Assisting with his sons’ baseball team stirs memories of games past.
One of the beauties of cellphone technology is caller ID. When my phone trilled that afternoon in late December I saw the name of my friend and neighbor pop up on the screen. David Roth rarely called.
We exchanged genial insults, as men will do. Then he got to the point.
“I’m going to be the head coach of the school baseball team this year,” he said. “I need an assistant.”
He had me cornered, and we both knew it. My older son had played on the team last year and surely planned to try out again. This year, his kid brother was eligible to try out, too. Smart money said they’d make the squad. With two Davis boys on the team, why not rope in their old man, too?
“Well, uh —”
“What? It’ll be fun!”
“I, well, I don’t know, David, uh —”
“Dude. It’s baseball.”
For a moment, on that wet and gray afternoon, I am back on that most-perfect patch of planet, left field of Franklin Field in Cary, N.C. I’m 14. Gordon Hamilton has just unloaded a towering shot from home plate. It sketches a white arc across a blue sky. I leg toward deep left. My young brain does some quick calculating: x = speed of ball/angle of descent; y = speed of outfielder/reach of catching arm. And this: z = dorkiness of outfielder. I close in. The ball nears earth. I’m running full-tilt. The fence is at my face. I turn. I raise my glove —
“What do you say?” Roth, closing the sale.
I recall that long-ago coach who put me in left field for what turned out to be a championship season. He was equal parts task master and cheerleader, demanding and forgiving, the kind of man a boy wants to be. This was a chance to emulate him.
“OK,” I told Roth. “I’m in.”
The Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School’s middle school is housed in an aging brick building in Ormewood Park, close to East Atlanta Village. It’s not large, less than 400 students, and my sons live close enough to walk to class. When they complete studies there, Reuben and Sam Davis are scheduled to enroll at nearby Maynard Jackson High School.
When you’re 13 and 11, high school is as distant as the Rockies. What’s more immediate is its baseball field. We gathered there Jan. 10, the Wolves’ tryout day. The dirt base paths, still frozen from the night before, crunched underfoot.
Twenty kids shivered on metal bleachers. Their breaths rose in a collective white cloud.
Coach Roth talked. I didn’t listen. The kids, I knew, weren’t the only ones to be tested that day. I had an argument with myself:
Coach Softy: Everyone deserves to be on the team.
Coach Meany: No, they don’t.
We would limit the roster to 14. Six kids would be disappointed.
Roth, myself and a handful of dads ran the kids through a series of exercises to determine everyone’s skills. Some adults hit grounders in the infield. Others clocked speeds in the 40-yard-dash.
My job: assess outfielding skills. Another dad held a metal bat; I grasped a clipboard with the players’ names. I was to judge each with a number, from 1 (better luck next year) to 5 (suit up, kid).
“Ready?” I yelled. In the distance, a red baseball cap, sitting atop a fresh young face, nodded. My partner tossed the ball, swung the bat.
Ping! The bat sang as the ball rose in a high, lazy arc. Red cap bounded forward, circled. The ball paused for a moment, then headed toward earth. Red cap back-pedaled ...
...and missed the ball.
Coach Softy: Who hasn’t missed a fly ball?
Coach Meany: Why’d he miss that one?
Red cap didn’t do much better on subsequent attempts.
My pencil paused just above the sheet. I glanced at red cap. He looked like someone had stolen his iPhone. I sketched in, faintly: 2.
The morning passed. Some kids were a shoo-in; they’d been playing since T-ball days and it showed. Others exhibited promise, too.
Red cap? I worried about him.
Tryouts over, I went to Roth’s house later that day to help select the 2015 Wolves. We added players’ numbers, haggled over some findings, talked about character. It took 45 minutes.
Roth wrote the email that night:
"Please join me in congratulating the following students who will compose the 2015 ANCS Wolves Baseball Team. Coach Davis and I are looking forward to a great season. In no particular order:
“Huck Finch, Deangelo Nowell, Luke Crisp, Joseph Vatalaro, Will Dorn, Sam Davis, Max Finch, Reuben Davis, Callen Roth, Liam Dennis, Simone Rapier, Sam Cole, Alex Roberson and Joseph McGill.”
(We’d later add another youngster, Molly Merchant, who showed off her skills on a makeup date and became our 15th Wolf.)
Red cap wasn’t on the list.
My first baseball tryout? My brother made the team.
I was the kid in the red cap.
A team is born
A team is born
The team took shape.
Joe, a serious kid with serious baseball smarts, was a natural behind the plate; my son Sam, also a catcher, watched his every move. At shortstop, Deangelo — everyone called him D-Lo — moved like a ballet dancer; Liam, at second, was equally graceful. Will’s height and glove made him a natural at first. On third stood Luke, quick with his glove, strong with his throws. Reuben, Joseph and Alex prowled the outfield like predators. Sam Cole brought muscle to the field. Molly ran like an animal; so did Callen. The Finch boys were fun to watch. Simone did everything with a smile.
