Changing gears this week, we turn to my other love, sports, or specifically, baseball.
I have been lucky enough to have been a high school baseball coach for 30 years, and I have coached some incredible players and teams.
I have been fortunate to have coached players who have gone on to the major and minor leagues and major colleges. Some of the teams I have been associated with have been ranked in the top 10 in the country, won a National Classic title and many league championships. In 2003, I was able to pick up a championship ring, winning a CIF Southern Section title with Crespi High School at Anaheim Stadium.
This past June, after being out of the game for two years, I received a call from Burbank Head Coach Bob Hart. I have known Bob since he was a player of mine back in the days when Hap Minor was actually good baseball. This was before he was old enough to drive. Bob was kind enough to offer me a job to come to Burbank High.
Even though I graduated from Burroughs, it took me about five seconds to decide that blue actually made me look thinner than red, besides the fact that Bob was an old Burroughs guy also.
I have been asked a few times about the makeup of the Burbank High player compared to the Crespi High players I coached in the past. Thus, here is why I am sharing this story today.
John White is a 15-year-old Burbank High sophomore you may have passed driving down the street. He does not stand out, does not have a Mohawk, or even wear loud shirts. He just looks like any other kid from a distance, average height and weight.
John, who likes the New York Yankees and Evan Longoria of the Rays, is about to make the varsity team as a sophomore, which is an accomplishment at any school. When you see him up close and personal on the field, you see the spark in his eye that not only represents where he belongs, but that he can’t get enough of the game.
As a coach, all you can do is push your players — you push them harder than you want. You push and push and push until there is that fine line between the breaking point and maximum effort. After all, it’s the players who win games, not coaches.
There comes a point in any game, as well as in life, when you have to make a decision as an athlete. Will you do whatever it takes, no matter the cost, to succeed and to win? It’s the single thing that separates great players from players.
John White, playing second base, was faced with that question in a scrimmage game two weeks ago when he and shortstop Dylan Mersola both dove for a line drive up the middle that was extremely difficult to catch. Both players were faced with that decision at that precise moment. Do they dare sacrifice their bodies for the good of the team? They did.
Both players collided in midair. Mersola caught the line drive, but White caught Mersola’s shoulder with his face. You could hear the crash from the dugout; the two players were then motionless on the field. So many times I have seen players collide and thought the worst, only to see them spring up in a matter of seconds. This time they didn’t.
It was only the third time in 30 years that paramedics had to be called to a field where I was a coach. We all were relieved at first when the paramedics brought him to his feet and told John’s dad to watch him for the next several hours. Bob Hart, who has known John for 10 years, and his dad, knew better. The paramedics re-examined him and took him to Providence St. Joseph’s Medical Center with lights and sirens.
John had surgery last week to fix a broken cheek bone, nose and eye socket during a more than five-hour operation. Not once during the wait for surgery did John ever complain or get down. To him, he played the game the only way he knew how to play it — hard, with no fear.
Now if you have read this far and think this has a sad ending, you are mistaken. Yes, it is going to take John a couple of months before he is back on the field again, but he will be back.
What both John and Dylan now know, as well as Coach Hart and myself, is that when it comes down to that moment, they will not hesitate and will give their maximum effort in their performance of the game.
Since that day, you would think that it might affect the team in a negative way — far from it. We had another player, Paul Gatton, injured diving for a ball in practice. John’s teammates are inspired to play the game the same way, with the same intensity. Yes, John is out for a couple of months, but that has only inspired his peers and coaches.
To me, it’s the same as the fireman who runs into a burning house to save someone or a Secret Service agent who takes a bullet to save the life of a fellow human being. Yes, they are all trained and pushed, but when that moment actually happens, will they really do it?
Yes, playing sports is in no way the same as saving lives, but all those heroic people had to be 15 years old at one time. John White and Dylan Mersola have already passed that test. These players challenged themselves when given the opportunity and went for it. They gave their best when nothing but their best would get the job done.
When you come out to see a game this year and wonder which one is John White, just look for the kid with the spark in his eye.
CRAIG SHERWOOD is the executive editor of BurbankNBeyond.com and a baseball coach at Burbank High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.