The Luckiest Kid on the Face of the Earth

Jake is retiring. Not in Lou Gehrig way but in the tradition of Sandy Koufax, Moe Berg, Richie Scheinblum, Izzy Goldstein and of course James Hymie Soloman aka Jimmie Reese, our Jake is stepping away from the game of baseball. It is purely his decision. The Hebrew Hammer cleats won’t touch the fresh dew of spring grass this year.

It is a tough decision. Since Jake was eight he has basked in reading books on the rich history of Jewish baseball players. “Hey Dad, when I play in the majors I would TOTALLY do a Hank Greenberg.” My response, always – Duly noted. “There’s no way I would play in a World Series game if it was Yom Kippur.” Lisa was always in earshot when Jake made these pronouncements. At ten Jake could talk about the banner year Al Rosen had with Cleveland Indians in 1954. He would recount in vivid detail how Rosen hit consecutive home runs in the All-Star game that year despite having a broken finger, earning him the game MVP.

For three glorious seasons I’ve either coached or managed Jake’s little league team. Jake started late. Even though baseball is my passion I did not want to push him. He did not play t-ball. Jake’s first season on the infield clay was playing Coach-pitch baseball in the North Central Little League (NCLL.) We were called the Patriots due to our bright red, blue and white uniforms. It was really because we didn’t have a sponsor. The beginning of the season was tough. Everyday I would rush home from work to practice with Jake.  It wasn’t that Jake had problem hitting as much as dealing with the cockeyed aim of over-forty Coach/Pitchers. Twelve pitches hit Jake. I was one of the coaches. Every game felt like the World Series. We went up against tough teams and won. I fell in love with the routine of the baseball drills.

In our second season we joined Greenwood Hardware. The game had no handholds for Jake. It was pure “kid pitch” baseball. Our forest green and silver uniforms were the best in the league. Our team was not. That did not matter. We had the greatest time. We played as a team. We all agreed that our season would be focused on the love of the game, not wins and losses. Jake got to play with some of his buddies from school. They spent their week chattering at recess about who might pitch one inning and when one of them was going to get the chance to hit a home run. Jake got deeper into baseball history that season. We spent our free time raking through thousands of baseball cards in trading card stores all around Seattle. At ten he would recite baseball stats freely in the dug out.

We made it to the playoffs. After three consecutive losses to Tri-West Reality during the season our greatest rival challenged us in the playoffs. Tied in the fifth inning we rallied and scored three runs. They came back to tie. Five innings is rule in Little League at this level and we went into the ninth inning. Four miles away, tourists circling the base of Space Needle must have heard us screaming when we won. We did lose our next game. It did not matter. We had climbed the mountain top from a season filled with losses and tasted the joys of a sweet Playoff victory. Greenwood Hardware placed third in the league.

Our venture into minor leagues started with a phone call from the President of League, “The Commissioner” asking me if I would manage Doctor Don’s Automotive. I jumped at the chance. Jake and I discussed how we wanted the season to go. I told Jake I wanted his frank feedback on how I was doing as manager. For the rest of the season, Jake would quietly take me aside and say “Dad, you’re a little loud” or “He has been practicing hard you might want try him at short stop.” Jake was my unofficial bench coach. Lily was always by my side as the team trainer and water girl.

In one of the pre-season clinics we befriended a former Cubs player turned baseball instructor. Over coffee I sat down with him and got taught the fundamentals of great coaching. I got on board with the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nation wide movement that was started by Lakers coach Phil Jackson. I learn how to talk to young boys in a way that didn’t strip down their budding self-esteem. At the first practice, I asked every single player to tell me what was his one goal for the season. Jake said his was to pitch. I proclaimed that our season was dedicated to each kid reaching his personal best. One player simply said, “Coach I just want to hit the ball, I never can hit the ball.” Every kid was witness. It was an incredible season, culminating with that one player getting three hits in the playoffs. The other teams thought we were nuts. We could be behind five runs and a player would pitch well or make a double play and it was like we won the World Series. The Commissioner watched one of our losing games. After the game he looked confused. “How come your kids are so damn happy after a big loss?” I explained our team focus was on players achieving their personal best. That game Jake had just pitched three strong innings with no hits, for the first time.

After a brutal loss in the Playoffs, Doctor Don’s Automotive had a season ending pool party. It was a great day. I got trophies. As I handed each player his marble and gold statue I talked about how each of them played during the season. I watched these nine, ten and eleven year old boys shed a tear for their buddies when they heard how each of them attained their personal goal. We were a great team.

This year Jake would have moved to NCLL Major Leagues. The game is faster and more competitive. The wins and losses are felt and worried right about now. I went to one of the open League meetings. This year they have made big changes to the draft. I was not asked to manage a team. There was even a strong chance I would not even be an official coach. Jake and I sat down. Our discussions started on trying to get a handle on all the unknowns. Jake and I looked at the stress of the draft (no guarantee on team he wanted) the deal with the coaches. It was all of this and the prospect of Jake not playing with his buddies that kicked up a huge discussion about the priorities in our house.

Jake starts his Hebrew tutoring next week. He is in Hebrew school on Tuesday and Sunday. There are three games a week on the Major league level + practices three to four days a week. I asked him what were his priorities. “Dad, I love school, I have a ton of homework now. I want to be prepared for my Bar Mitzvah. I love baseball. This is hard.” Somehow with all the League noise and uncertainty it forced us to look at what was important. A true teachable moment. In the end, being prepared and invested in his Bar Mitzvah is Jake’s number one priority. He made the decision. It was incredible to watch.

This decision is especially painful given the terrific season we had last year + Jake’s desire not to move past Majors to then play Juniors league (the pitches get up to 70 mph). After weeks of discussion, and given that Jake is twelve, this means this is it for us. No more baseball. All the great Jewish players picked a time to leave the game. For Koufax it was it was 1966 and Greenberg 1947 for Jake Rehfeldt it is 2011. In the end, Jake and I just wanted to play ball, a simple game of throw and catch.

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4 thoughts on “The Luckiest Kid on the Face of the Earth

  1. It seems to me that you, Jake and the other boys learned more of life’s important lessons in the past three years than most people learn in a lifetime. And what memories! Congratulations.

  2. You should really read Summerland by Michael Chabon. (Although his editor should have tried to rein him in a bit.) The book really captures the magic of baseball, and I don’t even like baseball! As for Bar/Bat Mitzvah training, I don’t think anyone understands how much time and effort it takes unless they’ve been through it. It’s great that the two of you got share the love of a sport and spend so much time together.

  3. Having read this it brought back many memories of my son with his time in baseball. Our son started with T-ball and went through to the majors. Then he was burned out by the coach he had for two straight years as well as he felt unappreciated. R. had been a good pitcher for most of the years he played baseball but his speed was not what the coach wanted and R. was pushed away. It was hard for him. Occasionally he would be put in as a closer in a real tough game that would hinge on winning or losing. I could go on and on which I won’t do but needless to say I miss the games.

    You sound like you were a great coach and an even greater dad. Pat yourself on the back for you supporting your son through those years.

    I look forward to reading your blog…

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