The dismissal of Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice for using gay slurs and firing balls at his players, among other acts of stupidity, started me thinking about the coaches I had while growing up. None I can recall even remotely approached Rice’s level of old-school intimidation techniques though my teammates and I undoubtedly tempted a few of them with our mediocrity.
Take poor Mickey Lione Jr., for example. Lione, one of the most successful and respected coaches in Connecticut let alone his hometown of Stamford, had the misfortune of coaching me on two of his few exceptionally unexceptional high school baseball teams. Our two squads compiled losing records versus the other city high schools, in the county conference and, obviously, overall.
My contribution that first season was that I never played an inning. As the backup to our one bright spot, an all-county catcher named Tony Romeo, I spent the entire spring in the bullpen warming up our perpetually in-demand relief pitchers.
In the one game we actually had a commanding lead, Lione temporarily paroled me to pinch hit. I ran the count full, hit a long foul ball and then walked. My statistically line for the 1985 season was a true sports anomaly: zero-for-zero with a perfect 1.000 on-base percentage.
I should have quit while I was ahead.
The next season I started, and Lione soon learned I could only throw out base stealers if they accidently slide past the bag.
The one time that did happen, I quickly returned the favor. While on base I, one of the slowest runners on our team, deluded myself into think I received the steal sign. I ended up getting myself and our runner on third thrown out to end the inning.
Though my blunder made the lowlights of Coach Lione’s postgame talk, he didn’t single my incompetence out by name. Instead at the next day’s practice he had a teammate interview me in the over-the-top style of wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper “Piper’s Pit” talk show.
“Just WHAT. Were YOU. THINK-ing?!?” asked our infielder Dennis “Filling in for Roddy” Piper.
“Um,” I said. “Obviously, I wasn’t.”
That was probably our team’s season highlight.
Until I was benched.
The only thing I ever witnessed Coach Lione do that might be considered inappropriate these days occurred whenever our team would start throwing the ball past one another during fielding practice.
“What is this?” he would yell to no one in particular. “A Chinese fire drill?” Inevitably it would be followed with his doing a little monkey dance while imitating the sound of a circus calliope.
Before him there was Fred Holzweiss, a Korean War vet who managed me in Little League. Mr. Holzweiss had a disciplined, methodical approach befitting his Marine Corps training. This included having us fold down the left and right side of our cap bills to allegedly help shade our eyes.
In retrospect, I think he demanded this to create blinders to focus our eyes on the game before us rather the rusty playground swings and holdover hippie-invested woods on either side of the field.
The only thing Mr. Holzweiss would ever yell at me about was my failure to stand up straight while addressing him.
Typing that, I just felt my shoulders rise up and back. Semper Fi, sir.
Finally, there was my dad. Since spring is his busy season as an accountant, he would serve as assistant coach rather than manager. However, almost every season he was left in charge for the final game.
Since my teams were rarely in contention at that point, he would ask everyone what position they wanted to play, and try to get them at least an inning at that spot. Regardless of the score, everyone’s season ended on a high note.
Unlike Mike Rice’s.