Street Corner Soapbox: Batting Lessons

Categories:      Community    Opinion    Sports
Wednesday, June 25th, 2014 at 7:15 AM

This time about a year ago, Chris Cron – manager of the Erie SeaWolves – and I sat in his office and complained about our sons.

It started with a story about George Brett. Brett, of course, is the Kansas City Hall of Fame third baseman who hit .390 in 1980. Last season, during a particularly miserable stretch for Kansas City hitters, the Royals coaxed Brett out of retirement to serve as the team’s batting coach. Brett didn’t have any experience as a coach, but the hitting instructor they fired – Jack Maloof – had set off a media firestorm by proclaiming proudly his team would “lead the league” in fewest home runs, and the team needed a jolt of energy and some positive news coverage. What better way than to do that than bring out Brett in a Royals jersey?

In the press conference at the announcement, Brett was asked if he had served as hitting instructor before. “Well, no,” said Brett, “but I’ve helped guys out.” What about Brett’s own sons? (Brett has three.) Had he ever taught them to hit?

It turns out this Hall of Famer had to hire private batting instructors for his own boys. “You can’t teach your kids anything,” said Brett.

“No doubt about it,” said Cron.

At the time, Cron’s oldest son, CJ, was a top prospect in the Angels’ system. Like his father, he’s a first baseman.

“We have a batting cage in the backyard,” said Cron, “and when I was instructing CJ – or trying to help him – maybe there was some loud talking going on.” Cron chuckled drily. CJ, it turns out, wouldn’t listen to his father’s hitting tips. It wasn’t until he went away to college – University of Utah – that he started to get it.

“Calls me after his freshman year,” said Cron,“ says, ‘hey dad, I’m thinking about making these changes.’ And as I’m listening to it, it’s the changes I’ve been trying to incorporate into his approach or his swing for like the last two or three years. I don’t say a word. I just sit there and listen. He’s getting it. Because it’s not the old man’s idea. It’s his idea. So he’s going to believe it a little more.”

I nodded like crazy, because my son, the 9-year-old, 50-pound second baseman for the Erie Phillies was struggling. He clasped his back elbow to his ribs when he batted. He dove off the plate too frequently, he was too timid. Sometimes his mind wandered when he was in the field and he booted routine grounders. He hit .188 for the year. (Yes, I kept track.)

But he didn’t listen to a word I said, just groaned and rolled his eyes and ran out onto the field.

I know it’s a dumb habit to try to correct all of my kid’s faults. It’s impossible. He doesn’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy it. It’s just that I’ve been there. It seems like I’ve already made all the mistakes there are to make. And if somehow he’d just listen to me and learn from where I’ve gone wrong, he’d sail through the tough times, leaving trouble in his wake, off to his own beautiful, glorious life.

That is, I love my boy. And I want the best for him. I can’t help myself.

Cron gave me advice. The best thing I could do for my kid? “Just let him play,” he said. So I’ve learned to shut my trap. I go, watch and encourage, only.

What a difference a year makes. CJ Cron was called up to the Angels this summer and hit over .300 in his first month of play. His dad was a career minor leaguer and never scored or knocked in a run in the 12 games he played in the majors; CJ, as of June 20, has hit four homers, scored 11, and knocked in 16. The Los Angeles Times says he’s known for his power and “knack for delivering in the clutch.”

My own second baseman, too, has had a good year. He hit .575 for his team with an improbable .700 on-base percentage. Once, in an All-Star game, he knocked a ball clean over the head of the opposing center fielder. His back elbow is up. And now he has a beautiful, fluid swing you can’t teach.

The lesson is obvious, isn’t it?

This past Father’s Day, my son and daughter bought me a team Germany soccer jersey (we’re a World Cup family!), and we celebrated by watching Argentina-Bosnia and Herzegovina, and then with a walk through the park for ice cream. I was unable, however, to talk to my own father. He lay exhausted in a Massachusetts hospital, too tired from chemotherapy and radiation treatment to speak. He’s been plagued by ongoing health problems, and his recent cancer diagnosis signaled a new threat, a new level of severity none of us talk about. Last night, my mother wrote in an email, he said he didn’t think he’d make it through the night. But he did.

As he lies ill, possibly dying, I’ve been searching for memories about my father to stitch together to form some kind of narrative. But it eludes me. I remember a jaunty engineer’s cap and red windbreaker he wore in the ‘70s, paint-splattered jeans for Saturdays, and lying in the back of his car listening to his John Denver 8-tracks as we drove through town. He biked and golfed and had a handicap of 180 for his Friday night bowling league. I didn’t realize how strong he was until I once saw him muscle a softball out of our town’s baseball park. These memories don’t tell a story. But they do describe a man.

He was a ski instructor, but I hated skiing with him. He hired others to teach me, and I raced downhill competitively for 20 years. He was an engineer, but I never let him help me with my math homework. He lived in a small, rural New England town – and lives there still – while I lived all over: Germany, Russia, Seattle, San Francisco, Montana, Erie. In short, he let me play, and I made my own way with all my own mistakes and troubles. I also managed to pick up some things nobody can teach. But he was always there, encouraging.

There’s a special kind of fear felt for those that watch loved ones fend for themselves. But there’s a joy to it, too, with the greater reward of watching sons soar free.

Jay Stevens can be contacted at Jay@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj. 

Erie Reader: Vol. 6, No. 20
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Now serving up good vibes on State Street

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Here are three good opportunities to lighten up as the nights grow longer.

Dancing Wheels bring a world premiere to Mercyhurst.

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