If I Ever Get Back

Little League baseball has all the elements of the famous Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”.  The GOOD is the coming together of several towns’ Little Leaguers as they try to jell into a good baseball squad.  After last July’s Little League experience, it was neat to see the friendships formed by the players with much different addresses and backgrounds.  My son, Sam, when seeing one of his all-star teammates at a baseball game, didn’t hesitate to give a hug.  That team really bonded.  Last July was a month that hopefully the 9- and 10-year-old players will forever remember.

You see, little things really don’t matter much as time marches on.  Sam began last July playing about half of the innings of each game.  After the team reached the state tournament, he was stacked with two other players and rarely saw more than one inning and one at bat.  None of that mattered.  It taught Sam to be a good teammate. He helped the team try to rally for wins and suffered as much as anyone when the team failed to advance.  The most important part of last July was the memories and friendships.  It’s all Good!

After a year, you tend to forget the BAD of Little League baseball.  There’s not much bad, but there are distractions that affect the memories and friendships.  Sometimes parents are offended if one Little Leaguer is in the starting lineup over their boy.  It’s kind of a status thing that’s been violated, even if there is a good reason for the line-up.  You should always look at your son as the BEST, just don’t let reality hit you too hard.

Darn those parents.  I wonder where I fit into that BAD part of Little League baseball.  I would like to think I was a GOOD parent, but only the coaches from a year ago can give you that detail.  Fortunately, there isn’t much BAD in Little League baseball.

Unfortunately, there is UGLY in Little League baseball.  The ugly part rears its oversized head when the focus goes off the kids in the uniforms.  It can be adults yelling at the umpires or parents cursing the other team’s players for an accidental hard slide or errant throw that hit one of our players.  I wish someone would video the adult yellers so they could view themselves.  If they yelled at their neighbors with the same force they yell at umpires, the police would be called on a domestic disturbance.  However, since it’s sports, the UGLY comes out.

I don’t want to talk about last year.  July just ended with the roles reversed.  Sam again got to play in the post season.  The GOOD was everywhere; more friendships were formed and more memories were made.  However, it wasn’t very satisfying to me; my role had changed into a coach.  I had no intention on coaching this year’s team.  I was sure that Victor and Richard, last year’s coaches, would again coach the Northwest Little League 10- and 11-year-old All Stars.  However, by a rule quirk, they couldn’t assume the same role.  Someone who had been a head coach in the Northwest Little League had to become the manager of the 2011 team.  As it turned out, I was the only one who could take the job.  I love coaching baseball, but I really like watching Little League baseball as a parent.

I would be lying to you if I told you it was a perfect month.  I wish it was a month where all the coaches, players, and parents bonded for a great experience and where the team stormed to a state championship.  The team did win their district tournament and once again played in the state tournament.  Unfortunately, we lost all three games in state and headed home Sunday with a little feeling of unfulfilled promise.

For most of the month, four coaches worked with the 11-year-old All Stars.  I wish I could tell you we were a cohesive coaching staff.  I wish I could tell you that the parents were in agreement with the coaches at all times.  I wish I could stand on a raised pitching mound and proclaim that no one uttered a bad word to the umpires or opposing players.  Unfortunately, that would not be truthful.  Those distractions were present, but I think most of the players will have good memories from the super heated July of 2011.

I want to talk about the All Star’s coaches, particularly one that I got to know last July.  We kept in contact over the winter, and laid out plans for this summer.  This all began last July as I was finding a cool spot to sit as Sam began practicing with the 2010 All Stars.  A fellow Maryville parent, Jeff Patton, just happened to be sitting in the same shady area.  As his son, Zach, along with Sam and the other players went through a couple weeks of workouts under the hot July son, Jeff and I got to know each other.

By the time July had ended, Jeff and I were ready to make a few suggestions that we thought would improve the Maryville team that played in the Northwest Little League.  As I spent last summer with Jeff I got to know his entire family.  It’s funny what a small world it is.  Jeff had married a Nebraska girl he had met at Northwest Missouri State University.  Melinda’s father, Jim Dodge, is the head girl’s basketball coach at North Bend Central in Nebraska making him Jeff’s father-in-law. Jim is a friend of mine who has won a couple of state basketball championships at North Bend.  His younger daughter actually went on a basketball trip to Mexico with a group of basketball camp all-stars.  When I coached at Doane College, I sponsored a group of 16 players from my basketball camps that traveled to Mexico.