I watched them leave practice one evening, stalked by their shadows. I identified each by silhouette — the Finches, looking like twin fireplugs in cleats; Luke, built like a young Babe Ruth; Joseph, Liam and Will, slender and leggy as colts. I felt a stirring of love.
That night, I logged on to the Wolves’ Facebook page. Our first game was that coming Saturday, Feb. 14.
“A baseball team,” I wrote, “is like a casserole: the cooking time of each depends on the ingredients, the heat applied. That said, I think we have some good stuff in this casser – er, team.
“...I look forward to seeing you this Saturday, and on future dates. We’ll cheer and fume and clap and groan; we’ll shiver and sweat, swear and shake. We will learn, again, the exquisite joys and agonies of this finest game, baseball.”
What I didn’t write: I am just a dad who picked up the phone and lacked the guts to say “No.” I am afraid I will do such a lousy job that kids — and you parents — will sneer whenever I walk onto the field.
I closed the laptop. What would my old coach have done? I wanted to call and ask, but my cellphone plan lacks access to celestial area codes.
A shaky start
Greenforest Academy: remember that name. The team, whose principle colors are gold and green, assembled on one side of a windy field at Rehoboth Baptist Church near Tucker. The Wolves, in black and royal blue, gathered on the other.
As the teams went through pre-game routines — batting practice, fielding, limbering up — I saw my kids casting glances at Greenforest, aka the Eagles. The Eagles sneaked looks back at us.
Were we ready? Was our pitching bench deep enough?
Why weren’t we hitting the ball harder?
The ump, a big man with a deep voice, cut into my thoughts. “Coaches, bring your players on the field!”
We lined up, caps off. A guy working the scoreboard took it from there. “Let us pray.”
My prayer that day went unanswered. Final score: Eagles 8, Wolves 3. At game’s end, we assembled in the outfield.
“We all made mistakes today,” said Roth. “I made mistakes.”
Roth gave me a significant look. I glanced away. Coaching first, I’d missed at least two signals from him. I was no quicker on the uptake than a shaky 12-year-old afraid to swing the bat.
Some of the dads in the stands, and at least one mom, knew more of the nuances of baseball than I.
Driving home, I felt like a fraud.
I remember Roth’s phone call in mid-March. “I won’t be at the next game. I’m going to be out of town,” he said. “It’s up to you.”
We were playing one of the middle school squads from Chamblee. Chamblee, tough kids from the suburbs.
I put the phone down. “Guys,” I called to my sons. “Next game, I’m head coach.”
Sam looked up from an iPad. “Coach Roth won’t be there?”
“Are you sure?”
Sam looked back at his iPad. “Oh, boy.”
My first look at Chamblee, I wondered how many players drove to the game. One Wolf parent swore he saw a 5 o’clock shadow on the starting pitcher.
Chamblee played big, too. The score stood at 4-2 when I took Joe off the mound. He had pitched his league-mandated maximum. Luke, a big scowl atop an equally big frame, took over. But Chamblee was determined not to let up. The score reached 10-4.
I paced the dugout, fretting. What would my coach have done?
“Do something,” he’d often said, “even if it’s wrong.”
I called time. No one spoke as I walked to the mound. It felt like a quarter-mile trek. Luke handed me the ball. I looked at our shortstop. “D-Lo.”
D-Lo took the ball, wound up. Pop! The echo of fastball against mitt sounded like a handgun fired in a closet.
I returned to the dugout. I’d done something; we’d see if it was wrong.
By the last inning, the Wolves, with hits and steals and walks, narrowed the gap to one run. Alex, our tying run, was on second. The winning run? He was on first, and it was my boy. Reuben looked nonchalant. I did not.
The Chamblee coach called time to talk to his pitcher. I walked to the plate where Will stood. He had a 32-inch bat on his shoulder and a concerned look on his face.
I reached in my bucket of baseball knowledge and discovered it had a hole. I had nothing to offer the kid. I felt the eyes of Wolves parents on me.
“I’m going to tell you something you already know,” I said.
“We need you to hit this ball. Hit it hard.”
He did, a rope into right center that caught the fielders by surprise. Alex scored to tie. Reuben galloped to third. One out.
Reuben took a long lead off third. “Careful!” I hissed. The kid, true to form, ignored me. He crouched like a spider about to jump.
The pitcher hauled off with a wild fastball. It hit the dirt, skittered under the catcher and spun in the dust. The catcher jumped up, head pivoting. Where was the ball?
The pitcher, covering the plate, ran toward home.
So did Reuben.
