Editor’s note: The Union Leader is bringing back some of the late Joe Sullivan’s Union Leader sports columns. This one was originally published on Aug. 19, 2003.
HE HAD NO WAY of knowing that I had to see him play one more time. That’s why I visited Gill Stadium for an American Legion state tournament baseball game two weeks ago.
In a coaching career that lasted more than 20 years, I was blessed with many terrific Little League players. The young man I went to see at Gill is one of the five best I ever coached.
He had it all. Outstanding ability. A thirst to learn. Personality to burn.
Once, when he was 10, he cried when he dropped an easy pop-up in what he thought was a big game. That moment stands out in my mind because it’s the only time I don’t remember him smiling.
He lit up the diamond.
I haven’t coached a Little League team in six years and it occurred to me that he’s my last player still competing in the sport at a level higher than recreational. For that reason, I was drawn to Gill.
I knew going in, though, that there was a chance that I wouldn’t get to see him play in the game. You see, despite being a terrific player, he was on a team loaded with terrific players.
Consequently, though he built great stats, he didn’t draw many starts.
In the game I attended, he pinch-hit in a key spot, grounded to second, was thrown out by three steps. He went hard down the line, ran through the bag, grimaced for a second when he saw he was out — then hustled back to the dugout.
Yep. Definitely the same kid I coached. Swung at a strike, made contact, hustled all the way, was disappointed he didn’t succeed, then put everything into perspective.
He’d get ‘em next time.
As always, he made me smile.
I looked around and surmised that I wasn’t the only Little League/Pony League/Bambino League/you-name-it-league coach there watching former players. There must have been others. There had to be others.
I think it burns in most coaches from all youth sports, the desire to see their former players move up and do well.
A week ago, Buffalo visited Pawtucket for a Triple-A International League baseball game at McCoy Stadium. One of the fans in the stands that night was Bobby Kerrigan, who coached varsity baseball for 25 years at Manchester West. He left West after more than 300 wins for a stint as baseball coach at St. Anselm College.
What drew him to McCoy Stadium? The same thing that drew me to Gill Stadium: A chance to see a former player.
Greg LaRocca, a junior and starting shortstop on West’s 1990 state championship team, brought Kerrigan to Rhode Island.
“It’s great when someone you coached goes on to play at a higher level,” Kerrigan said. “Greg’s played in the majors. That’s a thrill for me. And after watching him the other night, I’m convinced he’ll play in the majors again.”
In Pawtucket, LaRocca, currently Buffalo’s starting third baseman, spent more than 15 pre-game minutes talking baseball and old times with Kerrigan.
There are a few perks that go with coaching youth sports. Meeting great people is number one.
Thanks to my involvement as both parent and coach, I met people like Bob Morneau, Dan Fitzgerald and George Abood in baseball, Elaine Engelhardt, Gary Walsh and Dick LaPerle in soccer, Mike Rhodes, Michelle Caron and Donna Grenier in softball. They are just a few of a battalion of top-notch coaches devoted to kids in the Manchester area.
Every community in this state has its own group. These people give and give — of their time and of their knowledge.
And because they do, at the end of most youth sports seasons, appreciative parents collect money and purchase gifts for the coaches.
That’s a classy thing to do.
However, writing this column made me realize that the best gift a coach can receive doesn’t come from parents. Not even close. It comes from players.
All they have to do is keep playing.
After the American Legion game, I had a chance to talk to my former player. He told me he may try to play college ball next year. At Lehigh University.
I’ve already mapped the route to Bethlehem, Pa.