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Fri July 11, 2014
The influence of a little league baseball coach can last a lifetime
Last summer, I told you about Coach Mac, my little league baseball coach who believed in me, and helped me rise from the team’s worst player to become the team’s captain in one season.
I didn’t know where my old coach was, but after the story aired, I received a thank you letter from Coach Mac himself. This week, Coach Mack passed away.
The summer before Mac McKenzie became our little league baseball coach, I spent the season picking dandelions in right field, and batting last. But just weeks after Coach Mac took over, I rose to starting catcher, lead-off hitter, and team captain.
Trust me, I was no bigger, faster or stronger than I was the previous season. But I had one thing I didn’t have the year before: confidence. Instead of playing back on my heels, I was up on my toes, and swinging for the fences.
I’m sure Coach Mac’s influence planted my desire to become a coach myself – and later, a teacher, too.
Near the end of last year’s commentary, I admitted I had no idea where Coach Mac ended up after they moved to California the next year, or even if he was still alive.
Well, a couple days later, I got a thank you letter from Coach Mac himself. Just getting it thrilled me, but his message was even better. It was direct, honest and funny – just like the man himself.
He told me about his family, about moving to Scottsdale, about his two bypass surgeries. In 1990, he received a heart transplant. He said he’d read my books and had every intention of writing years ago, but never followed through. But that day, when his wife found my story online, this is what he wrote:
“I was blown away to see my name and the wonderful things that you had to say about me and my influence on you. I have had a very good and successful life with a few plaques, awards and complimentary speeches given to me, but none compare to what you said and how you have honored me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
I don’t know if Coach Mac got choked up writing it, but I got choked up reading it.
I promised him I’d write him a longer letter soon, and fully intended to. But my fall filled up with travel and speeches, deadlines and classes. I kept waiting to find enough time to write The Perfect Letter – and kept waiting. I wrote down Coach Mac’s name on my to-do list month after month.
Three nights ago, I was teaching my sports writing students at Northwestern University how to write a profile. I told them their subject doesn’t have to be famous. It could even be one of their former coaches. Then I told them my story of Coach Mac, right down to the sweat dripping off the tip of his nose while he smashed grounder after grounder during practice. I couldn’t resist telling my students how great it was to hear from Coach Mac – which provided just another reminder I still needed to write him. I scribbled his name down yet again.
I got my final reminder the very next day, when I received an email from a friend of Coach Mac’s I’d never met before.
His message was as simple and direct as Coach Mac himself. “We lost Mac yesterday.”
This hit me harder than I expected. After all, I couldn't have believed he’d live forever. I felt grateful I’d written the story about him – and even more fortunate that Coach Mac had read it, and responded. But when I went back to read our correspondence, I was chagrined to realize I had never written him the longer letter I’d promised. I felt even dumber when I saw he lived in Scottsdale.
A couple months after he sent me his first letter, I gave a speech in Scottsdale – and if I had kept in better touch, Coach Mac and I would have gone out for a beer I would never have forgotten.
Still, I’m lucky. I realize that. And we can’t do everything. I know that, too.
After I drove back to Ann Arbor that night, about game time, I swung by my old elementary school, where Coach Mac smacked all those grounders years ago. I was surprised to find the ball field has been replaced by a garden, with a shed in the middle of it. But when I crouched down into my old position, where home plate used to be, I could see it all – right down to Coach Mac, sweat dripping off his nose, tapping me another bunt to throw to first base.
Thanks, Coach. Sorry it took me so long to write.