Aw, shucks! The ball bounced weakly on two hops right back to the pitcher. My heart sank. With men on second and third I had dug in just seconds before thinking I was going to be the hero. It was not to be the case this at-bat. A thousand thoughts raced through my head as the ball sank into the pitcher’s mitt, none of them good. Failure is not a pleasant companion. I was already two steps toward first base, going through the motions of hustling out the play.
“Run,” I heard the distinct voice of Chick King from the third base dugout, “you can’t never tell!”
Chick was the best baseball coach I played for in a career that began in the backyard and ended 54 years later when I could no longer lift my right hand over my shoulder to throw BP to the high school guys. I couldn’t count the teams, players or uniforms I’d worn.
I was 15 and in my first year with Chick as a wannabe catcher for his American Legion Team. I put my head down and ran with all my might. Chick was not one for doing anything halfway. The pitcher’s toss to first base beat me by 20 steps!
My next at-bat, again with runners in scoring position, I took my best swing of the day and lifted a lazy fly ball behind second base. The shortstop was already in motion. My bat, tossed disgustedly in the air, hadn’t found the earth when I heard that familiar voice, “Run, you can’t never tell!”
The second week of college I realized life was a little tougher than facing that tall right-hander from Jackson. It was my first time ever away from home. School was hard. Professors didn’t sugar coat it or wait for you to catch up. Mom wasn’t there to tuck me in at night. My girlfriend’s Dear John letter was short and to the point. At football I was being used as a tackling dummy. I thought long and hard about packing it in and going home.
“Run, you can’t never tell.” In my despair I could hear Chick from 200 miles away. Only now I realized he wasn’t talking so much about baseball. Easy to run when you’ve blasted one off the right-center field wall. Easy to race around those bases of life when everyone is cheering you on. Easy to strut your stuff when you are on top of the world. It’s the weak pop-ups where you’d better bear down.
No light bubs came on. No great revelation befell me. No one at the university gave me any quarter. But I put my nose to the grindstone and went digging “down the line” like life itself depended on it. You’re sure not going to get anywhere standing at home plate.
Chick King is smarter than he looks.
And I’ve tried to repay him by passing his wisdom on to every young person that I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. Some get it immediately. Some, who, like me are a little slower on the uptake, hopefully will understand at some point down the road.
You don’t get many practice days in life. And there ain’t no easy runs.