That moment is captured forever in that part of my brain that renders everything in slow motion:
Reuben kicks up clods of dirt like a thoroughbred on the home stretch. The catcher finally finds the ball. He leaps. Reuben slides. For a moment, both youngsters are airborne, two lines about to intersect. The catcher’s mitt hits my son on the calf. Reuben’s foot, his glorious, dirty foot, is on the plate. The boys look at the umpire. The ump, a black tower, pauses for a heartbeat. His arms scissor.
Final: Wolves 11, Chamblee 10.
I joined the players in a post-game dash across the outfield. For one game, at least, I had established credibility — with my kids, yes, and maybe their parents.
That night, I imagined a conversation with my long-ago coach.
New coach: I did something, and it was right.
Old coach: Way to go!
Not all fun and games
When you are coach, you are diplomat, tactician, adviser. You are Job in a baseball cap. Talking to a 13-year-boy is like lecturing a cat: each looks at you for a second before staring at butterflies, birds, passing girls.
You are also the bad guy. Before the season began, each player signed a contract. It was a promise not to discredit the team on the field, in class or anywhere else. Break the promise, miss a game.
The first to sit out a game was my oldest; a teacher complained about his behavior in class. A few weeks later, the other Davis kid rode the bench for conduct issues. Then another kid goofed up when he didn’t turn in paperwork required for him to play ball. A fourth tanked in class and watched his teammates lose.
My wife, Sylvia, like coaches’ spouses everywhere, listened ad nauseam to my self-pitying moans.
“You have no choice,” she told me one morning as we walked the dog. “Those are the rules.”
Forget the rules, I wanted to say, they’re too harsh. That wasn’t true. I only wanted to avoid something unpleasant.
We lost, too. Chapel Hill Gold rolled over us, 11-4. Druid Hills Vipers bit the Wolves, 11-2. Greenforest — Remember them? — bashed us again, 6-4.
And, in a game that still plagues me, we played Druid Hills Red. Again, I was the head coach. Roth was out of town.
“Don’t worry,” he said in a pre-game telephone call pep talk. “You guys will win.”
The team that was supposed to lose out-hit and out-played us. As head coach, I ran the show — and, as the score indicated, I did it poorly. Druid Hills Red, 5; ANCS Wolves, 4.
March was tough. Frequent thunderstorms forced league officials to cancel and reschedule games, often with only a couple days’ notice. In a four-week period, the Wolves played nine games. Some were on school nights, forcing players (and their parents) to shove homework and dinner into an hour before piling into the car for a dash to the field.
Once, storming through the back door after rushing from work for a twilight game, I found Reuben and Sam lounging about in their bedrooms. They weren’t wearing their uniforms. Their mud-caked cleats rested on the garage floor. They hadn’t eaten.
“Why aren’t you ready?” I roared. “Do I have to do everything?”
My sons jumped like rabbits. In five minutes they were ready. Their old man, still thunderous, grumbled as he turned the car around and threw it in drive. Erk! The car raced to the street.
A few moments passed in silence.
“Guys,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK, Dad,” they muttered. That night, the Wolves won, a sweet little contest against a Paideia squad, 11-4.
Every Wednesday afternoon, with but two exceptions, the Wolves practiced. Most took place at Jackson’s baseball or softball fields. I’d run through basic stuff, then divide the kids into two squads for scrimmage games.
Luke and Will had hitting contests. Alex and Liam, practicing to be men, would exchange playful barbs. I developed a routine with Joseph, a truly nice boy: “Are you going to hit the ball, Mr. McGill?” He always did. It was all great fun.
Except once. On an early April afternoon, the Wolves met at Grant Park, whose fields were drier than Jackson’s. It was a tense session. I still do not know why. Some of the older kids went out of their way to criticize the younger ones. One player singled out a young third baseman who’d made a sloppy throw to first. Then he missed a grounder.
“We need a third baseman,” the older kid said. The boy at third kicked the dirt, turned his back to the infield. His shoulders shook. I recognized the signs of a boy about to cry — my boy, Sam.
At that moment, I failed my son. Like so many who coach their own youngsters, I regularly demanded more of my boys than I did of the others on the team. I expected an 11-year-old to shrug off the taunts of an older player.
My old coach would have made the older boy run laps until he fell on his face. I did not.
Son, I am sorry.
Third time’s the charm
We finished regular play with five wins, five losses and one tie. We rolled into the playoffs, won, then took off for spring break. Upon our return, we were headed for a championship game. We would play either Paideia, whom we had beaten twice before, or Greenforest. They’d smacked us around two times already.
My boys were rooting for Paideia. Not me. “It’s hard to beat a team three times,” I said, parroting the long-ago words of my coach. The Eagles had beaten us twice. “I’m rooting for Greenforest,” I said.
