The Year My Dad Died And I Rode The Pine For An Entire Season
When I was 13 years old, my family and I moved from Klamath Falls, Oregon to Sumter, South Carolina. The sons of a career Air Force enlisted man, my two brothers and I were no strangers uprooting and starting over. Entering the 9th grade at Sumter High School, I had never attended the same school 2 years in a row. Thankfully, I was always pretty good at football, basketball, and baseball so finding friends and assimilating came easy.
After completing my freshman year I decided to try out for the local American Legion baseball team, the Sumter P-15s. In those days, there was no travel baseball so in our town of around 50,000, American Legion baseball was a big deal. The entire community took pride in the team’s winning tradition and it was not unusual to see crowds of as many as 2000 on any given night. All of the games were broadcast on AM radio and the “player of the game” was invited to the radio booth for a post-game interview and given a gift card for dinner for 2 at Shoney’s Big Boy Restaurant.
I reported to the tryout as a rail-thin 125 pound second baseman. I had a weak arm, no power at the plate and I was an average fielder at best. The only real differentiating characteristic I could offer was relentless, ridiculous hustle.
My dad dropped me off at the gate and pretended to leave I later found out he had hidden under the bleachers to watch, so as not to add more pressure to the experience. The only advice he gave me was, “Hustle your ass off. Even if no one else does.”
I took heed and from the time I set foot inside Riley Ball Park that day, I ran everywhere just as fast as my legs would carry me. I dove for balls I had no chance of catching, swung out of my shoes on every cut I took, and when they asked us to run around all four bases for time, I finished with my best Pete Rose belly slide and sprang to my feet with a “Whoo!”. When they announced the final roster, I was overjoyed to hear my name called.
As expected, I didn’t play much my first year. I think I got around 13 at-bats in a 30 game schedule. I was 0 for 13. Nonetheless, I was the consummate high-energy dugout guy. I ate a ton of boiled peanuts from Ward’s Barbecue, learned to juggle and had a great summer. My dad attended every practice and every game and often took me to the local pony league field for extra ground balls and batting practice. “You’ll get your chance,” he would say. “Just keep hustling and work so hard your friends think you’re stupid. ”
That fall, for the first time in my life, I returned the school I had attended the previous year. I made the Sumter High School varsity football team as a wide receiver. The coaches also chose me to return punts and kickoffs. Things were going great until on the first game of the season, on the first punt return of my high school career, a big number seventy something from Berkely High School pile drove me into the ground and broke my collarbone. My dad drove me to the hospital in the back seat of our 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. After missing the next 5 weeks of the season I returned to action, caught a few passes, ran back a kick for a TD and was flying high as we entered the playoffs.
On the Tuesday before our first round game, tragedy struck our family. My 36-year-old father, the hero of my life, died of a massive heart attack.
As you can imagine I was devastated.
The next day, a parade of visitors stopped by our tiny 4 bedroom house on Robbins drive to pay their respects. Virtually inconsolable, I cried for the entire day. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of life without my father and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go on without him.
At around 6:00 pm my head football coach, Eddie Weldon knocked on the door. My brother escorted into the living room where I sat, still crying. At first Coach Weldon didn’t speak at all. He simply sat beside me on our living room sofa and rested his hand on my shoulder. Several seconds went by and then, under his breath, I heard him pray, “Lord help me help this boy.” After a few more seconds, he took a deep breath and put his arm around my neck. He pulled me toward him, firmly pressing my forehead against his shoulder. At a volume only I could hear, he spoke the words that gave me the courage to carry on. It was almost 40 years ago and I can still remember it like it happened yesterday.
“Randy,” Coach Weldon said. “I knew your dad well and he was a good man. I know that he loved you very much. He was so very proud of you and he absolutely loved watching you play ball. I also know that it would break his heart to think that his passing would affect you in a way that would prevent you from growing up to be the man he saw you becoming. The best tribute you could ever give him is to pick yourself up and live a life that fulfills the dreams he had for you. Take your time. Do whatever you need to do. But we need you this Friday night. Your team needs you … and I’m pretty sure your dad would love watching you play one more time before he heads off to heaven.”
That Friday night with our entire extended family in town for Saturday funeral, The Sumter High School Gamecocks football team, and all of my aunts uncles, grandparents and cousins, joined what seemed like the entire town of Sumter South Carolina in a caravan of buses trucks and cars as we traveled one hour northeast on US highway 15 to the home field of a powerful rival, the Hartsville Red Foxes. They had beaten us earlier in the year so no one gave us much of a chance. But, on that night we had some help. My coaches and teammates honored my father by naming me the sole captain for the game. I stood alone at midfield for the coin toss, but I didn’t feel alone. I had the comforting sense that my Dad was right there with me.
“Visiting team will call it,” the referee said, as he flipped a silver dollar into the air.
As the coin tumbled end over end through the damp night air I heard my dad’s voice. “Tails never fails knucklehead. Make the call.”
“Shaking hands with the opposing captains, I heard him again, this time echoing the words from the American Legion tryout, “Hustle your ass off, even if no one else does.”
We won the toss… and then we won the game. I still have the game ball with the final score stenciled on the side: Sumter 21 Hartsville 6.
