Tuesday, September 23, 2008

MISC: The Coaching Years

Familiar names have been in the sporting news of late. The Don, Don Matthews. David Murphy. These are familiar names to me, although the names belong to other people than the newest head coach of the Toronto Argos and the Texas Rangers' outfielder.

For me, the Don is Don Benoit. And David Murphy is the goofy kid who played catcher for my earliest softball rep teams. They are part of the extended family I met through softball.

As a kid, I tended not to share many hobbies with my father or either of my brothers. As softball (fastpitch, really) was my sport of choice, I naturally hung around with the kids on the teams I was playing on. In my earliest years of playing ball, that meant hanging out with Randy Hargreaves and his younger brother Kirk. Their dad, Russell, was my coach and I spent a LOT of time over there. So much so, that Mr. Hargreaves figured I ate enough and often enough over there to have chores. Hard to believe now, with my disinclination towards physical labour, but I was considered a Hargreaves for ordering around purposes. When the Hargreaves moved out of town when I was ten, it took me awhile to recover.

I really didn't play all that well for other coaches after that. A second-baseman by trade, I was good enough to play on rep teams. But I was a nasty piece of business. I played more like Ty Cobb than Aaron Hill. They say of somebody who was overly competitive, "he'd try to trip his own mother rounding third base with the winning run." I never got the chance, but I would have. Trust me. I had particularly bad run-ins with the teams from Huttonville. And I got tossed from games for cursing those yellow-bellied sapsuckers. I have a legendary ability to carry a grudge.

Eventually, I found an outlet for my aggression by coaching. My pals, Jimmy Hughes and Glen McGonnigle, had coached in atom house league the year before I turned 14. They convinced me to take over the Longines Witnauer team in the atom league that season and I found out I liked coaching, even if the kids were only eight and nine. It was fun and we did occasionally win games. Not too many to scare the adults coaching the other teams. But enough to keep me coming back for more. It was that first season coaching that I met The Don, Don Benoit.

The Don was a force of nature. His real-life job was handling the scheduling of lakers, shipping boats plying the Great Lakes. This was in the days before computers. He could change skeds all in his head. As bright as many of the bridge players are that I have come across (and that includes double professorships), Don Benoit might have been the brightest guy I ever met. As I've gotten older, I gotta tell you, I have come to look a lot like him. He was always hanging around, slightly sloop-shouldered and stockily built. He was perpetually in a baseball jacket and dockers, with a few days growth of beard. His first words of advice to me were, "Son, remember that the kids are here to have fun first, second and third. Winning comes last." It took me awhile to find out how right he was.

One more thing before I put the subject of The Don behind me. The man had a great sense of humour. Hey, he let me babysit his kids, Joe, Darren and Mary! But the surest sign, was the sign on the front door of the house. "The Benoits, a Division of Molson's Breweries. Professional Drinkers since 1879" I might have the year wrong. Never saw the man drunk once in all the time I knew him, but he was plenty happy to let people have a chuckle at the expense of underestimating him.

The next year, I coached in atom again, with a lot more success. I was asked to help coach the the atom Selects, who played a handful of tournaments against other town select teams. It wasn't an organized rep league, just a series of tournaments. It was a lot of fun coaching with Ken Hills, who's boy Patrick, was probably the dominating pitcher in Ontario for the age group. That would largely continue to be the case until about Midget, where Patrick decided to concentrate more on hockey. Bramalea and Alderwood split most of the titles that year, Alderwood having their own big pitcher in the form of Ed Kastelic, who DID eventually make it to the NHL with the Whalers and the Capitals. The Alderwood team was coached by Bob Rose, like me, hailing from Newfoundland. For competitors, we became good friends. I also became quite close to the Hills family over the next three years.

I wasn't even 16 the next year when I got the phone call. Hugh Pitcher was offering me the head coaching spot with the Squirt Rep team. Actually, my name was the last one on the list, meaning if I said no, there would be no team. It didn't even have a sponsor. Also, there would be no Etobicoke Softball Association, since Eringate and Alderwood needed at least a third team to have an actual season. And they needed a league to be eligible for Ontario championship play. I was oblivious to this and full of piss and vinegar. "Of course," I said. Didn't give it a thought. Actually, I spent more thought on naming the team and coming up with a logo, a life-long hobby of mine. Thus were born the Bramalea Buckaroos.

Pitcher made LOTS of mistakes over his years as a softball exec, not the least of which was getting me to coach. But he hit a homer in finding me an assistant coach. Barry Murphy was a senior men's player of less than stellar ability. He hustled his way onto squads, saw lots of bench time and learned what worked and what didn't work when it came to softball. With son David exhibiting interest in his dad's game, it was time to start coaching. It helped that Betty Murphy, his wife, was one of those perfect coach's wives. She was enthusiastic, smart enough to cheer for everybody and smart enough to probably know more about the game than her husband, and keep that fact under wraps.

With me being still short of driving age, I was part of the baseball baggage the Murphys would haul to games. We ended up talking ball a lot. I more or less became David's older brother. As with my other visits into extended families, I wouldn't have traded that time for anything. The Murphys were, and still are, some of the best people ever.

