As another baseball season begins, I recall a sun-drenched day in May when a young pitcher in pigtails taught me more about being a lawyer than all my law professors put together.
This was years ago, on the green fields of Chapel Hill, back when I was a volunteer youth sports coach.
I had been called to coaching when my oldest child Bo started tee-ball. By “called” I mean no other parent would take the job. I arrived at the first practice straight from the courthouse – still in coat and tie – and I remember thinking as I gazed out at that screaming mob of six-year-olds racing around hysterically that Traffic Court was a picnic compared to this.
Turns out I was right.
But that inaugural season was a success because no child was seriously injured, and because Bo acquired a special knack for finding four-leaf clovers in the outfield – often with his back to the batter – while the game was in progress.
I ended up coaching all four of my children – two boys and two girls – with a career winning percentage comparable to the luckless DA on Perry Mason.
Snack is the Secret of Success
My coaching philosophy was distilled to three simple rules: (1) show up, (2) do your best and (3) don’t forget to bring snack when it’s your turn.
Naturally, some smarty-pants would always ask, “What about hitting the ball?”
“We’ll work on that in practice.”
“What about winning?”
“Follow the rules, and winning will take care of itself.”
Which meant we rarely won. But we did have excellent snacks. Especially one year, when the father of one of our players was a pastry chef at Southern Season. I’m guessing we were the only team in Parks and Recreation history to feast on post-game buffets of raspberry tarts, chocolate éclairs and funfetti vegan cupcakes.
And It Helps to Have Good Players
But then came daughter Rachel’s last season on the Cardinals, and I found myself coaching a softball powerhouse. Every player on that team was great, with one exception. Carrie was a cheery freckle-faced delight with zero athletic ability. But she always showed up on time, always did her best, and always brought snack when it was her turn.
The problem was she wanted to pitch.
Ordinarily, this would not have been an issue. But when Carrie took the mound in practice she either flung the ball straight up in the air or down into the dirt. And so I handled the matter as any good lawyer would: by obfuscation and delay.
“Later, Carrie,” I would say. “I’m saving you for the right opportunity.”
Meanwhile, the Cardinals kept winning. And in our final game, we were playing for the league title. We took an early lead, and everyone was excited. Naturally, Carrie wanted in on the fun.
“Coach, can I pitch?”
“Maybe later, Carrie. Be patient.”
But everyone knew there would be no “later.” This was it. Game Seven of the World Series. And in the closing innings as Carrie sat patiently on the bench, her teammates took up her cause.
“Let Carrie pitch,” they chanted. “Let Carrie pitch!”
This baffled me. We were playing for all the marbles. The golden prize. Surely they knew letting Carrie pitch was not a smart move. Didn’t they care about winning?
And yet they persisted: Let Carrie pitch!
Then came the final blow. My daughter came over and looked me in the eye. She reminded me that Carrie had always followed the rules, more so than anyone else, and didn’t I mean what I said about winning or losing not being such a big deal?
At that moment the jury was out on me as a coach, father and human being. And before you could say nolo contendere, I was handing Carrie the ball.
Pumpkins Really Do Turn Into Carriages
I’d like to be able to say this story had a Disney ending, with the Cardinals victorious and Carrie the unlikely star. But this was reality, not a movie. Carrie’s first pitch sailed up and over her head towards second base – a trajectory that defied the laws of physics – and her next toss rolled across the plate.
There were some titters from the crowd, but not from the Cardinals. They were all rooting for their friend and teammate. Mercifully, we made it through the inning. But the damage was done, and we ended up falling just short of victory.
But here’s the thing. You would not have known from the post-game party that those girls had lost anything. They were happy and laughing and enjoying pizza and ice cream. Most had already forgotten the score. And guess who got the game ball?
And so the merry-go-round spins. Bo is still out there hunting for four-leaf clovers and Rachel coaches a rec league basketball team in Brooklyn. She says they don’t often win but are having a blast.
I have a framed photo of the Cardinals on my shelf. I take it down and look at it whenever I get too full of myself.
I am grateful to Carrie and her teammates. They taught me that words matter. They taught me to practice what I preach. They taught me about integrity and loyalty, and that there is no defeat so bitter that can’t be sweetened by a nice snack afterwards.
Sometimes at night – usually this time of year, and just before bed – I think I hear the sound of children playing, their laughter bright as bells. And though it has been years since I last set foot in Traffic Court or the dugout, I feel my heart tug, and a sweet voice is once again calling me coach.
Jay Reeves has practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He loves the Braves and knuckleballs and bleacher seats. Carrie is now a surgeon in Detroit, and no doubt a good one, but you probably wouldn’t want her tossing you a scalpel across the room.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.