There’s nothing like the first time
Updated: August 13, 2012 6:36AM
Memorable moments are an important part of anyone’s life.
A first crush. A first kiss. A first date with your eventual spouse. A child’s first words.
Another of my fondest memories, however occurred 30 years ago this year.
I was working at another newspaper and sports editor Randy Blaser and I responded to an item placed in our paper looking for coaches for the La Grange Babe Ruth League.
Neither Randy nor I had any coaching experience. Randy had played high school baseball for Lane Tech. I didn’t advance out of Little League, but I did know enough about baseball to be of some help.
The league must have been desperate to accept two young, single guys to coach. Actually, I think they saw us novices as willing victims. We knew little about the team we were inheriting other than they won just one out of 12 games the year before.
The veteran coaches in the league were full of “advice” for us — who to draft, what to look for, etc.
Nothing like going into a draft blindly. Well, not quite blindly. There was a tryout we attended so we could evaluate the incoming players. Of course, the veteran coaches had the upper hand. They knew the good players without having to see them work out. We had just a few minutes to view each player. And, without really knowing what we had, it was difficult to know what positions to fill.
The good news was we had an ace starting pitcher, Mike O’Malley, returning. The bad news was he was pitching for the high school team at Lyons Township and wouldn’t be available till the high school season was over.
We filled out our roster on draft night. Met all the coaches. Shook hands and were wished good luck. Our team was sponsored by the American Legion Robert E. Coulter Jr. Post 1941.
Not sure how the players viewed our first practice, but there we were, Randy in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt with a bushy mustache and me, a 180-pound twig telling the players, who had won just one game the season before, that we were going to be competing for the championship.
That met with some understandable skepticism. We did have a good mix of experienced players as well as young, talented players.
Our team roster included Bill Bettiga, Scott Mohr, Steve LeFevre, Rich Gossling, Gene Dulski, Dan Cirrincione, Brian McMillan, Ron Sneed, Dan Tausk, Lester Pettaway, Rob Yerkes, Kurt Wisthuff and O’Malley.
There were many memorable moments.
The first was opening day. We had practiced as much as we could and really had the players prepared for the first game.
Without a true No. 1 pitcher, we went with 15-year-old Tausk, who went the distance in a 6-3 win over a team sponsored by Slocum’s. We led 6-0 till the bottom of the seventh when Slocum’s rallied for three runs and had the bases loaded, before Tausk struck out the final batter. Slocum’s eventually would get revenge in the playoffs. While we were without O’Malley, Slocum’s was without its star, Jay Hornacek, who would go on to be drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers following his senior year of high school.
Another memorable moment occurred before a game. The baseball diamond had been nicely groomed by the La Grange Park District. Park Director Fritz Ploegman really took good care of us. Unfortunately, the park district did its job too well this day. The posts in which the bases fit were covered by dirt. The first- and third-base posts were easy to find. Second base, however, was another matter. After several attempts of digging near where we thought the post would be and coming up empty, one of the players mentioned he had a metal detector. He ran home, got it, brought it back and, voila, we found the post.
We were 3-0 before our first loss — a heartbreaking 6-4 loss to La Grange Federal in a game we were rallying, before the game was halted due to darkness (lights were finally installed at Sedgwick in 1983).
The most memorable moment, however, involved Lester Pettaway toward the end of the year. Lester was a corpulent, left-handed hitter, who hadn’t had a hit all season. But in the next-to-last game of the regular season, Lester crushed the ball to the fence. He lumbered around first base and headed for second, sliding in ahead of the throw for a double. I’ll never forget the smile on his face, or the reaction of our players, who cheered him on.
The perfect ending would have had us winning the championship, validating our prediction. It didn’t happen. Jay Hornacek and Slocum’s beat us in the playoffs.
No matter. The look on Lester’s face after that double was worth more than any championship.
I learned a lot from that first year, which carried me through other youth coaching ventures. I was blessed to have been a coach for several championship teams over the years.
But I’ll never forget the first time.
Rick Hibbert is sports editor for The Doings