Whenever a new coach takes over a team, there is a power struggle. Players jostle for depth chart positioning, recognizing the clean slate that can erase prior misdeeds or accomplishments. They also jostle for positioning with their coach, because for a few years, the returning players actually have seniority over their new skipper. Determining who calls the shots can sometimes be a bloody and protracted battle.
Such was the case in my first year at my current institution. My team had lost in the conference championship the previous year and I was fortunate to inherit some talented players left behind by my predecessor. I was less fortunate to inherit their attitudes. One player in particular, Matt, made it a point to do everything ‘his way’ at all times. While a little individual flair can be a wonderful (if not necessary) thing, making a show of non-conformity rarely bodes well when trying to build a cohesive team.
If something like this were to happen today, I would put an end to it quickly. But back then, the younger, less confident, less experienced me was still worried about ingratiating himself with his new players. And Matt was the best player on my team. His teammates didn’t like him so much as they feared him. He was built like a lumberjack, broad and barrel-chested, and he was well known for his hot-headedness – prone to flinging bats, helmets, and other dangerous projectiles in the general direction of the dugout following a strikeout. He may have had a toddler’s brain, but it was trapped in a full grown man’s body and that body was uniquely suited to hit baseballs very hard.
What was a coach to do? Get in a pissing match with my best player or let it slide?
I let it slide.
For every inch I allowed, he would take a foot. I knew my comeuppance was, well, coming up, but I felt helpless to stop it.
Late in the season, we were on the road to play a critical conference game against Maple University. Winning the game would secure us a spot in the conference tournament. Losing would all but eliminate us. Failing to make the playoffs in my first season, a year after a championship game appearance, would reflect very poorly on me and put me on the wobbly chair before I even had a chance to sit down.
My players were finishing warming up along the left field line while I nervously filled out the lineup card in the third base dugout. Matt would be batting 4th and starting at first base as he did most games. The home team took the field for their pre-game infield/outfield (I/O) routine just as I was putting the finishing touches on the lineup card.
No sooner had I completed the task than one of my players asked me, “Coach, what the hell is Matt doing?” I looked up from the card and scanned the swarm of players heading in towards the dugout. No sign of him. I looked over by the bleachers and into the bullpen and any other place I could imagine a player might wander off to on his way to the dugout. Still nothing. And then I saw him.
Standing in left field, surrounded by a quartet of Maple U players, was Matt. The players were trying to catch the baseballs being hit their way off of their coach’s fungo. Their coach was undoubtedly trying to hit the ball right at Matt, but to no avail. And Matt? Well, he was standing perpendicular to the opposing outfielders, still playing catch with one of his teammates standing in foul territory beyond the left field line. Every fungo would go sizzling by Matt’s head. And every one of Matt’s throws would just miss singeing the stubble off of the left fielders’ faces.
Aside from being dangerous, this was an incredibly rude thing to do and against any sense of sportsmanship or decorum that the NCAA purports to endorse. I stormed out towards Matt and shouted at him to come to the dugout. He didn’t budge.
Finally, I turned my attention to his throwing partner and barked at him to come to the dugout. He looked terrified of both of us, but he complied with my command, leaving Matt standing alone in left with nothing to do except provide the opposing coach some target practice.
Eventually, Matt jogged in towards the dugout, furious I had put an end to his fun. I attempted to intercept him, but he jogged right by me. I shouted after him.
Me: What the hell were you doing out there?!
Matt: I was warming up!
Me: Everyone else was done throwing five minutes ago. The other team was taking I/O.
Matt: I don’t give a shit. I needed to throw some long toss.
Me: Long toss? You’re a first baseman. You needed to get out of their way. Imagine if they did that during our I/O, you’d be throwing punches.
Matt: Shut up, just don’t talk to me, you’re only making me madder.
What was a coach to do? Let him off with a slap on the wrist or bench him?
I benched him.
I’d had enough. I was tired of being held hostage by the whims of a 20-year-old. So I ripped the lineup card right in front of him and told him he’d have plenty of time to cool off.
As I tossed the confetti into the trash and began filling out a new card without Matt in the lineup, it dawned on me that I had just benched my best player moments before the biggest game of our season. He needed to be taught a lesson, no doubt, but we needed to win. I needed to win. This is precisely the kind of knee-jerk emotional response I try to avoid – and the whole season, my whole career, could come crashing down as a result. But it was too late now. I had made my stand. I couldn’t back off now.
I quickly scribbled a new lineup, inserting Jacob in to Matt’s spot. Jacob was a good kid, a decent hitter with some pop in his bat, but nowhere near as good as Matt. If Jacob could play well and we could just win the game without Matt, it would put an end to much of his bluster. I needed my team to back me up and drive the message home that we no longer needed to put up with Matt’s antics.