My support was well-placed. In mid-April, Greenforest beat Paideia. For the third time, it would be the Wolves vs. the Eagles. Date: April 24. Time: 5:30. Place: Medlock Park, Decatur.
Butterflies. We all have them, and for all reasons.
Small wonder that I felt the flutter in my stomach as the Wolves gathered for the championship. Tossing batting practice, I cast a glance across the field, where the Eagles were going through pre-game routines. Each player moved with fluid grace, loping across the outfield in easy strides.
Greenforest came out strong, scoring immediately with a walked runner who stole all the way around the bases. I winced. History had shown the teams that beat us often did it in the first inning.
Things didn’t look encouraging when we came to hit, either. Our bats were cold. Watching Greenforest’s pitcher, a lanky lefty, I sensed a certain — what? — presumption? They had us beat, and knew it. At the end of three innings: 2-0, Eagles.
Ball games are like the ocean, with ebbs and flows. We were on an ebb; that needed to change. “We need to get something started,” I said as we came to bat in the fourth, “and it needs to be now.”
That was our inning. With a series of hits, walks and determined base running, the Wolves tied the game — Will galloping in to put us on the board, followed hard by Molly. 2-2! Our dugout erupted. I watched the Eagles. Suddenly, they knew: They did not have us beat.
The Wolves never faltered after that. We went up 3-2, then 4-2. The Eagles pounded back, threatening in the fifth. My boy Luke, big feet planted squarely on the mound, retired the side.
We hit, we ran, we scored. Alex banged the best hit for the Wolves, a bounding double that rolled to the fence. Will smacked a hard single. Players who walked took advantage of passed balls and ran as if they’d stolen more than a base.
The Eagles suffered a bad break. Their catcher got hurt and had to leave the game. Greenforest brought only nine players. With eight to play, Greenforest had to forfeit an out when the injured player’s turn came at bat.
At the top of the seventh and final inning, the Eagles had one more shot — a long one. The team trailed by 4. Joe, who’d bruised his rear end in a hard slide home, went to the mound. He was our closer.
The first batter hit a sharp shot to left. It looked like a beam of light, slicing the dark. He stretched it into a triple. Joe didn’t blink. Batter No. 2 strode to the plate, determined to drive in his teammate. He did not. Strikeout.
Remember, Greenforest got only two outs.
The hopes of Greenforest lay on the shoulders of a leggy kid swinging a white bat. He looked across 54 feet of anxiety at the pitcher with the scuffed butt. Joe hauled off with a fastball.
Ping! The hit created more decibels than distance. It traveled in a slow arc back to the guy who’d thrown it. Joe caught it. 9-5, end of game! We spilled onto the field. We ran, we howled, we high-fived, then ran and howled some more.
We won a trophy that night. Satellites can probably see it. It is blue and gold with a baseball player atop its lustrous columns. It’s as shiny as the bumper of a ’53 Buick, as gaudy as a Mardi Gras parade. It is beautiful. It will be a permanent reminder of the championship Wolves, 2015.
So ends our remarkable season. Remarkable in several ways.
Our kids grew this season, and not just physically. I saw eighth-graders make memories that will never leave them. I saw seventh-graders turn heroes that saved more than one game. I saw sixth-graders display flashes of the players — and, yes, the men — they one day will be. At different times, every player on this team did something to win that trophy.
We all came away enriched — none more so than myself. On more than one occasion I ground my teeth, cursed quietly (No one heard that, did they?), kicked up a mountain of dirt in frustration. I also laughed, tousled young heads and reveled in the beauty of young people engaged in that most exquisite pursuit, baseball.
Gordon’s hit is re-entering the stratosphere. In some distant part of my teen-aged consciousness I hear screams. Every eye in the world is on me.
I turn. I raise my glove over the fence, and — pop! The ball lands in the pocket of my worn Rawlings. Gordon’s home run is an out.
I look to my teammates on the bench. They’re all standing and screaming.
The coach, my coach, has done them one better. He’s standing on the bench, cheering. In that moment I doubt if anything can be better than this perfect thing, this baseball.
On the Wolves’ championship night, I had another conversation with the old coach.
Old coach: I’m proud of you.
New coach: Thanks, Dad.
The other day, I saw a fifth grader who’s coming to middle school next year.
“Hey,” I said to him, “do you play baseball?”
Behind the story
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Mark Davis joined the AJC in 2003 after working in Philadelphia, Tampa and his native North Carolina. A graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Davis has reported on heroes, bums and creatures that walk, swim, crawl and fly.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHERS
Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.
Brant Sanderlin has more than 20 years’ experience as a photojournalist, including 15 at the AJC. He shoots a variety of assignments, including front line action during the Iraqi war, sporting events, breaking news and human interest stories. He grew up on the family farm in eastern North Carolina.