I thought I was done coaching summer ball.
For the last six seasons, I’ve coached either my son Lars’, or my son Isaac’s, baseball teams.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed it. But it’s a commitment, to say the least. And there’s always that voice in the back of your head telling you you’re not good enough.
You’re an amateur. The parents are going to hate you. You’re going to embarrass yourself so much your son renounces baseball and decides to become a prank star on Tik Tok.
I’ve written before about being “voluntold” into a youth coach position.
Since I’ve had a long career playing and coaching baseball, and know a little bit about the game, the powers that be up in their ivory towers have always decided that it’s a given that I’ll accept a coaching position each season.
They’ve been right, of course, but only because my ego outweighs that voice in the back of my head. And also, in truth, because I have the time available, and so many other parents don’t.
Anyway, both Lars and Isaac entered the Junior Legion program this year, which was handled by pre-determined coaches named not-me.
At long last, my summer was free!
Until, that is, Torrey Keith from the DC Softball Association messaged me, asking if I would coach 14U girls softball.
Gulp, and double gulp.
I should mention at this point I have a daughter, Annika (13). Actually, I have three daughters, but two of them are older than the boys and have long since absconded or otherwise renounced official acknowledgment of the sportswriter formerly known as Dad.
Annika is our youngest. She’s a good kid, and a good softball player. Fast, with a lightning quick release.
I’ve watched plenty of her games over the past few years, and suffice to say, it is a different beast than youth baseball.
The biggest difference is not the game itself. You can adjust to any parameters in that regard.
No, the biggest difference is … it’s girls.
I’m not going to get into any sort of debate on culture vs. biology. Any parent who has raised both boys and girls will tell you, there’s a distinct difference.
One of Annika’s coaches over the seasons has been Luke Huggett. I highly respect Luke, and have been so very impressed by the way he coaches. Not only for his tactical prowess, but his ability to get the best out of every single one of the girls on his teams.
Youth softball, especially in the younger years, is filled with walks and errors.
Luke not only displayed incredible patience, but he was always – always! – so positive, and nurturing.
My reason for double gulping at the thought of coaching youth softball was, I didn’t know if I had that in me.
To be sure, I like to think I have been a positive influence on the boys I have coached. I like to think I’ve been encouraging, and generally evenhanded.
There have been times through the years, though, where I know my frustration has shown through. Like when you’ve worked on something umpteen times, but the kid still makes that same boneheaded mistake for the umpteenth + oneth time.
By and large, the boys have handled my expressions of frustration with aplomb. Sometimes too much aplomb, if I’m being honest.
Anyway, when Torrey asked me if I could coach youth softball, I told him: yes. But only as an assistant coach, if at all possible. I just didn’t think I was ready.
Fortunately, Kailee Kotila, a former DC grad, offered to be the head coach. Meaning I didn’t have to deal with all the admin stuff (which can be a nightmare), and could ease into it.
Y’know what? It went great.
The girls were awesome. It was a lot of fun coaching them. In a lot of respects, it was no different than coaching boys. Be supportive, be encouraging, teach them some skills. Cheer the highs, commiserate the lows.
One difference I did notice though, was confidence. Coaching boys, you could have a kid hitting .067 that has never hit the ball past the infield, yet he will tell you he should be batting third in the lineup and also maybe you should start him on the mound so the world can witness his 52-mph dirtball.
The girls were the opposite.
“I can’t hit,” said our #3 hitter, in the midst of an 8-for-11 streak. “I was so much better in 10U,” said our top strike thrower. “I suck”, said our catcher who was miles better than 95% of the girls in the league.
I tried to impart on them that confidence can be an important part of the game, but I’m not sure it landed.
But, bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed coaching the girls, just as I ended every other season having thoroughly enjoyed coaching the boys.
Big shout out to Mari Anderson for her help this season as well. I learned a lot from her both tactically, and in dealing psychologically with girls.
If the DC Softball Association wants to use me as a coach again next year, I’m game.
I’d still prefer to be an assistant, if someone more qualified comes along. Shouldn’t take much, really.