I didn’t talk to Jeff much after last July.  His oldest son, Zach, goes to school at St. Gregory’s and Sam attended Maryville Middle School.  I started talking to Jeff again once the basketball season began when Jeff called and asked if I could get him tickets for a women’s basketball game.  I put enough tickets at the will-call window for Jeff’s family, which consists of an older daughter, Josie, and a six-year-old bundle of energy named Adam.

The Patton’s became regulars at the Bearcat games and so did my conversations with Jeff after the games.  They followed us to St. Joseph for the Elite Eight.  The Patton’s became one of our best Maryville community fans.  I enjoyed listening to Jeff talk about the game.  He knew what he was talking about.  After all, he was the head coach of his son’s fifth grade basketball team.  I promise you, it’s tougher coaching fifth graders than it is a college basketball team.

In late March, the season ended and Jeff and I turned our attention to Little League baseball.  We were going to coach together, putting together most of the 11-year-old players in the 11- and 12-year-old division.  Brian, at Maryville Park and Recreation, was terrific in listening to our ideas and finding us practice fields all summer long.  I had a great time coaching Sam, Zach and a bunch of other 11-year-olds.  I did have three older kids and Trey Hoover was really good for our team.  Hopefully, we laid the ground work for good Little League baseball in Maryville.

Technically, Jeff was my assistant coach but it felt like we were co-coaches.  That’s what it feels like when both coaches are on the same page.  Lori Hopkins had been my basketball assistant for eight years when she decided to go into athletic administration.  Her official title on the basketball team was associate head coach, but it should have been co-head coach.  For a couple of weeks after she assumed her administrative role, things seemed a little awkward between the two of us.  Search me why the awkwardness, but Lori felt it, too.  Finally, she stopped me in the hall and said, “Is this what it feels like to get divorced?”  That was funny.  Lori hit it right on the head describing the relationship between coaches of an athletic team.

As April practices turned into May games, Jeff and I talked quite a bit on the phone about practices and games.  Melinda, Jeff’s wife, commented one day, “You’re just like an old married couple.”  It was funny when she said it, but this weekend, Melinda admitted she was wrong.

When I humbly took the job of coaching the 11-year-old All Star team, there was no question that Jeff would be in the dugout with me.  Unfortunately, Little League rules only allow three coaches in the dugout and I had four.  I hoped it would work itself out, but Jeff was definitely going to be in the Northwest Little League’s dugout.  Looking back, I should have taken myself out of the dugout.  I did love being just a parent last July.

This July was no Clint Eastwood spotting, but I did ask one parent the trivia question, “What was Clint’s first starring role?”  July of 2011 had a lot of GOOD, and a little of the BAD and a little UGLY, just like the dialog-challenged cowboy whom Clint Eastwood portrayed had experienced in the movie.  However, with an assistant coach (co-coach) like Jeff, who seemed to be on the same wavelength as me (an over-aged parent of an 11-year-old), it was a great month of Little League baseball.  I hope everyone found mostly good in their experience.  (In case you wanted to know; Clint Eastwood played Rowdy Yates in the TV series, Rawhide.  It was his first starring role.)

Remember Melinda describing Jeff and me as an old married couple?  She changed her mind this weekend.  Melinda now describes the way we coach to a dating couple.  Melinda figures correctly that old married couples never talk to each other.  What – old married couples don’t talk?  I think she has it right.

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Gene Steinmeyer

About Gene Steinmeyer

Gene Steinmeyer coached the Northwest Missouri State women’s basketball team for 13 seasons before retiring after 26 years as a collegiate head coach after the 2011-12 season. He retired as the second winningest women’s basketball coach at Northwest as his 2010-11 team won both the MIAA Regular Season and Tournament Championship advancing to the NCAA National Semifinals one game shy of the national championship game.