We didn't win a lot initially. In fact, we only won one league game that first year, thanks to my friend Bob Rose at Alderwood. Although THEY were fighting tooth and nail with Eringate to win the league title, they voluntarily forfeited a game at Victoria Park against us. This was back in the days before the re-entry rule. Alderwood was thumping us but good, again. Bob had emptied the bench and had nary a reserve available. When his catcher, a top-notch player named Phillip, threw a temper trantrum after being called out, Rose benched him and forfeited the game. His kids were NOT going to misbehave without repercussions. As it turns out, Alderwood eventually won the league title anyway, but his kids always played with class.

I think the team was something like zero and 11 before we headed for Woodstock for a tournament. I was quite sure I was the worst coach of all time by then. Fortunately, for the first time all season, we didn't play either of our league mates (we'd even drawn them in two tournaments). When we finally got fresh meat, it turns out we were okay. In fact we won the consolation title at the event. By season's end, I would have put us in the top eight in the province. Not that that did us any good. We drew Owen Sound in the first round of the provincials, one of the few teams to give Alderwood a tussle. We lost. Alderwood won the Ontario title. As it should have.

From being a head coach, I turned to being an assistant coach. I was still a teenager, too young to drive, and I needed an adult to temper some of my more creative ideas. I had some doozies. I actually made a presentation to the softball association to have all tee-ball players hit left-handed. As I pointed out, they were too young to know differently and would swallow any coach's request to hit from the first-base side of the diamond. I envisioned a complete roster of left-handed hitting rep teams in a few years. Left-handers are two steps closer to first base in softball. And that makes a difference. But I was denied on the motion. Curses!

As an assistant coach, I got a chance to work with Dave Murphy, who was rounding into possibly the best catcher in the province. He loved throwing the ball and we worked out the limits to his pickoff attempts. The outfielders had to be in coverage and the runner had to be too far from the bag ... OR having turned his back to David. Some of the best plays I saw David make that year came when a runner was only a step off the bag. He'd turn his back and make the lazy step to the base and find the ball in the fielder's glove awaiting him. It was comical at times. The best part was involving the outfielders who knew David caught even OUR guy by surprise at times. Outfielders didn't sleep on our teams, making it less of a drudge out there.

I assisted on several teams during my late teens. I was obviously helping out with Barry and the squad that I'd coached the year before. John Fleming gave me a chance with the older kids, the bantams. Clinics I coached in, in the spring exposed me to the girls' game too. Some of those kids at the first clinics, like Connie Mitchell, later became the squad that represented Canada at the inaugural World Junior Championships in Edmonton in 1981. I also came across the coaching talent of Grandpa Bob Sorenson. Nothing Grandpa did looked dynamic. Everything he did worked though. He looked like he should have been in a rocking chair while still embarrassing senior men's teams with his baffling array of drops and curves. Most fun watching pitch that I have ever seen in the game. And that includes Eddie Feigner. And he was better as a coach.

Turning into my 20's, I was needing my extended softball family less and less. I was with Murphy and the peewees when my boys' coaching career came to an end. I enjoyed that team as much as any I had ever been involved with. Still, I had a problem with a pitcher on the team, who's dad was a long-time executive in the association. He'd behaved well until the day after we had our roster frozen for the rest of the year. At that point, the hidden away Damian surfaced and I found myself actually thinking about doing physical harm to a kid. I quit on the spot, handing over the coaching reins to Ted Menzies. I remember going to my car and getting some pictures of the kid in question out of the trunk. These were left-over extra black and whites our photographer at the Brampton Guardian newspaper (I was assistant sports editor) had printed up so I could give them to the kids. The particular kid in question was due to get two shots.

I tore them up into small pieces, tossed them into the garbage can and drove away.

Naturally, I ended up watching most of the team's remaining games. I sat out in centre-field and growled at anybody who came near. It was with great pleasure that I watched Barry and Ted guide the kids to the league title. I was finished coaching.

Well, not so fast. Although I proudly wore my 'Retired Coach' shirt all of the next year, I was as busy as I could be. Gerry Harvey got me to help him out with the bantam girls. I helped in the peewee house league with a boys' team. And the new president of the softball association, John Payne, asked me to work all the local tournaments. A fairly smooth-talking insurance salesman, John knew which buttons to push to get me announcing and helping officiate the several tournaments that the association ran each year. I had designed the model they used, which was a round-robin affair guaranteeing each team three games. Made us VERY, VERY popular, since most tournaments only guaranteed teams two games. Since this was my baby in a ways, John succeeded in inveigling me into helping out. He and his wife Evelyn became the last of the families to become part of my extended softball family. They even had a young daughter who became the last person in the world to succeed in getting me out on open water, when she pulled the big sorrowful eyes routine to con me into doing most of the legwork on a paddle-boat trip on the local lake.

Eventually, I had to give up my extended softball family. There was one last hurrah at the world championships, as I traveled with the team to Edmonton. I had coached or coached against more than half the team. Some of them, I had coached brothers of. One's brother was my best friend at the time. But when the last out was called in a quarter-final loss to Japan, I was on my way out the door. I was done with softball.

Seems I had developed pretty severe August grass allergies. Never have figured out why they call them August grasses. I start wheezing and popping pills no later than my birthday in mid July. I then pray for the first frost, economic consequences be damned. Not being able to breathe does have a negative effect on my desire to coach. So I stopped. Didn't even go back to watch. With the exception of announcing at a 1984 Olympic prep tournament, I haven't been back since.

I miss softball. I miss the people. But I had a chance to get to know some REAL good people, and for that I am thankful. They made an impact on my life. I hope I left them a little bit better off for it.

No comments: