Last winter, I was introduced to a young college hitter. Born and raised in Hawaii, he was in his freshman season at a small junior college just outside Riverside, CA – the same school one of our longtime players was at. They became close throughout the fall. One day he invited him out to the shop to catch his bullpen. He was a catcher, so it was good work for him. But he really needed work at the plate.
After the bullpen, we didn’t have a lot going on. He asked if he could hit off the tee for a bit. I didn’t see any problem with that. after observing some swings, I started asking him some questions. I wanted to know what he focused on and why. Sensing he was an open book, I hopped in the cage and offered to throw to him. Pretty shortly, we were analyzing video off my iPhone that was propped in a corner of the cage.
He might not have been one of our athletes, but I could sense he was curious, had a high care level for what he did, and was frustrated he wasn’t getting the help he knew he needed. I gravitate towards these kids – largely because I was one of them. I didn’t know if I had the answers he was looking for, but I knew I could get him going in a better direction. So every time he showed up to our shop, I encouraged him to grab a bat and meet me in the cage. If he was willing to work, I was willing to give him my time.
Throughout the fall and winter, he would make the drive with a couple of his friends to our shop anywhere from one to three times per week. Between bullpens, we would work in the cages. Session by session, he started to regain some of the confidence he has lost from a difficult fall season. His swings started to become more consistent. A perfectionist by nature, he learned to be more forgiving on himself after bad reps. Baseballs he used to squib now became pitches he could drive in the air. Nothing beat the feeling of seeing him light up when he did.
As he became more comfortable around the guys, his personality started to come alive. Once shy and timid, this young man became the life of the shop. People gravitated towards him and the infectious energy he brought to the table. If somebody hit a new PR, he was the first one to celebrate. If you needed a hug, he was waiting with open arms. If you wanted to laugh, he was going to get one out of you. He made everyone around him better because he was just as excited to see you succeed as he was to see himself succeed. You cannot put a price tag on that.
In his first 20 games, he was batting .371 through 35 at bats. I was fortunate to see one of those in person. While his family was still living back across the Pacific, I wanted to make sure he knew he had a support system here. I could relate to the feeling of being away from the people who care about you the most. It brought me great joy to see him experience success early on. I knew just how hard he had worked and how much pressure he put on himself to be at his very best day in and day out.
Which ultimately became the thing that caused everything to fall apart.
I remember the evening like it was yesterday.
I knew things had not been going well before he texted me. A couple of his friends had reached out and filled me in. His coach had become increasingly critical of everything he did not do well. His desire to attend practices had suffered. Every time he picked up a ball or a bat he felt he was being judged. His own self criticism was eating him alive. He saw his name in the lineup less and less.
After practice that day, he decided to make the ninety minute trip down to our shop in Huntington Beach with the hopes of turning around his fortune at the plate. I didn’t know what it was going to take, but I knew there were a lot of layers we had to unpack – and if I didn’t try to help him, nobody else was going to.
He started the evening by taking a few rounds of front toss. It was pretty immediate a lot had gone wrong, but I had this weird feeling I knew exactly where to start. It made sense. The swings might have been off, but the problem was written all across his body language. He was no longer smiling, laughing, and bouncing off of his teammates. You could feel the frustration in the room after he took three consecutive bad swings. Baseball to him at that moment wasn’t something he loved to do. It was a judgement of who he was. And he felt he was letting everyone around him down.
The swing was one thing – we had fixed those problems before. The underlying problem, however, was not the mechanics of his swing. It wasn’t the fact that he was failing, either. It was the fact that he believed his failures were an indication of who he was as a human being. And I knew that feeling from first hand experience. If he wanted to salvage the rest of his season, he had to believe in his bones the people who cared about him would love and support him whether he went 4-4 or 0-4. He had spent so much time investing into other people he had neglected himself – and if he wanted to find his joy for baseball again, he had to learn how to do for himself what he did for others on a daily basis.