The next day I tied a tie for the first time in my life. It took me about an hour to get it done — dad had always tied it form me and slipped it over my head. I felt a sense of fear as they lowered his casket into the ground. “This is going to be a tough journey without him, I thought.”
Basketball season was tough. I’d often find myself looking up into the bleachers where he always sat, longing for that boost of confidence I’d always gotten when our eyes met.
After high school baseball season ended, I returned to The P15’s expecting to take over as the starting second baseman. Little did I know a fire-plug 18-year old from a tiny rural school that fed into our program would have a different idea. Dean Pack was 5 feet and 8 inches of chiseled country strength. He had the sweetest hands I’d ever seen and he was lightning quick on the double play pivot. At the plate, it always looked like he was going to blast balls into oblivion and in batting practice, he did so on a regular basis. I was disappointed and been relegated to the bench for the second season. Twenty games in, I had logged only 3 at-bats, failing to reach base in any of them. Dean Pack had turned in a great defensive season but even though he was the home run king of pregame batting practice, when the stat sheet came out after 20 games, he was hitting .080. I couldn’t believe I was getting beat out by a guy hitting .080.
As the season progressed I became more disappointed. I missed my dad. There was no one to take me for extra BP or ground balls. I became pouty and detached at practice and games. I needed a guide. Something had to change, but I didn’t know what to do. I thought about what my dad might suggest
“It’s time for me you to be a man,” I said to myself. “That’s what dad would say.”
The next day, I stopped by our head coaches insurance business for a talk. “Coach Betchman,” I said. “I’ve been sitting on the bench all season watching a guy play in front of me who’s hitting .080. Nothing against Dean but I’m pretty sure I could hit better than that in clown shoes using a with a rolled up Newspaper as a bat. What do I have to do to get a chance to play on this team?”
“You’ll get your chance,” he said. Just hang in there.”
Apparently, my big speech fell on deaf ears. Ten games and 3 weeks later I still hadn’t seen a single plate appearance.
Our first round match up was a five-game series against a strong Orangeburg team that featured 3 future major leaguers. After 4 games, we were knotted at 2 apiece and hosting the critical game 5 at our home field. The place was packed with a standing room only crowd. The electricity from the excitement was palpable. I assumed my normal position right next to the coach. I thought that if he could see me he’d be more likely to put me in. The game was a back and forth affair with lots of great plays and key moments. Dean Pack turned three incredible double plays to get us out of trouble but in the bottom of the 9th inning, we found ourselves down 5-3 with runners on second and third and two outs. Unfortunately, our .080 hitting second baseman was coming to the plate.
Coach Betchman pulled Dean Pack from the on-deck circle, turned to me and set, “Randy you’re hitting. Get in there and tie this game up for us.”
Stunned and excited, I jumped to my feet, grabbed a bat and helmet and literally sprinted to home plate. I was so jacked up that the pitcher could have thrown three consecutive pitches to the backstop and I would have swung at all of them.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he threw a nice fat watermelon right down main street. It looked like a volleyball and I felt the sense of time slowing down. I swung with a fury I had never known before, releasing all my frustration, disappointment, sadness and anger in a single violent movement. The barrel fond the ball and the bat melted in my hands as I ripped a missile into left-center field, scoring both runners and tying the game. The crowd went wild as I slid into second base with the first hit of my American Legion career.
I’m sure from the dugout and the stands it appeared that I was encouraging my teammates with the gestures and shouts I was slinging. It probably looked like I was saying something like, “Let’s go! Let’s win this game,” as I pumped my index finger repeatedly toward the dugout. But that’s not what I was doing. At a moment when I should have been celebrating the love and support of my team and our fans, I became the worst teammate ever. What I actually shouted was, “See there coach! I told you! You could have had this all year but you left me sitting over there on the bench rotting like a nail! I told you! But you wouldn’t listen!”
The next batter struck out. We lost the game in extra innings and were eliminated from the playoffs.
That night when I got home I started thinking about the game, the season, my life. I felt a strong sense of regret for how I had behaved. I felt sure my dad would not have approved. It was classless. I took out a season of frustration on my coach who was only trying to make the best decisions possible to help our team win. Pouting, feeling sorry for myself and getting angry were selfish emotions.
The truth of the matter was, it wasn’t the coach’s fault I wasn’t playing. It was mine. Remember, up until that last at-bat I was 0-16 in my career. I hadn’t proven to Coach Betchman that I was good enough to be in the lineup. I hadn’t removed all doubt. I hadn’t made it a slam dunk decision. And, that was on me, not him.
It’s a lesson I learned the hard way and it’s a message we give to our players several times a week during our Complete Game Summer Training Program. If you’re not getting the playing time you think you deserve, it’s not the coach’s fault. It’s yours! If you haven’t performed so well that is has become a no-brainer as to whether you should be in the lineup, then frankly, you’re not good enough. If you want to be sure you are in every lineup, every day gets so good that they start with your name and fill in around it.
Be so good they can’t ignore you.
We’ll be here to show you how to do it … every step of the way.
We’ll see you at the Ranch
Randy Sullivan, MPT, CSCS