Good day, fellow coaches! As you well know, across this great and glorious land of ours, another Little League baseball season is in full swing. (Check swing? Check your eyes, Blue!) In the coming weeks, we will learn many valuable lessons, such as proper player re-entry protocol, pitch count management, and to always avoid distributing post-game snacks containing peanuts (sorry about that, Johnny).
The most important of these lessons, for you and those malleable young minds under your guidance, is this: You are going to lose.
I know a lot about losing. I have been a Mets fan since age 6. My fandom stretches back to the franchise’s truly dark, miserable late 1970s cellar-dwelling days. However, those light-hitting, underwhelming teams I rooted for in vain during childhood taught me many things about how to cope with a life where the majority of us aren’t All Stars or sporting jewel-encrusted World Series rings.
Their example served me well, especially during my second year in Little League. That’s when our team, Yance Air Conditioning of the gaudy green polyester pants and yellow-striped stirrups, compiled a 3-17 record due in no small part to its starting first baseman (ahem) batting an anemic .128.
During the annual league dinner that autumn, my teammates and I watched as the championship team received shiny blue warm-up jackets, each with the player’s name embroidered on the left breast, and trophies topped with golden gods swinging for the fences. The rest of us received lukewarm baked ziti washed down with generic cola and envy.
If that alone wasn’t motivation to make you take some extra batting practice, amid the evening’s ode to excellence and fair play was a guest speaker — an actual major leaguer, an actual Met: Ed Kranepool.
Ed had just finished his 18th — and what would be his final — year in The Show, all with the mostly hapless Mets. He had played on the 1969 World Series-winning “Miracle Mets” but that came well between his start on the club’s comically inept 1962 inaugural version, the modern-era record holders for most losses in a season, and warming the bench with the many hapless teams of late. He earned the nickname “Steady Eddie” for his success as a pinch hitter, but you could be sure it applied as much to continuing to show up, game after game, despite the regular beatings.
That night, Ed talked mostly about how terrible it was playing the bulk of his career on a consistently bad team. It was a strange speech to give a group of gung-ho, baseball-crazed kids but damned if after that I ever wanted to be Ed Kranepool — miserable and mediocre.
It must have worked because I went on to enjoy several good, even great, seasons of baseball. Then I discovered girls and rock music so my priorities changed and I moved on. Still, I felt I owed Ed Kranepool for his teachings that night.
Some 30 years after that fateful evening, I came face-to-face with Steady Eddie. He was at a restaurant inside the Mets’ ballpark for a pre-game event, propped up against a railing, pretty much alone while fans clamored around more recent and more talented former Mets in attendance.
I walked up to him and asked for an autograph. As he signed, I told him about that Little League banquet.
“Did I hand you a trophy?” he asked.
“No. But you did make a speech. Mostly about how awful the Mets were.”
“Well,” he said, “you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Enjoy the game.”
That, my fellow coaches, is true wisdom. That is worth passing on to every new generation of ball players you lead into the vast lands below first place. Of course, for the kids I’d change a word or two in there. I doubt any of them these days really like chicken salad.
Photo of Ed Kranepool and Casey Stengel: All Things Ed blog