Al’s View: Play Ball!

By: Al Hudson-April 3, 2008

Play Ball! These two words bring much joy to many people this time of year.

As many of you know, baseball has been a passion of mine since childhood. When my playing days were just about done, I made a decision that changed my life. It didn’t make a financial improvement, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I changed lives.

Being a baseball coach is a calling, very similar to being a preacher. As a coach, you are a teacher, counselor, advisor, disciplinarian, and in some cases a surrogate parent. It is not just about teaching how to play the game, but teaching how to be a responsible person after baseball.

This past weekend I was reunited with a player that I coached as a 13, 14 and 15-year old. He and his wife met me at a game I was scouting. We talked more in those couple of hours than we did in our first three years together. We talked about everything from baseball to fishing to family, and everything in between. He proudly told me of all his accomplishments in life, not just baseball. By the way, he was drafted and played professional baseball. But that was a small part of the conversation. His wife marveled at our conversation. “He hasn’t spoken to me or anyone in his family as much as he opened up to you.” As our time together ended, I extended my hand to him, but he refused. “That isn’t good enough.” As we hugged like father and son his only two words were “Thank you!”

During the ride home many other players came to mind. Some players that might never have accomplished what they have if not for baseball.

Twenty something years ago, I coached a young man that vividly remains in my memory. I attended a high school baseball game to scout a pitcher. During the game, a 15-year old centerfielder caught my eye. Extremely fast, he stood out from the rest. After the game, I spoke to the coach about the young man. “He is probably not the kind of person that you want on your team, I was told. He moved here to play football, but he has some distractions in his life.” Being hardheaded I spoke to the young man anyway.

“I would like to play on your team, but I don’t have transportation, and I don’t think I can afford it.” I noticed that he kept saying “I” and not “We”, but it didn’t register. I just told him that we would find a way.

As I later found out, he lived alone in a trailer, while his parents lived 40 miles away in another town. He wanted to play football at that school so badly that he opted to live alone. I’m sure if we had child services back then, this wouldn’t have happened. His parents brought him food every week. We talked on many occasions, but I couldn’t dissuade him. Little did I know, the young man was a straight A student. After graduating from high school, he attended a junior college, so he could play baseball. He, then, transferred to the University of Tennessee, where he completed his baseball career and achieved his undergraduate degree. He did this while continuing to maintain a 4.0 average. He graduated from medical school and is now a doctor. Did I help him? Probably very little, but I learned a lot from him. It’s not what appears on the outside that should determine what’s on the inside. 

I learned another lesson from a young man that will have a career in Major League baseball. He was recommended to me by his high school coach as a left-handed pitcher. A very talented young man that was always willing to do as asked. One day, in the batting cage, he was fooling around with a bat. I was impressed and asked him how he hit in school. He replied, “Oh, I don’t hit. I’m a pitcher. I like to, but my high school coach said my future was on the mound.” Please understand that he had never asked me for the opportunity to hit. Pretty amazing for a 15-year old. I had seen him field grounders at first base, and he was very good.

Not having qualified for brain surgeon status, this old coach let the young man play first base and bat when not pitching. Before the season was over, he was our leading hitter and pitching less and less. I recommended him to Jack Leggett at Clemson University and the rest is history. After his junior year he was selected in the first round of the professional baseball draft. Not only that, he was the third hitter picked that year. What an amazing transformation from non-hitting pitcher to the third best hitter in the nation. Parents, don’t let a coach pigeon hole your son. If you didn’t know Babe Ruth was a pitcher for many years before being a full-time hitter and outfielder.

At times, I begin to wonder if I have reached the age where I need to retire from the game for good and let the younger guys take it from here. But every time I see a former player who tells me about how his life turned out, or I think about all the players that were able to attend college because of baseball. I can’t step aside.

As long as I am still on this side of the grass, the sounds of a bat hitting a ball and that ball hitting a glove will draw me to the field. The thrill of finding one more outstanding player is what drives me, and probably keeps me alive. To help someone to attend college and make a better life for him and his family is motivation enough. Besides, I have grandchildren that play, and I want to help them be everything they can be as they learn the lessons of life from this great game.