I was a hellion as a kid growing up, just ask my former baseball coach. That’s the word he used to describe me not too long ago, and I agree with him completely.
By: James Di Fiore
I used to have this fear of being seen as needlessly controversial. And it was for that exact reason I always felt like I had perfectly good excuses to open my mouth. Coach had a very big job: keep Jamie in line and properly discipline him if he isn’t. For me, Coach’s stamp of approval was equal to his clear disappointment whenever I would act out, mouth off or get tossed from a game. He had the same role as my father, acting as the catalyst for that stinging feeling in my stomach simply by tossing a look or saying my name in a certain way. Along with my father, who I haven’t spoken to in years, he was likely the second most influential male figure during my teenage years. I just didn’t know it til years later.
I do have a few memories that have nothing to do with arguing with umpires or making my teammates feel edgy. One day my team had a 1pm game against Peterborough, our fiercest league rivals. Peterborough had a hellion of their own, a precocious lad named Jimmy, and one of us was usually given a verbal warning from the umpire or a scolding from one of the coaches. I’ll be honest, I fed off games like this. I needed to win, sporting the on-field demeanor of baseball’s Claude Lemieux, meaning I had skills but also wanted to get inside the heads of the other players. Many times I would merely mouth off for the sake of it. The adrenaline would manifest itself through stolen bases, a thrown bat, a strong throw or a profanity-laced strikeout. It all came from the same place, but Peterborough games were in a class of their own. These games were ceremoniously circled on the schedule and the date that morning was no different. It was July 9th, 1987 – my eleventh birthday.
That morning I woke up to the smell of ham and eggs, a pre-game ritual on the weekend. I had an extra spring of excitement in my charge down the staircase. Childhoods are made with those kinds of mornings. I took my ball and glove to the kitchen, rested them on the table and started to eat. My mother walked by the table and without stopping snatched the glove and ball, handed them to me, and asked me nicely not to use the the kitchen table as my personal locker. Baseball umpires may have been fair game for back-talk, but it was years later before I tried to pull that with my mother. I smiled at her as she brushed her hand through my hair and answered the phone.
My mother took the phone into the other room as I cleaned my plate. It was only 10am and we weren’t scheduled to be at the diamond for another couple hours. I was always so anxious on game day. I would pace the hallway and toss the ball into my glove and imagine throwing a runner out from center field or hitting a ball to the gap for a double. Time would just crawl by it seemed.
And then, sometimes, time can stand perfectly still. My mother walked back into the family room and sat beside me. I could feel her trying to find the words.
“Jamie…that was your grandmother. Your grandfather just passed away.”
My grandfather was my favourite person. There are not enough words, really, except to say that my childhood changed that day. When your favourite person dies on your birthday it can mess with the mind. A few minutes later I saw my father cry for the first and only time. A couple hours later I quietly slipped into my baseball uniform. My mother asked me several times if I was sure I wanted to play that day. In my mind it was never up for discussion.
I arrived at the ballpark. My teammates and coaches were already made aware of my grandfather’s death when it was decided my birthday party would be canceled that night. My mother telephoned all of my friends to tell them ‘there was a sadness in the family’. I was sullen.
The baseball diamond was perfect. The grass was cut, the lines were chalked and the wind made the tall willow trees dance at Peel Park. I said nothing except for a few thank yous during warm up as every teammate expressed their condolences.
Coach wore his sympathy for me on his bearded face when we sat down by the tree for our pre-game pep talk. My coach would yell “To the tree boys!” and we would jog over. Any walking would result in that look only a baseball coach or father can give. The tree was significant too. It represented comradery, strategy and the end of waiting for the game to start. Coach, like my mother, asked me several times if I was sure I wanted to play. I remember sitting with the team by the tree, looking at him and thinking about my father and what I had seen that morning. He probably didn’t know it at the time, but I had transferred my tendency to feel proud or ashamed based on his reactions to my behaviour, and that day I just wanted to make both of them proud. At the end of the pep talk he said “Ok boys, today let’s go out there and win this one for Jamie.” It was exactly what I needed. I was the last to leave the area near the tree, trying to steal a moment I think. I still have that moment, so I guess in a way it worked. I was eleven, wasn’t sure about god or what the right thing to feel was, but I looked up at the sky and imagined my grandfather watching me play baseball.
Memories are funny. At first it is photographic, then it becomes nuanced and filtered through the person you have become. I remember being choked up but have no memory if any tears left my eyes. And for once I wasn’t acting like a hellion on the diamond. I was humbled, went 2 for 3 with 2 doubles and threw a guy out trying to stretch a double into a triple. I sat the final inning.
I’m 37 years old. It’s been 26 years since my grandfather died, since I saw my father cry and when I first realized the importance of outside role models and teachers. I didn’t always show it, but that sting in my stomach never went away when I played for Coach. My attitude got worse, he stayed the same and it would be years until I would fully realize his role in my inner development. Sometimes I wish I had understood the importance of learning lessons as an eleven year old, but only a few get to hear the echoes of those lessons decades later. Fewer actually listen. I can still hear that afternoon quite well. Sitting with me beside that tree are my father, my grandfather and my baseball coach. Call it an omni present pre-game pep talk.
To the tree, boys.