When I was a kid, baseball was very important to me. It was very important to most of the boys growing up in my neighborhood. Almost all of the boys (and a handful of the girls) at my school signed up for Little League most years. The season started with a parade - and what kid doesn't like to be in a parade - and ended with everyone getting a trophy. It was great.
The only problem was that I wasn't very good at baseball. That wasn't much of a handicap the first couple of years, but as games got more competitive I found myself spending less time playing, and more time sitting. And sitting takes a lot of the fun out of the game. Little league went from being something I loved to something I didn't care about. But then I wound up on Mr. Preda's team.
Mr. Preda coached Little League in the Bronx for quite a while, usually for the 10-and-under age group. He volunteered his time year after year even though he didn't have a kid of his own in the league - or, for that matter, a grandkid. I remember hearing that he had a grown-up daughter, and I know he was old enough to be retired when he was coaching, but aside from that I don't really know a lot about him. What I do know is that I learned a lot that one baseball season.
Mr. Preda wasn't one of the coaches who tried to make every kid, no matter how clumsy and inept, feel like a valued member of the team. Every kid on his team was an equally valued member of the team. In an age group where winning was starting to matter, Mr. Preda cared more about making sure that we were all learning than about winning. All of us got to play, and all of us spent time on the bench. The less-coordinated kids (like me) weren't always banished to right field. We got to be awkward and slow at a wide range of positions, and we got to learn a lot more baseball.
In a classic story (especially a coming of age story), the year with Mr. Preda would be one of those Moments that changes everything. The team would go from the cellar to first, and I'd learn to excel at the sport and go on to fame, glory, and possibly the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, life often forgets to follow the script. I got better after my year on the team, to be sure, but I never had the drive to practice that you need to get really good at the sport, and my baseball-playing days wound down within a year or two. I can remember a few moments from some of the games, but nothing that really stands out. I can't even remember whether we finally wound up winning more than we lost that season.
I don't remember a lot of the details from that season, but I do remember the fundamentals. I remember learning the fundamentals - how to throw, how to run, how to resist the overpowering urge to slide into second about 50 feet too early. I remember Mr. Preda spending a lot of time throwing ground balls at me, helping me get over my fear of the ball, and helping me learn to get my body in front of the ball.
We all learned teamwork that year. We learned how lose a game with dignity, and how to win gracefully. We learned that the team is what's important, and that it's better to throw the ball to the cut-off man than to try for the big play by ourselves. We learned baseball.
I've gone wandering down memory lane for a reason. I'd almost forgotten what an effect Mr. Preda had on me in that short time, and how much of a difference he made in the way I saw and enjoyed the game. I remembered all of it on Thursday night, and all at once. I was sitting on a bench at the parents' meeting for the fall baseball league my son is in, and the head of the league announced that they still needed volunteers to fill the head coach slots for a few teams.
So, watch this space in the coming weeks for updates on the exploits of the (as yet unnamed) Team #5 in the League City Coach-Pitch Baseball League. I've got no idea how we're going to do, but I can tell you this much: all of the kids are going to practice the fundamentals, all of them are going to play every game, all of them are going to play different positions during the season, and all of them are going to spend time sitting on the bench.
It's not much, but it's a first payment on what I owe Mr. Preda.