As the sun beat down upon his brow and the wind swept through the grass, the manager stalked back and forth. He had made them run, throw, bat and catch nonstop all practice. Now his players sat silently before him in right field, some still trying to catch their breath.
He stared them down one by one without a word. Each made eye contact as he passed, afraid of what might happen if they failed to do so. The manager liked what he saw. The players were tired. They were worn out. They were broken. They were his.
He decided the time was right and began his speech. “The preseason is over, gentlemen,” he began. “The real thing starts with our first game on Tuesday. No more fun and games.”
He paused dramatically. He saw the reality sinking in on each face. Some nodded. He continued, “From this point on, when you play lazy, when you don’t give it your all, when you screw up,” he raised his voice there and paused again, his eyes wide, “you aren’t just robbing yourself of practice time anymore. You aren’t just hurting yourself, you’re hurting the whole team.”
The players all stared at the manager as he suddenly jogged off to the side and grabbed a glove from near the foul line. He jogged back in front of the group and started again. “When you say, ‘I’m just gonna jog over and get that foul ball,’” he said sarcastically as he loped toward the line, mocking a half effort, “and then you blow the play, you just left your pitcher hanging. That was an out you could have gotten him that you let slide.”
He ripped the glove from his hand, threw it into foul territory and shouted, “That is unacceptable!” He noticed a few of them jump and smiled, but only on the inside. “We look out for our teammates around here. We never give up. We give all our effort and leave everything on the field. We play for one another, not just ourselves and not one of your better forget that.”
He pointed a rigid finger at them and glared. The players sat spellbound. They were putty in his hands now. He could smell victory. He could smell the championship.
“If you don’t want to get serious and play some baseball, don’t show up. I want players who are ready to play. If you’re just here to have fun then I say, ‘So long.’ I don’t want you. When you horse around and you play lazy, you cheat your teammates. I don’t want that on my team. I can’t stand cheaters. So don’t cheat your fellow teammates and don’t cheat me.”
At the far right of the group, a hand shot into the air. “Don’t cheat me out of your best effort,” he continued, trying to ignore it. “Don’t cheat your teammates out of a win.” The hand began to wave in the air, its finger wiggling. “Cheaters will not be tolerated. Cheaters will be…” finally he was distracted enough to acknowledge the frenzied, raised hand. He turned and yelled, “What, Tommy?”
“Is talking while the batter is batting cheating?” Tommy asked.
“No, that’s not cheating, but it’s not sportsmanlike,” he answered.
“What about if the pitcher hits the batter on purpose?” asked another voice from the middle of the group.
“I guess that’s kind of cheating,” he said, “but you could argue that, but I don’t want any of us doing that.”
“Blocking the runner is cheating,” said yet another voice.
“Yes it is, Keith, just like we talked about. You remember you can’t do that anymore, right?”
Keith nodded his understanding.
As the manager opened his mouth to continue, one last suggestion was offered. “Taking steroids is cheating!”
He sighed. “Yes, that is definitely cheating,” he admitted, “and don’t any of you ever even think about taking steroids. But enough about all that, I want you guys to focus here. My point is we are going to be playing real games now and you have to try your best and pay attention on every play. This isn’t practice anymore. Practice is over.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw a player rise and begin to walk away.
“Billy,” he called after him. “Where are you going? I’m still talking!”
Billy plopped down into the grass immediately. “Sorry, coach,” he said, red-faced, “I thought you said practice was over.”
He looked at the rest of the team. Somehow, at some point, he had completely lost them. It happened suddenly but there was no denying it. They were gone. “Yeah, that’s fine,” he said, defeated, “practice is over.”
“Yay!” the kids yelled in unison and ran to the area where the parents were all waiting.
The manager walked around the field gathering equipment with his head down. The sound of the children whose attention he had once commanded faded into the distance as they entered minivans and rode off on bicycles. He could no longer smell victory at all, much less the championship. In fact, he began to think he could smell something entirely different. It turned out to be the dog poop on his shoe.