A nine-year-old kid named Shaq taught me a valuable life lesson.
Mind you, Shaq wasn’t out to teach anyone anything. What Shaq was trying to do was hit a baseball. Problem was, Shaq couldn’t hit a baseball if it was sitting stationary on a Tee much less hit one that was flying through the air.
Batting wasn’t his only problem. Shaq was no athlete. He was chubby and slow. He didn’t move well. He was so-so at fielding a ball. He could throw but not far nor straight.
I liked Shaq, because, what he had in spades was heart. Shaq tried hard.
I fixed Shaq’s throwing technique first thing. Eventually his fielding came along. When it came to batting, though, the only thing Shaq hit was a brick wall.
I was able to address the technical issues that prevented him from hitting, but Shaq’s biggest problem was mental. In batting practice he was relaxed and managed to make contact with the ball from time to time. Put him in a game, though, and all my coaching went out the window. Shaq panicked. He took his eye off the ball. He swung too early or too late. He dropped his back shoulder which made the bat swing upward instead of keeping on the same plain as the ball.
I worked with him on his mental game, but nothing worked.
Fast forward to the last game of the season. Shaq had yet to set foot on base. Even my weakest batters managed to get on base from time to time, but not him. At a minimum, pre-teen pitching should have gotten him walked a few times, but his habit of panicking and swinging wildly struck him out every time. His last at bat rolls around. The kid on the mound was a strike thrower who couldn’t throw hard. This gives me hope. The shortstop for the opposition is a kid that is unusually tall for his age and is a bit uncoordinated. He usually played First base but, I guess because it was the last game of the season, his coach let him play shortstop. This also gives me hope. I am praying Shaq manages to hit a hard ground ball to the right or left of him, because there is no way that kid will get to it.
The first pitch comes along. It is nowhere near the strike zone. Shaq swings and misses by a mile. I hear one of my assistant coaches mumble a word that I hope our players didn’t hear. I agree.
Shaq doesn’t swing at the next pitch. It comes right down the middle. Strike two.
My heart sinks a bit. Here we go again, I think.
“All right, Shaq,” I say. “If it’s there, give it a rip.”
I’d love to tell you this story has a Hollywood ending. I’d love to say Shaq crushed the ball for a triple or he drove in the game-winning run.
The third pitch comes straight down the middle. In typical Shaq-fashion, he jerked his head toward the sky and took his eyes off the ball. It was yet another wild swing, only this time there was a difference. Miracle of miracles, Shaq hits the ball.
It isn’t the grounder I hoped for, but a pop fly. It sails over the shortstop’s head. Shaq freezes, watching the ball fly. I holler at the top of my lungs for him to run. My assistant coaches who are every bit as desperate to get Shaq on base holler “Run!” The parents in the bleachers behind him holler “Run!”
Shaq drops his bat and charges for First base.
The tall shortstop back peddles into the grass of the outfield. He leaps up stretching to his full height and catches the ball. Had he not been so unusually tall, he would have never caught it. Had he been forced to move in any direction but backwards, he would have never caught it.
I deflated. My assistant coach grumbled that word again, this time a little louder. I agreed.
Fate, it seemed, was against Shaq at every turn.
Shack was bent over huffing and puffing at First base. Our First Base coach placed his hand on Shaq’s shoulder and told him, “You’re out, Shaq. He caught the ball.”
I watched as realization dawned on Shaq. He came running back to the dugout, his face stoic. For that moment, I hated sports. I hated baseball. I hated being a coach. I had to deal with his failure and mine as well. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. I failed the kid. I failed as a coach. It was a new and bitter experience for me.
I was working on finding the words to console him, when Shaq looked right into my face and broke into a huge smile.
“Did you see that, coach?” he shouted, unable to contain his excitement. “I hit the ball! I knocked it all the way to the outfield!”
Shaq was beside himself with delight. When I recovered myself, I put on a grin to match his. “Good job, Shaq!’ I told him. “Way to swing that bat!”
Shaq’s mom was beside herself, too. After the game she thanked me for working with him so much.
What did I learn that day? Success is in the eye of the beholder, folks. Let that kid determine how he did. I don’t coach any more, but I carried that life lesson with me since that day and I suggest you do too.
I never coached Shaq again. He left baseball for other pursuits. I bumped into his mom years later and she thanked me again.
I told her I owed Shaq all the thanks. And I do.