When St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was fired last weekend, I was reminded of a line used in virtually every mafia movie ever made: “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.” Tell that to the guy getting whacked.
Despite being one of the winningest managers in team history, (and by all accounts a genuinely good human being,) Matheny was unceremoniously dumped mid-season by the very same organization that sang his praises and extended his contract after he led the Cards to the postseason in each of his first four seasons at the helm—a feat no other manager in baseball history had ever accomplished—as well as three division titles and the National League pennant in 2013.
Alas, professional baseball is indeed a business. A big business. Stars like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, for example, may each ink free-agent contracts in the next offseason worth more than a half-billion dollars. Neither of them will ever be fired mid-season, even if their teams never win another game. You can bet their managers would get the axe though. That’s professional baseball for you.
Hall of Fame pitcher and manager Bob Lemon once said, “Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.” That may be the most factually accurate statement I’ve ever read.
The Ashland Optimist Club youth baseball/softball league serves as a reminder that baseball isn’t supposed to be about business. The boys and girls playing in the Optimists’ T-ball and coach-pitch leagues are learning what the game is really all about: having fun.
When I heard, back in May, that the boys’ coach-pitch league needed volunteers to be head coaches, I jumped at the chance to combine two of my passions: baseball and teaching kids. I figured that if I could get children, ages six through nine, to listen to Mr. Naughton in a classroom, then surely, I could get them to listen to Coach Naughton on a ballfield. And because we already knew each other from school, I figured we would probably have a lot of fun while we were at it.
I figured right.
In just two short months, each of the boys on our team, (The Great White Sharks,) has shown remarkable improvement. The other coaches and I have taught them how to throw, catch, field, hit, and run bases. We’ve taught them to be respectful of their coaches, their teammates and their competitors. And we’ve taught them that above all else, baseball is supposed to be fun.
I needed to be reminded of that myself.
Despite loving the game since I was very young, baseball hasn’t always been fun for me. When I was a kid, my dad coached my teams. I wasn’t the greatest athlete, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to impress him. He was always proud of my efforts, but I frequently felt like I was letting him down—especially the time when I wet my pants during a game while standing on second base.
Eventually my mediocre and frequently embarrassing playing career ended, abruptly and bitterly, following a “difference of opinion” with my high-school coach. It was my senior year, and I was excited because I had a very good chance of being named the starting second baseman and leadoff hitter for our team. Instead, I would never play another inning of baseball again.
Years later, when I coached my son Alex’s youth teams, I somehow became the kind of coach/father that sucks all the fun out of the game for his own kid. Alex quit baseball after three seasons. I tried for years to convince him to give it another chance, but to no avail.
As an aging slow-pitch softball player, I sardonically announced my retirement from all ball-and-stick sports, having reached a point where my complete lack of physical talent made what should have been an enjoyable hobby into an unsatisfying and often painful grind. My lifelong love-affair with the game had come to a pathetic end. Or so it seemed.
This summer, The Great White Sharks reminded me how much fun the game of baseball, in its purest form, can be. In my forty years of playing and coaching baseball and softball, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed more than I have this season.
It’s immensely gratifying to see how much fun the boys on our team have had learning and playing the game of baseball. Last week, for instance, an adorable, bespectacled, soon-to-be-first-grader—one who has struggled a bit with the basics of the game for much of the season—made a perfect play at first base to record the third out of an inning. He immediately threw his hands into the air shouted, “I did it!” loud enough for everyone, including the baseball gods themselves, to hear.
Seeing the look of pure joy on his face, and on the faces of his teammates, coaches, and family members, was the highlight of my coaching career.
Mike Matheny coached a Little League team before he became the manager of the Cardinals. I hope he finds his way back to coaching kids again so that he, too, can be reminded of how beautiful the game of baseball really is.