I have been thinking about this all day today.
I woke up at my normal 5:30 am. I usually don’t look at my phone for the first hour as I focus on my morning routine. For some reason, I checked it and saw a text from my original ‘brother from another mother,”, Jay Hill. Jay was one of the first people to befriend me when I moved from Iowa to Mississippi in 1986.
His text read, “DM Howie passed away last night.”
David M. Howie was our baseball coach.
I immediately felt regret.
When people are on their deathbed, they say the biggest fear they have is not dying but regret. I think about that often and can only hope I won’t have any when my clock runs out. When I was 17, I wrote myself a promise that I have lived by ever since.
It reads, “I am not afraid of failure; I am afraid of regret.”
I signed it, dated it and to make it official even got a witness to sign it. I still have it, tucked safely away in a memento box in storage back in California, along with other various “important” trinkets and safe keeps from my youth. Mind you, I don’t have many left. After moving 20 plus times to and from 5 states and four countries, you lose a lot of shit over the years.
SO why now? Why was I feeling regret?
In 1989 I was forced to make a decision, as do all High School graduates. Attend college, get a job or enlist in the military?
Those were my options.
My family, of course, pushed the college route. However, I knew my hatred for school was not looking forward to sitting in a classroom listening to lectures and taking notes and tests for four more years. Even if it meant playing baseball at the next level. The only job experience I had up to that point was manual labor. Nope, found out quickly that wasn’t fun.
Growing up playing every sport and settling on baseball as my vehicle for personal growth was significant. The game was challenging and mirrored life like no other sport or activity. Those that play it know it can be a game of failure or a game of opportunity depending on your perspective, attitude and mindset.
I needed a bigger challenge. Something that only a few people can and have accomplished. Something that would test my self-discipline, leadership, teamwork skills, and physical and mental limitations. You could say playing sports does just that, and you wouldn’t be wrong; however, I was looking for something else.
Something different. Not better, just different.
So I looked into the military. My grandfather served in the Army during WWII and was at Pearl Harbor in 1941. My uncle served in the Air Force, so I thought maybe that was my calling. It was the last time our country was not at war to date. Perhaps the last time forever.
My parents were not that supportive of the military idea. My Dad would have been a “tunnel rat” had he been drafted during Vietnam, so he was not too keen on the idea. My Mom was like any other mom. Worried sick, I would end up in a body bag. The only other dreadfully, helpless place a son could be is prison. They tried to talk me out of it for the obvious reasons mentioned.
I was torn. The fact was I needed it. I needed to get away on my own and learn a few things about life. I wasn’t ready to commit to more school. I needed a more significant challenge than cracking the lineup of a college baseball team or getting good grades in some major that I would never follow. I knew myself well enough to know that I would most likely be going to skip class, play baseball, and party with new college friends. Besides, I could use the GI Bill after I got out and then go to college. I would be more mature, self-disciplined and possibly even excited for the opportunity.
Note: After my four years of service, I did go to college only to find out I couldn’t let school get in the way of my education. I had seen too much of the world to sit in a classroom. Those were the longest three semesters of my life. haha
I went to visit my Coach. I needed his input for some reason. I guess he was the only other adult I spent time with besides my parents, and I already knew where they stood on the subject. It wasn’t that Howie and I were very close or that I knew I could count on his support. It was more so that I knew I would get a straight answer. I knew that he would not sugar coat it or judge me. I knew he would tell me exactly what he thought without regard to hurting my feelings or trying to make me feel good. That was the way DM Howie was. No bullshit!
I went to his house and asked his wife if he was available. When he came to the door, I could tell he was a little surprised to see me. He could tell right away this wasn’t a pop by to say “Hey” visit.
He invited me in and asked right away what was on my mind. He wasn’t much for small talk. I told him about my dilemma and the huge decision that was in front of me. I told him I was thinking of enlisting in the Marine Corps. Still, I was afraid of going through life regretting not playing college baseball and giving up the game I loved.
He flashed that side of the mouth, two teeth grin he had with a little chuckle and said, “who says you have to give up baseball?”
I was confused. Where was he going with this?
He then brought up the time when Jeff “Cubby” McGee and I decided to pierce our ears one day at the mall and come to practice. I know total rebels, right?
FLASHBACK CUT TO DUGOUT
I remember our teammates waiting to see his reaction and not so secretly hoping that he would explode on us. He didn’t, of course. Because he was more relaxed in his older years, he had outlived his yelling phase that most young coaches go through. We had heard stories of the “back in the day” Coach Howie rants.
By this time in his career, he had seen it all from his players and his students. This wasn’t the first time someone under his tutelage tried to be different or stand out.
He asked me an honest, simple question in his long, calm southern drawl that deemed an honest answer.
“Let me ask you something, Nick, do you think that earring will make you pitch better?”
I said, “no, sir.”
“Do you think it will make you hit better?”
“Then why are you wearing it to baseball practice?”
My smartass response was, “because the lady said I can’t take it out for three days, or the hole will close up.”
