With the start of baseball season, I'm reminded of a high school coach I had the privilege of playing for many years ago. Angelo Plaia made it his life's goal to teach the skills and strategies of the game, but he thought it even more important to convey the higher purposes of baseball beyond the scores and the stats.
We were ninth-graders playing for Oceanside junior varsity; our practices and home games conducted on a rocky, bare field near Oceanside Park. Frigid winds would gust off the nearby bay, and we wore enough layers to play football in December.
My Plaia-issued nickname was "Billy C," not because it matched my own name, but because I played outfield and reminded Coach of Billy Conigliaro, one of the famous brothers who played for the Red Sox.
One afternoon during practice, Coach Plaia called the team to first base. He was a bear of a man — built like a barrel — and about as strong. We laid down our bats and gloves and headed over. Like most of the guys, I thought Coach wanted to tell us something about our game. Instead, he gave us a lesson that's lasted a lifetime.
Coach knelt at the first base bag and called us into a huddle. "This, gentlemen, is first base," he said in his low growl. "There are many ways to get here: a hit, a walk, get hit by a pitch . . . yet it's amazing how many people never even get this far."
That's when it dawned on me that this talk was not about baseball; it was something bigger. "However," Coach continued, "before you can move forward on your journey, you've got to find some way to get HERE first. That's an important skill to have in life, gentlemen, the ability to find a way." He told us it took preparation and discipline to get to first base and that, once fortunate enough to get there, it took something else to move forward: desire.
"Sadly, many folks are satisfied to make it here and never get any further," he said. "That won't do on this team, gents. I need men who are ready and willing to go all the way. Anybody who has a problem with that can stay right here. The rest of you, let's walk 90 feet."
We all followed Coach. "Second base, guys," he bellowed. "One way to look at it is, you're halfway home. Another way is to realize that you're ONLY halfway home and you've still got a lot of work left to do." People only get this far, he said, because they have what it takes to get beyond initial success; to get an edge and move ahead.
Second base is about opportunity, Coach said. How do your opponents plan to stop you? Are they giving you the opportunity to take an aggressive lead, or perhaps even steal (legally, of course)? The point was, to get into scoring position, you needed to pay attention to detail. Know your surroundings and sense opportunity. When the batter reacts to the pitch, what will you do? You've got to be ready to act when opportunity knocks.
"Is there any sorrier word than 'almost'?" our coach asked as we stood at third base. Many a man wakes up on third base, mistakenly thinking that he's hit a triple. It's usually not that easy, Coach said. "To even be here, you've already been successful, but you still have not accomplished your ultimate goal. It's good, but it's not enough."
The goal, he explained, is to complete your journey by finding a way to get back where you started, but with the accomplishment of having contributed to the success of your team. After all, the team, as a family, is what the journey is all about, isn't it?
We walked the final 90 feet united. Coach looked down at home plate and nodded. "This is where you want to be, boys. Nobody is gonna give it to you, you have to achieve it. If you do, then you'll always look back on your journey and smile. The two best feelings you'll have in life are when you earn something and when you give something. So, if you're willing to give your teammates the opportunity to help you move ahead and you find a way to earn your way around all the bases, you will have achieved both. You'll be happy . . . and thankful. And, you'll be willing to give your right arm to get the chance to do it again!"
We lost Coach Plaia a few years ago, but he leaves a legacy of inspiring advice to dozens of young men that was conveyed in a language we could relate to and understand. He gave us the wisdom of a lifetime, and he earned our undying respect.
I've learned that the journey may seem much longer than 360 feet, and it can sometimes take a lifetime to complete. But, as Coach said, it's always nice to be able to look back and smile.
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