In the middle of his third round, I stopped the thrower and walked out into the middle of the training floor. He had just rolled over three balls to the pull side and was becoming increasingly frustrated. In that moment, I didn’t give him a cue, thought, or drill. I calmly walked up to him and told him it looked like he needed a hug. He agreed. I proceeded to give him a big bear hug – the same bear hug he greeted me with every time I saw him. I told him I loved him. He had spent so much time over the past several weeks beating himself up. I wasn’t going to let him do that anymore. Once I saw that smile back on his face again, I knew we could get to work.
Our first round of flips that evening started just after 8 p.m. After several hours of swings, video, and heart to heart conversation, he hit his hardest ball of the evening at 11:30 p.m. Seeing him and everyone else around him light up in that moment is one of those moments I still think about to this day. Not just because it was exciting. But because it stands for everything I believe in as a coach.
The long hours, hard conversations, and moments that challenge everything inside of you are not an exception to the job. They are the job. And if you have the opportunity to be there for a young man who needs someone to believe in him, you have a responsibility to be there for him. If there is anything I take a tremendous amount of pride in as a coach, it is who I am and what I say in those moments.
They transcend anything you will ever do with a bat or a ball in your hand.
This past week, I dropped this young man a note to see how he’s been doing. A lot has changed since that evening in late March. I’ve moved to Florida. He’s transferred schools and is now playing for a Division II program in Colorado. What has not changed, however, is our relationship. Above my desk hangs a hand written letter he left me before I moved from California. I opened it up and started to read. I got about halfway through before I was overwhelmed by tears.
I sacrificed a lot when I moved my life across the country from Pennsylvania. I lost friends. I was challenged financially. I burned myself out. I found myself in the lowest place I had ever been – personally, professionally, emotionally. But those were the risks I decided to take when I found my calling as a sixteen year old after a group of coaches repaired my broken dream of playing collegiate baseball. That letter brought all of those emotions out of me.
I was at work when he FaceTimed me. For most people, I would ask for them to wait until the evening. But these days it is hard for our schedules to overlap, so I gladly took the call. He shared with me that over the weekend he made his first start behind the plate. In his first at-bat, he hit a ball over the right center field wall for his first collegiate home run.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of a player before.
While his new teammates saw the ball go over the fence, what they didn’t see was all of the work that went into that single moment. They didn’t see the setbacks, heartbreaks, and long nights wondering if he was good enough to continue to chase his childhood dream of playing college baseball. They weren’t around for the BP rounds that went deep into the evening long after most were in bed. The work he spent preparing for that moment was arduous, unforgiving, and lonely. But that is ultimately what it takes.
When you make a promise to yourself that you are going to do everything in your power to become the best version of yourself, the “choices” you make aren’t really choices. They are a continuous commitment to yourself that you are going to fulfill what you set out to do every single day. As a coach, it is an honor to spend time around people who make this commitment to themselves. They change everything you ever thought you knew about your role and your responsibility to give others your very best day in and day out.
I’m not sure what is next for this young man, but I do know this: He does not have to prove anything to anyone other than himself. He did it. He overcame one of the most difficult periods of his life, never lost sight of his vision, and never let anyone else define his reality for him. He kept working when it was difficult to. He avoided bringing others down when it would have been easy. When last season did not end the way he had hoped, he took a chance on himself and started fresh somewhere else. He wasn’t willing to let his previous coach ruin his love for what he did. Now, he has a moment he can call his own that he will remember for the rest of his life. And no one can ever take that away from him.
For me, this is why I do what I do. Scoreboards don’t give me satisfaction. Seeing someone else grow in front of your eyes does. Watching someone who looks up to you accomplish something they never thought they could have is a feeling unlike any other. And as long as I continue to feel that way, I don’t see myself doing anything else.
For the many more stories that have yet to be told, understand this: If you are a player, this is the level of care I will bring to our work every single day. I don’t know how long it will take, the obstacles that will pop up, or the parts of the journey that catch us off guard. But I know your moment is waiting.
And we will create it together.