Opportunity knocked early as our first three batters reached via two singles and walk. Jacob stepped in, one pitch away from giving us an early lead and vindicating me along the way. I snuck a glance at Matt who was scowling on the far end of the bench, convinced that it should be him at the plate. Both of us watched closely as Jacob waved pathetically at a trio of breaking pitches in the dirt. One out. Shit. Everyone, including me, was thinking the same thing: there’s no way Matt strikes out in that spot.
No matter. As long as we cashed in, scored a few runs and went on to win the game, Jacob’s K would be lost to the boxscore. The next batter promptly grounded into a double play, ending the inning, thwarting a bases loaded no out rally, and setting the mood for the game to come.
The following five innings were tortuous. Maple’s lineup was built like the video game sprites from the original Ice Hockey game on the NES. About a third of them were built like the bats they wielded, a third like average Joes plucked from the waffle station in the dining hall, and the final third appeared to have just swept the podium at the local pie eating contest. The medium guys kept reaching base, the skinny guys bunted them into scoring position, and the fat kids drove ‘em in. Every. Single. Time. It was a sabermatrician’s nightmare.
Meanwhile, my team, which relied heavily on the long ball, found most of their deep fly balls hit a wall of wind and settle down in the gloves of the Maple outfielders. Any time we would get a rally going, the cleanup spot was due up and Jacob would serially kill it. By the end of the 5th we trailed 4-1 and Jacob was 0 for 3 with a pair of K’s and a GIDP, having left a total of 7 runners on base. He was the Charles Manson of rallies.
In the 6th inning, my right fielder twisted his ankle and was not able to continue. My bench was thin. So thin that the only healthy player with outfield experience beyond tee-ball was…Matt. Matt had actually played a full season as a right fielder under my predecessor.
What was a coach to do? Should I stand on principle and insert an unprepared player or should I fold and put Matt in the game?
We closed the gap to 4-2 in the 7th with runners on the corners when Matt finally got his first at bat. On the first pitch, Matt unleashed a violent hack that caught the ball squarely and launching an ICBM into centerfield. It pierced through the howling winds and landed 30 feet beyond the centerfield fence. Our dugout erupted while Matt chugged triumphantly around the bases. I was seething. I couldn’t even look at him as he rounded third base. My hands were buried in my back pockets, refusing to congratulate him on a job well done. Not that he would have accepted my congratulations.
Our bullpen was unable to hold the one-run lead so, two innings later, Matt came to the plate with the score knotted and a runner at first. Again, he wasted no time, swinging at the first pitch and driving it into the right centerfield gap. The runner scored from first and Matt Cadillaced into second. In the bottom of the 9th, he made a difficult running grab to record the final out of the game and clinch our playoff berth.
Two pitches. Four runs driven in. Matt had single-handedly won the game for us. He had acted like an asshole, spit in the face of sportsmanship, openly challenged his coach, and generally disrespected the game we loved…and he was the unquestioned hero.
The players were giddy as we huddled up after the game. I wracked my brain to acknowledge positive contributions leading to our victory that did not include Matt. There were startlingly few. I tried all the same, reluctant to give Matt the satisfaction. It didn’t matter. His teammates were shouting his name and patting him on the back. Feeding the beast. I was like Piggy clutching the conch, impotently trying to regain some semblance of order, awaiting the boulder overhead.
The bus ride back to campus was a party on wheels. Everyone was thrilled we had qualified for the postseason. Everyone, except me. I sat in silence and stewed over the events of the day.
What was a coach to do? Should I admit defeat and let Matt run the show or should I check him in his moment of glory and reestablish the pecking order?
I checked him.
Matt was the last guy off the bus, undoubtedly soaking in every ounce of his own greatness before stepping foot back into the real world. I was waiting for him and told him I wanted to see him in my office. He looked bewildered. After all, he’d won, hadn’t he? We needed him. Behavior was immaterial. I was irrelevant.
When we got back to my office, I kept it simple. I told him that my loyalties were in this order: The team is more important than the player. The program is more important that the team. And the game of baseball is more important than anything else. If he was going to disrespect the game of baseball, including our opponents, then he would never play for me again. We didn’t have to be friends, but we needed to coexist. He seemed to “get it.” At least, as much as a 20-year-old gets anything when he’s been knocked down a peg. Despite the fact that he had eviscerated my authority on the field earlier in the day, he appeared to respect my willingness to reclaim it immediately.
Epilogue: I never had another run-in with Matt. He returned the following season and went on to have a monster senior year, leading us back to the postseason. His temperament, attitude, and behavior had all changed for the better. Maybe it was a result of our chat, or maybe it was the mood altering medication he started taking (ok, it was probably the meds). Whatever the reason, he ended up being extremely close with me and the rest of the coaching staff…and all the other players hated him for it. To this day, he is the only member of that class who continues to stay in touch with the program.
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