He looked at me hard and long and said, “well, if it becomes a distraction and affects your performance, I will rip it out myself.”
Not only did I think my bench time was about to increase drastically, more importantly, I felt I had lost his respect and faith in me that day, and that was it. I would never get it back. So I thought.
I was wrong.
After those three days passed, I never wore it on the field again.
Hey, I couldn’t let the hole close up.
BACK TO COACH’S LIVING ROOM
We sat there for a beat, and then he explained to me that he wasn’t upset with me when I got my ear pierced. No, he wasn’t upset because of “some, some damn earring.” (Gotta say it like him)
He was disappointed.
He was disappointed because he saw that I THOUGHT I needed an earring to be different. I was trying too hard to stand out. He knew that getting an ear pierced was not the right way to be different. That was too easy. Too trite. Anyone can do that.
He explained that he was disappointed because I didn’t already know that about myself. He was trying to tell me that I was already different, and I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone but myself.
I was happy to hear that he believed in me the whole time I thought he had given up on me.
Coach Howie wanted and expected his players to be different in the ways that matter. He expected his players to be the example and not follow the crowd or the trends. To do the right things even when nobody was looking. Have integrity, be trustworthy, kind and truthful. Keep your head down, work hard and keep moving forward. Most of all, never quit or give up on your teammates or yourself.
Sounds like a plug for The Few, The Proud, The Marines, huh?
I told him that I had to choose between baseball and the military, and I didn’t want to make that choice.
That is when he told me something I had never known about him. He served in the Army before becoming a teacher and coach. He told me I didn’t have to choose. He shared his experience in the Army, and how it paved his way to his career choice, how the military made him a better man. That led to being a better husband, a better father, a better teacher and a better baseball coach. I never knew that about my coach.
He explained, “that everything in life was temporary, everything except baseball.” He assured me that “baseball wasn’t going anywhere.” It will wait for me to come back just as it did for him. I could do BOTH! Maybe my life as a player had ended, but that didn’t mean baseball had to stop. He reminded me that “baseball is part of you, and it will always be a part of you. You can always come back to it no matter how old you are.”
That made me happy.
I like to think that my decision made him proud. I want to believe at that moment, he was rooting for me to go off and become a man so I could return to the game and be different. Do great things.
I was set free of what I thought was a painful decision. It made me feel good to see him smile and to get his support when I had none.
We stood up. He shook my hand firmly. I said thank you, and before I left…
He asked, “why the Marine Corps? Why not the Army or the Navy?”
I said, “they’re the best Coach. They are the hardest to get into with the longest and toughest boot camp. If I am going to do it, I want the best.”
They were different than the other branches, and I wanted to be different. The Few, The Proud.
That made him smile again and with his southern twang, said. “Yeah, yer different, all right. Well…good luck, son.”
That was the last time I spoke to him 31 years ago.
CUT TO YESTERDAY
SO why the REGRET?
It took me a few years of eliminating some career options, chasing some dollars and trying to find my calling. Then it hit me on my 27th birthday.
Coach Howie’s words that baseball will wait for me. That is when I made a life decision that I have never regretted.
After spending the past 22 years as a private and professional coach, MLB scout, business entrepreneur, and founder of an International Data & Video Scouting company that employs 15 scouts in 8 countries, I have no regrets about my life choices. Right or wrong, they have brought me here to where I am today.
The one regret I felt yesterday morning reading that text was never thanking him for helping me make that decision 31 years ago to follow my gut to be different and trust it will all work out.
Do I regret that decision to trade in my cleats for combat boots and my glove for an M-16? Nope.
Do I regret not going to college right away and turning down the only opportunity I had to play baseball? Nope.
I regret that I never contacted Coach after boot camp to tell him that I made it through and was one of only three Marines meritoriously promoted out of my class.
I regret that I never acted on the numerous times I wanted to reach out to him and tell him about my life since we last saw each other 31 years ago.
I regret never checking in to see how he was doing when I heard his health was deteriorating.
I regret never thanking him for telling me that baseball would always be there and being right.
I regret never telling him I became a baseball coach and then a professional scout.
I regret never telling him that I coach from the first base box and use verbal signs because he did.
I regret never telling him that my foundation for coaching stemmed from what I learned watching him.
Why did he do all of these things as a coach? Why did he choose the military and then teach and coach?
Because it was different, he was different.
Not better, just different.
THANK YOU, COACH
Thank you, Coach, for believing in all of us that were blessed to know you. Not just your players and your students but everyone else that were fortunate enough to be graced with your presence. You were an innovative baseball coach, a successful teacher, an unbelievable leader of young men and, most of all, a kind and gentle human being. I will never forget you.
You are a TRUE LEGEND that will live forever in our hearts.
Rest In Peace Coach.
LOVE the Game. LIVE the Dream.
Footnote: The witness’ signature on that post-it note I saved?
My teammate and my brother for life, Calvin James“Jay”Hill.