Send Me In, Coach!

A lesson in good sportsmanship.

It was with high hopes and a glowing sense of community purpose that Ryan Mullaney began this past high school baseball season as head coach of the woeful Evergreen Cougars. A former standout athlete himself -- he'd dabbled with a pro football career before being cut by the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears -- Mullaney, 43, had begun coaching several years earlier at the Little League level. Two years ago, Evergreen's varsity football coach, impressed by the ex-pro's personal credentials, had put him in charge of preparing the team's defensive line. Last year, when the school's athletic director asked Mullaney to consider the head baseball job, he'd happily accepted.

Many things about the challenge appealed to him. He knew and loved baseball -- he'd played on a semi-pro team in his younger days -- and his son was on the Evergreen team. With only a single win the previous year, the 2000 Cougars were a team that could only shine by comparison. The money wasn't important, and a good thing, too: The pay was $1,000 for the season.

Mullaney quickly learned not to calculate his hourly wage. The team's schedule often featured a game every day of the week, and the coach found himself putting in time that rivaled his day job as a telecommunications executive. Still, the effort paid off. Although it wasn't a successful season as measured by, say, the 1927 Yankees -- or even the 1999 Rockies -- the Cougars at least were making things close. The team would end the season 6-9, with many of the losses by only one or two runs. "And the kids were great," Mullaney says.

Mary Ann and Tom Van Buskirk.
John Johnston
Mary Ann and Tom Van Buskirk.

Not so great were the parents. Many Evergreen adults seemed to have strong opinions about Cougar baseball, and the evening phone calls started coming soon after the season began. "Your use of the hit-and-run is ridiculous," complained one dad -- also a boardmember of the team's booster club -- during a late-night call. "You've hit into seven double plays."

"I haven't used the hit-and-run," Mullaney replied, reminding himself to stay calm.

At least the calls to his home were private. Worse were the parents -- dads, generally -- who at the game couldn't help jutting their red faces inches from the chain-link fence and screaming into the back of Mullaney's head about the lousy job he was doing. "You got one team whose fans are cheering and going wild, and the other with a father screaming through the fence at the coach," he says. "Which team do you think would have the better mental outlook?"

Mullaney's ace pitcher's father was a lawyer. As the season wound down, the coach recalls, the dad was looking forward to a game against a particularly tough opponent; scouts were certain to be watching from the stands. The game started out rough for the Cougars' pitcher: He was shelled for eight runs in the first inning. But then the kid calmed down, barely allowing a hit in the second and third.

The father, however, was livid. "He runs over to me in the dugout and starts screaming at me during the game that his son had thrown too many pitches," Mullaney remembers. A few days later, the coach discovered that a formal complaint had been filed against him with the school's athletic director. Although the Jefferson County school district eventually dropped the inquiry, Mullaney found the joy bled out of the season.


Doesn't everyone remember his coaches? My football coaches weren't all brilliant or compassionate -- or even necessarily civil. In my sophomore year, Coach Jamalkowski cursed us out and slapped our helmets regularly. "You screw up," he'd growl during one of his inspirational speeches, "you get the bricks. That's where you dangle your balls between two bricks." He'd hold his hands about a foot apart and then suddenly slam them together.

We got a new coach our junior year. He was short and wide, with thick tortoise-shell glasses and a wide mouth with a metal tooth in the middle. He'd always lick his fingers before demonstrating some skill, so when he'd show us how to explode off the line, by suddenly flicking his fingers outward, the words "Fire out!" were always accompanied by a spray of spit. When we still got it wrong, he'd shake his head and mutter, "Ah, Jees-sus, boys."

These men were not particularly good role models, and I ended up working as a journalist, not in the National Football League. But for the life of me, I cannot remember most of my high school English teachers.

And I'm far from alone. My friends also remember their coaches with a detail and clarity that escape memories of their academic teachers. It's not just that coaches tend to be characters, either. We all tried to get away with things in our classrooms that we wouldn't dare try in front of our coaches. Even some of my classmates who went on to occupy jail space still call their coaches "Sir."

This outsized influence has its perils. When I was twelve years old, my Little League team, the Indians, was doormat to the league. During one game late in the season, we were down by some double-digit margin. There were still a couple of innings left, but our coach, Mr. Brady, began stuffing all of our equipment into his duffel bag, shaking his head and saying, "This is just ridiculous." He quit, and so we did, too.

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