There’s infield dirt from four different softball fields in my shoes and the back of my neck is sunburned.
I’ve consumed more pounds of sunflower seeds over the past month than my waist line cares to admit and I’ve spent more time in my old high school so far this year than I did when I was a student in high school.
If the field is my second home, the gym is my third home and the weight room is my fourth.
Then again maybe my truck is my second home - I’ve put 12,000 miles or so on it in six months hauling around my favorite player, along with all the balls and bats, spare pants and shirts, chairs, water and Gatorade that I can’t fit in my garage.
My wife says she’s not sure she remembers who I am anymore but I’m pretty sure the clerk at Kwik Stop in Cloquet and I are best friends.
Not all of my dinners since April have been unhealthy and likely to contribute to an eventual heart attack. When I’m not eating at convenience store burgers, ordering pizza from a hotel room, or trying out a Red Robbin in Eau Claire, Wis., I do get a few home-cooked meals but that usually happens somewhere around 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
By 10 p.m. I’m fast asleep.
When the weekend comes, I’m off to the lake. Wait, that’s wrong. I haven’t been to the lake place since May.
The mice must be enjoying the solitude.
Sometimes I cut the lawn before the sun goes down but most of the afternoons are spent somewhere along Highway 169 just west of Virginia.
One afternoon last week I spent two hours on a turf field in 85-degree heat (which felt more like 100 degrees) tossing pitches at a dozen teenage girls until my arm hurt.
It was supposed to be a 30-minute bunting practice, but they didn’t want to quit despite the fact that some of them had already been to swimming practice, or the weight room, or in the gym earlier that morning.
So who was I to say no?
I’m the coach, it’s my job and I love it.
Well, most of the time. Some days are better than others depending on what crabby umpire I run into or which parent decides they need to test my resolve or question my motives.
Those days make the job a little tougher than it should be.
Luckily the bad days are usually few and far between. For every umpire who takes the gig just to make a few bucks and would rather yell at teenage girls to hurry up so he can get home quicker, there are three who love what they do just as much as me.
And for every overzealous parent who thinks they could do better or complains about playing time or favoritism, there are three parents who love the program, volunteer nearly as much time to it as I do, and can be counted on time and time again.
But in the end, it’s not about the parents or the coach, it’s about the kids.
Sometimes it is easy to forget that fact. Lucky for us, the players are there to remind us all why we are there – to help young people reach their full potential while making some great memories along the way.
It’s that simple.
My most recent reminder came during a 12u softball game in South Grove.
A 12 and under girls fastpitch softball game is an interesting experience – especially in a small town where the ages on the team can range from nine to 13.
In bigger cities they have enough players to fill various teams with age appropriate kids but in our neck of the woods that isn’t always the case. So we end up with a mix of girls whose experience levels range from none to a year or two of junior high softball.
In the dugout, it can be chaos. Twelve-year-old girls love to ask a lot of questions, many of which have little do with softball. It’s a blur of noise and movement that leaves coaches groggy-headed and at a loss for words.
And on the field, it sometimes feels like you’re trying to hold back a herd of wild chickens.
To top it all off, we play two 70-minute games back-to-back every week. Most adults have trouble focusing for that long, so you can imagine what the scene looks like by game two.
It was during the middle of one such situation when our starting pitcher, having already rocked it for six or seven innings, began to run out of gas. Our other starting pitcher hurt her finger in the first game and could only give us a little relief, so we were in a bit of a quandary.
If you don’t know anything else about 12u fastpitch softball, know this: If you can’t pitch it makes for a very, very long game.
Hot, tired, thirsty and starving, I was about to pull the plug on the game when one of our most quiet players, a girl named Audrey, reminded me that she had been teaching herself to pitch and was willing to give it a try.
Fastpitch softball pitching is not easy. It takes years to master and most girls – most people – can’t do it. There’s nothing natural about it and it takes a lot of training and a lot of mental stamina to get over the bumps on the road to perfection.
It takes thousands of pitches on the field in and in the gym, hundreds of walks, balls in the dirt and hit batters before you get good at it.
I looked at her and said, “go ahead, give it a try.”
And try she did. She walked out to the mound and started firing fast balls at a speed much greater than I could have imagined and besides a few technical issues with her motion, she looked like a pitcher.
Then the inning started. She walked batter after batter, hit two or three girls and the runs started pouring in. Still she fired pitch after pitch, eventually finding a few perfect throws and even striking a girl out.
Meanwhile her teammates cheered on her every throw and the parents in the bleachers, even the ones I figured would start grumbling as our lead shrunk more and more with every wild pitch, were pulling for her, hooting and hollering every time she found the zone.
When it was all said and done and the dust settled on our opponent’s five run inning (in 12u they stop the carnage at five runs or nine batters, whichever comes first), that young lady didn’t cry or come off the field saying she’d never pitch again.
Instead she had a smile on her face that stretched from ear-to-ear as all her teammates huddled around her and said great job.
As we walked away from the field, I could hear her family asking what the distance was from the pitcher’s mound to home plate so they could set up an area to practice in their yard.
And I slept great that night, knowing that another memory was made.