Little League Heroes
He doesn't work for the Yankees or the Reds. Nope, not the Nationals or the Giants either. Nor the Rays or the Braves. He's never worked in the Major Leagues. In fact, he never received a paycheck from baseball.
Mr. Koerner was my baseball coach when I was 10-years-old, manager of the Rotary Club sponsored team. He was a volunteer Little League coach. He missed the Little League draft and got stuck with me and rag-tag team of 9- and 10-year olds. Mr. Koerner ended up with a roster filled with mostly the type of kids who played only half the game.
That was me the year before, happy to play three innings in left field and get an at-bat. Maybe two. But now I was a 10-year-old. My turn to step it up.
At the first practice, Mr. Koerner told us wins and losses were not going to define this team. Having fun was going to define us. He tried us all out on the mound, seeing who would be our pitchers for the season. He didn't have many options. Me and Johnny Doherty were the only two kids who could actually get the ball to home plate.
Johnny was great -- a bona fide all-star who must have wondered how he ended up on this team of misfits. He threw nothing but fastballs. Me? Like I said, I could get the ball to the plate. Nothing but meatballs. I could not believe Mr. Koerner thought I could pitch.
But slowly and surely I embraced my new role. In addition to throwing at home with my brother Tom, I used to try to imitate Tom Seaver's windup and delivery, pushing off the rubber with my right leg, trying to get more power on my pitches. Mr. Koerner taught me how to mix speeds and keep batters off-guard.
By mid-season, I was finding the strike zone with more regularity, and I got ready to do battle with the Fire Department sponsored team. This team was coached by Mr. Hudak, and the players were all my best friends. And great baseball players. They were in first place while we were middle of the pack. On this night, though, I felt like Tom Terrific. Everything I threw went for strikes. I struck out 13 batters in the six-inning game and we won 4-1. I remember my Dad's eyes, squinting his proud Irish smile on that summer night. So happy for his son.
But I also remember I got the biggest bear hug from Big Mr. Hu, who presented my the dusty game ball. In blue ink, Mr. Hu wrote my strikeout total ("13 K's), the score (4-1) and the date (6/27/73). I remember my friends on the other team congratulating me too. Indescribable feelings that special night. I remember all of that, because I still have my prized gameball.
I would not have that ball, I would not have those great memories, if not for the encouragement I received from Mr. Koerner. I was just a part-time player when I showed up for my first practice, a kid who couldn't break a window with my fastball. And Mr. K not only gave the ball that season, he gave me a confidence boost that I needed. He made me feel like a Hall of Famer.