Stories from the corner of 37th and Nicollet

Coaching along the path - part 1

When I moved my shop to Nicollet Ave last year I added a new dimension to the work of running a neighborhood café.  By partnering with Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative and Nicollet Square Housing, I became a supportive worksite for the residents through their internship program.  These young men and women join me for up to three months of training and mentoring as they develop experience needed to find jobs that will eventually support them and help them live on their own. 


Had these interns applied for a position here, I would likely file their applications in my “not ready” folder.  This refers mostly to me not being ready to train, mentor, assist, and shadow new several new staff members for an extended time.  I mostly look for staff with experience who can (and do) quickly pick up what is expected and work without my constant oversight.

Currently, I take two or three interns at a time, so much of my day becomes that of teacher as I instruct and monitor the young people working in my shop.  Over the year, I have found I am also drawing on my years of coaching youth soccer to help frame how I use this internship time.   And, as is the case with much my walk along the green path, I have drawn on my childhood for teachings that I can pass along.  With coaching, I look to my dad.


My dad was my coach as I worked and played my way through baseball, basketball, and football during my late elementary and middle school years.  After he died during my ninth grade school year, I leaned on my coaches to help replace some of what I lost.  


My dad’s style was that of a teacher, cheerleader, and example.  His love for the sport spilled out and flooded over us.  His knowledge was a collection of mysterious secrets.  His abilities filled us with awe.  He was patient and fair.  He took the time to nurture players who came with few skills.  He was not so much bent on winning as on helping us enjoy the game.


Perhaps it was his early years of growing up as a Cub fan that gave him the ability to lose with dignity and find enjoyment in the “playing” of the game.  Perhaps it was his own experiences of wanting to participate on teams but never quite being the “star” he dreamt.  I have a page with dozens of copies of his autograph and a baseball with his neighborhood team signatures that he prized after winning a city tournament.  His signature on this ball, Mickey Klatt, was intended for baseball cards.


As a player on his team I often feared the feeling of special privilege.  I wanted to play and be chosen for my own merits.  I sometimes questioned myself, but Dad let me be me.  I did have some perks, carrying equipment from the car, rides home  (most others biked to and from practices), getting the first look at new plays, and extra practice time at home.  But he didn’t treat me any differently than any one else; he tried to be everyone’s dad.


The games are all a blur in my memory. One game much like another.  Only a couple injuries really stand out.  Otherwise a win, a loss, a hit, a score; it’s just hard to tell any of them apart.  Yet, somehow, I’ve held in my memory three distinct practices, three pictures of my dad as a coach; three stories of my childhood that I won’t give up.  I’d like to share one of those with you this month.


The grass is long but patchy at the small field across the street from Maplewood Junior High.  A backstop, two wooden benches on posts, a dirt infield are all that mark it from the surrounding grassland.  Several small trees along the first base side provide the only shade.


It’s a warm summer afternoon and our team is gathering in this shade as Dad and I park out beyond left field.  A couple of boys come running, eager to carry bats or balls.  I’ve already got the bases.  Dad carries the green thermos of water and answers questions from all sides as we walk to the backstop.


There is a looseness, a calm presence around Dad and although we’ve not been a great team, he takes pride is us.  He’s an optimist and we gather confidence from him for our next game, sure to be tough, against the Dodgers.


We warm up tossing balls back and forth.  I’m throwing with Ricky Henschell, who I think has a true baseball name.  Soon Dad has us out on the field practicing our fielding as he hits balls to us one after another, stopping our return throws with a foot, a hand, the bat.  He becomes more directive, telling us to throw to a base, talking through a pretend game.  For me it’s just an afternoon of waiting in the sun, anticipating hits, listening for my name, joking with my friends.


After a short break in the shade drinking water, it’s back for hitting.  Dad throws pitch after pitch, his arm a machine.  I like how he pitches to me, challenging me at times, knowing my strengths.  I’m not a power hitter, but today I manage to get a few out deep.  It feels good.


Today, Dad has an idea.  He wants every one of us to try pitching.  It’s not because he’s tired of it.  Our pitchers have not been fantastic, although he would never say that publicly.  He tells us that he just wants us all to try something new.  He goes through the motions for us.  Grip, heel on rubber, wind up, aim for glove, delivery, follow through.   He sets up a rotation and puts us to work.  There are lots of wild pitches, some laughs, some surprises.  We all respect our pitchers a little more now and Dad has identified a couple of new potentials, including me.


I’ve always been more of a fielder, third base, centerfield, first base.  But I’ve fantasized about pitching while playing with my “pitch-back” at home.  After practice is over Dad tells me as we pack the equipment in the trunk that if I’d like, he’ll let me pitch a couple innings.  He tells me that there’s more pressure in a game but if you just throw good pitches and let your fielders help you there’s no problem.  He’s challenging me to think about this.  I want to do it for him.  He’s my coach. 


I aim to be that kind of coach: inspiring my interns to try something new, develop their skills, let others help them, and to work hard for their “coach.”  May you find inspiration on the path as you make your walk each day.