We still had the slimmest of leads, but they had two runners on base, and we were out of options. Our star pitcher, Nick, had suffered a crisis of confidence and had asked to be pulled two innings ago. Adrian, our next best pitcher, had reached his inning limit, and had to be replaced. I turned to Jeremy and told him what he already knew: “You’re on.”
Jeremy wasn’t a bad pitcher. He was steady and accurate, but he wasn’t fast. He also wasn’t exactly an athlete — more of a smart, quiet, slightly nerdy kid with round, wire-framed glasses that made him look like an owl. The first pitch he threw was barely outside the strike zone. So was the second. He was pitching afraid, trying to paint the corners. His third pitch was ball three, just a little low. One more and he’d load the bases. My co-coach, Dave, called time out and jogged out to the mound. He got down on one knee, looked Jeremy in the eye, and said one thing: “Throw it right down the middle.” Jeremy pursed his lips and nodded.
The next pitch was strike one. The batter was hoping for a walk — he never took the bat off his shoulder. His coach yelled at him to be more aggressive. He took a big cut at the next one and fouled it off — strike two. Full count, two outs. The baserunners would take off with the next pitch. Jeremy looked over at us and we mouthed the words to him: Right down the middle.
That moment had been four years in the making. Dave and I had been coaching this same group of kids since they were 9-year-olds, including his son and my daughter. Like so much of parenting, coaching can be a privilege and a chore at the same time. Every spring, four times a week, we’d load our cars with bats and gear bags and buckets of balls, and drive down to the playfields for practices and games. At night, we’d email back and forth, tweaking lineups and pitching rotations, and designing practices to keep the attention of a dozen hyperactive kids long enough to turn them into ballplayers.
Along the way, we got to know those kids, and we grew to love them. We watched them work hard and get better. We watched them cope with failure and disappointment. Together, we built a team that was much bigger than its individual parts, and now we were in the last game we might ever play as a team, one pitch away from being champions.
Jeremy stared toward the catcher’s mitt and adjusted his glasses. We all stood up in the dugout, our white-knuckled hands clinging to the fence. He wound up, reared back and threw, and the batter took a giant swing. A moment later Jeremy disappeared under a mob of ecstatic teammates for whom he had just won a championship. Strike three.
Those kids are all grown up now, but most of them still stay in touch. My daughter, who got her start in athletics on that team, is now a sports journalist. Dave and I are close friends, and we sometimes talk about coaching again someday, after we retire, with a couple of grandkids on the team. But when I drive by those playfields in the spring, and the little kids are out there with their too-large, grass-stained uniforms and their baseball caps slightly askew, that game is still as fresh in my memory as the day it happened.
It’s a little embarrassing, as a grown man with a long career and a long, fortunate life to look back on, that a Little League championship stands out as one of my proudest achievements — but it does. It was the culmination of hours of work, attention, drudgery and emotional investment. At the time, it was the crowning moment in a dozen 12-year-olds’ lives, and for many it germinated an understanding of teamwork, dedication, discipline and grit.
You don’t get many trophies for being a good parent, but you still have to bring it every day. You bring your focus, your generosity, your patience and your faith that all of this will make a difference in the end. But in this season of giving thanks, don’t forget to bring your gratitude as well.
We get to do this incredibly difficult and demanding work that puts us in a position to make a difference in someone else’s life. How cool is that? We get to walk out to the mound with the game on the line and take the ball. There’s no telling how it all turns out, and we’re not as good at this as we wish we were, but there’s no one else on the bench who can throw this pitch.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t be timid. Throw it right down the middle.
Jeff Lee keeps a bucket of baseballs in his garage, just in case, in Seattle.