At age nine, I started my organized baseball career at Northwood Little League. Having missed the tee ball years, I was a little behind. For the first two and a half seasons, I had delusions of playing infield.
Usually in Little League, the better players are in the infield, with the best player normally at shortstop. As a beginner, shortstop wasn’t going to happen for me, but I somehow managed to get some time in at third base. Sometime during my second year, though, I was relegated to the outfield. Baseball wasn’t exactly going the way I imagined.
On the bright side, it wasn’t right field. Everyone knows the worst player on the team is usually in right field, except maybe the kid actually in right field. Turns out, though, I could run down and catch a fly ball better than all the other outfielders, so I ended up in center field.
Season three rolled around. It was 1979, and I was 11 years old. Spring was in the air and new beginnings were all around. I was moving up a league to the Majors division, which meant the teams now had 11 and 12 year-olds. A new season meant a new team, complete with new hat, and usually a new coach – hopefully a coach who could see me as an infielder.
Enter John Phares. Mr. Phares was a small, thin man. He seemed much older than he really was, too, thanks to thinning hair. He was also very calm and soft spoken, a big change from my previous year’s coaches.
At the first practice, Mr. Phares put us through hitting and fielding drills to determine our abilities and best position fit.
“Where do you play, son?” He asked me.
“Third base”, I replied, not wanting to head back to the outfield.
So, Mr. Phares put me in the infield group, fielding grounders and throwing to first base. I must have done decent enough, because opening day came, and I was still at third base. I was the backup, but, hey, that was to be expected as an 11 year-old in the 11-12 year-old league. I had successfully avoided the outfield.
In Little League, every child is required to play three of the six innings in the field and have at least one turn at bat. If you were the starter, you had a decent chance of two batting turns because the starters (aka better players) usually produced more hits and batted around more in the first three innings. If you were a second stringer, you’d probably only get the one chance at bat. Once the subs started coming in, the hits usually dropped off, and batting around the lineup didn’t happen as much. So, I wasn’t getting too much action at the plate.
At one practice, Mr. Phares approached me and the conversation went something like this:
“Greg, I talked to Coach Jumper.” (He was one of my coaches from the previous year.)
“He says you are a good outfielder. You didn’t tell me you could play outfield.”
“I like infield,” I replied.
“Head out to the outfield and let me hit you a few.”
I guess at this point I had a choice. I could either goof it up and prove the old coach wrong or I could catch a few fly balls. Since I was only 11 and had not learned the “mess it up the first time and you won’t get asked to do it again” trick, I caught the balls.
Mr. Phares called me back in and made me the offer that would be the turning point of my baseball career.
“Son, I’ll give you a choice. You can continue to play third base and play half the game or… you can move to center field and play the entire game.”
Oh, put me in coach, I’m ready to play today
Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today
Look at me, I can be centerfield.
“Centerfield” – John Fogerty
The next game, we had a new starting center fielder.
My baseball career lasted seven more years and almost all of it was spent in center field. There was one unfortunate summer where I had to pitch as well, but that is best not talked about. (Sorry about that hard “tag”, Tommy). I went on to have some decent success in baseball, including some all-star teams (with Mr. Phares as coach) and even a high school state championship where Mr. Phares’ son David was a teammate.
A few weeks ago, I learned that Mr. Phares passed away last summer. Living in a different part of the state now, I hadn’t seen him in many years and had lost touch. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I ever thanked him for his influence and support during those years.
If you’ll allow me to get a bit preachy, here are the points I want you to take away from this post. First, for those of you readers who are coaches, thanks for giving your time and energy. Whether you ever hear thanks from the kids or not, I guarantee you’re having an influence. Please use it wisely.
Second, if you’re a parent of a kid on a team, thank the coach, and make sure your kids understand the sacrifices these coaches are making for them. Teach them to respect the coaches. If you don’t like the way the team is being coached, become one yourself and see how hard it really is.
Third, many times we don’t always know what is best for ourselves. Sometimes it takes someone else looking at our skills and putting us in the right position to be successful. Maybe we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for input.
Finally, if there’s someone from your past you need to reconnect with and tell them ‘Thanks’, don’t delay. Your chance won’t be there forever.
Thank you, John Phares. You are certainly missed.
If you have a favorite coach story, feel free to leave in the comments below.
Greg (’79 Astros, ’82 Phillies)
PS. You can read John’s obituary here: http://mackey.tributes.com/our_obituaries/John-H.-Phares-96296354