddenly took his life. Everyone associated with the Halo Baseball Club was devastated. I personally had a really hard time dealing with the loss of such a special friend

After the funeral, I was approached by LP’s best friend who shocked me by handing me LP’s baseball bat. He told me LP would have wanted me to have it. It became my lucky charm and for over a year I took it to every game I went to. After that I mostly kept it on my shelf as a reminder of how important it is to appreciate our friends…while we can. But every so often, if I felt our Halo Baseball Team really needed it, I would bring the LP bat to a game and sure enough, we would all hit really well and win that game.

After telling that story I positioned the Magic Bat at the end of the dugout and told each boy to touch it on his way to the plate. Who knows…It just might work its magic for our team! Sure enough, by the time the dust cleared, our team had hit 1 home run, 2 triples, 4 doubles and a bunch of singles. We won 15 – 4 and you should have seen the excitement and smiles all around. I have never seen a happier bunch of kids in my life (not to mention a few parents smiling for a change as well.) The Magic Bat had worked its magic once again!

After the game I took the boys out to right field for a quick team meeting. The first thing I said to them was actually a confession. “Gentlemen…today you played a great game and made me very proud, but I have a confession. I lied! There is no magic in that big black bat. It’s just a piece of wood. The real “magic” is in you, because today you believed you could do it and you did it. That’s what made the difference. If you believe in yourselves you can accomplish anything! So appreciate this moment, take it in and cherish it. And while you’re at it, cherish your teammates as well, because you never know how long they’re going to be around.”
And that got me thinking….. Friendship is a special gift that should never be taken lightly and the only way to truly have a friend…is to be one

A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.
                                                                               ~ Walter Winchell
Our Little League season was drawing to a close and I was beginning to realize that I was going to miss being a member of this very special team. We actually ended up winning four games, including the one with the “Magic Bat” and another game where the Blackhawks shut out the other team 5-0, albeit without me being there (the only game I would miss all ironic!!!) 
But the season was coming to an end and I began to recognize that coaching this Little League Team had been an extraordinary experience for me. I truly bonded with every single boy on the team and enjoyed every single minute of it.

There were so many special moments:
  • Opening day where Coach Joe had to instantly memorize the names and numbers of 12 young men…while never, practically ever, getting the parent’s names right!
  • The push-up contest where Alex and Wil out performed Coach Joe by completing 45 push-ups to his measly 42!
  • The time, halfway through a practice, that I looked down and realized that in my haste to change clothes in my car before practice, I had put my shorts on backwards!
  • The time I had one player tell me that he did not want to dive back to 1st base because he might get injured. So I tried to demonstrate how easy it was, but ended up tearing the skin off my knee! (He got a real laugh out of that!)
  • The time Coach Joe got hit in the back of the head by an errant throw, which by the way, was thrown by his Grandson Jared.
Jared (my grandson) leads the team off the field after a close game
  • The many times Coach Joe and Riley spent talking man to man about baseball, life and
  • Taking Lattime, Sanders and Robitaille to the batting cage for hitting practice and then going out for frozen yogurt afterwards! (Okay so that happens to be my favorite food!)
Broox, intensely focused on the job at hand!
  • The time Coach Joe brought 9 of his Halo Baseball Club Members (average age 45) to play a scrimmage game against the Blackhawks (average age 13) and the Blackhawks won!  Dalton and Broox shut them down with great pitching and catching and then everyone downed at least 75 Hot Dogs that day and had a total blast!
  • Watching Trevor, the quietest and nicest kid on the team, take the mound and change personalities, blowing hitters away with his surprising fastball!
  • The time Coach Joe was late to practice and found Adam leading the team in warm up exercises. (Adam was not known for liking exercise, but there he was, leading the team!)
Adam leads the team with warm up exercises
  • The many times Coach Joe and Jake talked about what it’s like to play the infield (we both play second base) and then seeing Jake’s huge smile every time he made a big play!
  • Witnessing the special friendship between Riley and Jake that is the type of friendship that you know will last a life time!
Speaking of life times…. I doubt I will ever get another chance in my life time to coach another Little League Team as special as this one. (I am an old man of 57 you know!) But I was given this one chance, this one special gift… and I took it, and I am so glad I did! And, to be honest, there is a special reason that I am so happy to have had this experience at this moment in my life.

You know the old saying that “things happen for a reason”, well I never liked that saying, but maybe it’s true after all. I say that because I now believe coaching the Blackhawks truly did “happen for a reason”. I’ll tell you why. Towards the end of the season I was involved in an auto accident that resulted in an elderly lady being severely injured. It was traumatizing beyond belief. It shook me to my core and caused me tremendous emotional strain. I turned to my faith for support and gave my worries to God. He gave me strength but what also made me feel better was going to the next Blackhawks game and spending time with those boys. Maybe “the reason” I was given the chance to coach the Blackhawks was because God knew I would soon be going through a really difficult time and that being a part of the Blackhawks would make it easier for me to handle. I believe God never gives us more than we can handle but I also believe He gives us people in our lives who can help us through the toughest of times.

In fact on the Friday that the accident happened, my daily Bible passage that day said…...

With God there are no accidents, only incidents that are designed to draw us closer to Him.

I believe that coaching the Blackhawks was also an incident designed to draw me closer to God, and for that I am very grateful. Thank you God for such a great gift and for helping me realize that things really do happen for a reason!


Alex L, Adam, Michael, Dalton, Alex H, Jake, Trevor, Wil, Riley, Jared, Nate & Broox