But after a season of learning, I think I have what it takes to lead a team of 14u girls into battle.
Maybe our dugout chant can be, “I was better in 10U, but I’m still better than you!”
Eh we’ll work on it.
Coaching Annika’s team took up three evenings of my week.
Following Lars and Isaac around the region generally filled up the other four.
At one point this summer, I was at a ballpark following or coaching my children for 43 out of 46 days.
It was pretty neat to see Lars and Isaac on the same team for the first time this summer, in Junior Legion. For a number of games, they were hitting back-to-back in the lineup.
Isaac, who is going into 10th grade this year, was also pulled up to play on the Legion team, along with underclassmen Jackson Yanke and Jaeden McKinley.
I was a bit worried about his reception. As a younger kid, would the older players be welcoming, or would they be resentful?
I needn’t have worried. The players, and their parents, were awesome. The older boys accepted Isaac and made him feel like a part of the team.
It’s a credit to coach Justin McKinley and the DC upperclassmen for the warm welcome. Thank you.
I hope when my boys are upperclassmen, they welcome the younger players with the same warmth.
The last thing I want to mention is the upcoming Minnesota Baseball Hall of Fame induction of Jeff Neutzling.
Growing up, Nitz was one of my heroes.
I was one of the rugrats posting up on the right field scoreboard that was in play at Saints Field in the late 1980s.
We’d generally horse around, as young kids do, but I distinctly remember pausing to watch whenever Nitz came up to bat. His swing was captivating.
He was no less captivating as I went through my teens in the early 1990s. There was always the possibility of magic when he was at the dish.
Then, in 1995-1997, Nitz was my high school coach.
As my wife will tell you, I’m not a man that is blessed with a sharp memory, especially in regard to details from years gone past.
What I remember about Nitz from those days is not the wins and losses. We were pretty good as I remember, but lost in the section playoffs along the way. My senior year, especially, we were very solid, but lost in the first round unexpectedly.
I don’t remember the details from those losses.
What I do remember from those years, however, is Coach Neutzling.
He was, quite simply, a phenomenal coach. He worked tirelessly to help shape us into better ballplayers, and better young men.
He also had a presence that commanded instant respect, and drew you to him. It’s hard to explain, but when he was speaking to you, he captured your attention. He made you feel heard, and valuable.
Lastly, he was the most even keel coach I have ever encountered. He never – and I do mean never, at least as far I’ve ever seen or anyone has ever told me – lost the handle.
It’s pretty incredible in this day and age. Youtube is filled with coaches losing their marbles.
Nitz? Nah. The worst I remember was, I was in the dugout as a player, and an umpire made what was an absolutely atrocious call.
There was a brief flash of anger? Incredulity? in Jeff’s eyes, but it subsided quickly as he walked towards the umpire.
He said his piece briefly to the ump. He didn’t raise his voice, didn’t gesture. But I remember seeing the look on the umpire’s face: he knew he’d made the wrong call, and he was chagrined.
I got to play with Nitz for a few years with the Saints, before we moved away to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
In the seven years I was gone before moving back, he’d lived a couple lifetimes worth of heartbreak and tragedy.
We didn’t have a lot of interaction after I returned, even after I started covering sports for the Enterprise Dispatch.
We were cordial and familiar, of course, as one always is with Nitz. (He refers to me as “Sid”, in reference to Sid Hartman, and he will never not castigate me for the sacrilegious act of wearing my baseball hat backwards. It makes taking photos easier, Nitz! I swear I wear it properly when I’m not working!)
After it was announced he’d be entering the Hall of Fame, however, I finally got a chance to really visit with, and learn about, Jeff Neutzling.
He and I talked for a number of hours over the course of several days, culminating in my two recent articles.
I had only heard bits and pieces of his story until that point. By the end of our conversations, we’d connected in a very raw and emotional way.
I was also very touched by the 70+ letters written by people connected to Jeff, describing his impact on their life. I read each and every one of them.
It was truly an honor to commemorate your induction into the Hall of Fame, Nitz.
There is nobody more deserving. We are all better for having known you.