Winning at all costs
January 10, 2007
Aspen, CO ColoradoThe recent flap about Travis Benson, the Aspen High School football coach who resigned amid rumors that he was being replaced by the school district superintendent’s husband, got me reminiscing. Word is that this came about over a few parents’ desire for a more competitive program.Skeptics don’t believe that a town of our size can produce high-powered teams. But I know better. In the early 1980s, Aspen put together one of the finest baseball teams in the state. It wasn’t simple.Back then there was an influential father whose son showed an aptitude for flinging fist-size spheres. He did everything to make sure that if a college scholarship was meant to happen, it would. Conveniently, his job was director of the recreation department.Changes to the baseball program started about the time the son reached puberty. A coach was hired who, when not spending his summers in Aspen, skippered a top-tier college program in Florida. The man knew baseball. He was also among the least suited people to mentor children. He was angry in mien and at ease with meting out harsh criticism.Players hated him, but they won games. And, it is completely true that winning is contagious. After a couple years’ dosage of that new and intoxicating glory, parents got serious about high school baseball. With the growing excitement, it was simple to see that we needed more horsepower, and quickly. There wasn’t much that could be done about the mediocre small-town talent that took the field each game, so it became quietly obvious that resources should be expended on an even better coach.The director shocked the town when he landed a young buck fresh from the Baltimore Orioles organization, who was destined to become the general manager of the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers. If his predecessor was top-drawer, this manager belonged on the dresser alongside pictures of the family!In addition to his Southern affability, the man was obviously a baseball genius. His first move was to hire me as an assistant coach. For the next two seasons, it looked to be the perfect job for a college player on summer break.We won more games that first year than any Aspen team ever had. We made a good showing at the regional playoffs, and everyone wondered if it could get any better! We couldn’t resist finding out.The next year our haloed coach returned with a 17-year-old, sure fire, blue-chip, first-round pro prospect under his wing, to give the team a ride on his double-knit coattails for the summer. (It wasn’t hype, either. The kid ended up playing 12 years for the Chicago White Sox.) Aspen was in awe!The seminal moment for our program came with what is probably the biggest game in Aspen baseball history. So confident was our director in the squad he had put together, he boldly scheduled a game with the Gene Taylors team from Grand Junction. This was an all-star team made up of some of the best prep ballplayers in the Western United States. They were annual contenders for the Babe Ruth National Championship. Annually loaded with talent, it had never before occurred to them to toy with a trifling team as ours, and we had always been grateful for the oversight.Before the game, our temporarily transplanted ace headed to the bullpen to warm up. He was normally a catcher, but could throw the ball harder than anyone I have ever known. Adults, with children’s best interests in mind, decided he should pitch that night, as none of our regular pitchers would have been a match for their sluggers. Without realizing it, and just that quickly, they had vetoed any vote of confidence the local kids thought they had earned throughout their young careers.Exacerbating the problem, there were few high school kids anywhere who could catch a pitcher like this, and none in Aspen. Being in uniform and smooth-chinned enough to pass for a high school kid, the job fell to me, the assistant coach. Another regular player was benched. Out of high-minded fairness, Aspen’s benevolent brass decided not to let me hit and penciled in a designated hitter in my slot.It didn’t matter. Taylors threw their ace that night under the bright city lights of Lincoln Park. The kid tossed a neat two-hitter. The only ash-to-horsehide contact was made by our Floridian prodigy. After we stranded him at second following a double in his first at bat, he took matters into his own calloused hands and homered in his second.We would have been in serious trouble had we a mortal on our mound. Instead, our one-man band hummed his 95-mph-plus fastball past all of their hitters except one. Their leadoff man beat out an infield single late in the game. We threw him out stealing second.That was the whole game. We beat the vaunted Taylors team 1-0 for, supposedly, the biggest win in Aspen baseball history. Taught well by our heroes, we celebrated like fools. Our foe was humiliated.On the bus ride home, we worked hard to keep the celebration alive by reliving the highlights. But, there were so few and our participation in them so meaningless that by the time we reached Rifle most had tired of the effort.I was too young to be a man back then, yet too old to be a boy, so I was left to witness those dog-day events through the eyes of each. I got caught up in the loyal duty to do whatever it took to win. I was proud that our director, manager and parents were powerful enough to pull it off.I also felt the bitter remorse and shame of being a willing participant in a fraud. Kids on our team, and every team we played, suffered for adults’ poor judgment. Every Aspen player knew that we were cheats. How quickly that game faded from local lore is testament to how wrong the adults had been about its importance. The number of regular Aspen players who gave up the game because they lost the chance to play it that summer reveals how low the program had sunk.Kids would never orchestrate events as happened that summer. Left alone, they play with everyone who shows up. They compete fiercely for each win and sting badly at every defeat. They look forward to the next battle while rehashing the glory of those past. And, they grow proud and humble, in measured, self-administered doses.I don’t want to paint a completely bad picture of the adults who tampered with something so fragile as the innocence of youth that summer. What we did hurt kids, but it wasn’t intentional. The director, the coach, the parents … and I, were good people, or at least average as human beings go. In our zeal for victory, we simply got caught out in the middle of the field and lost our place. We miscalculated where the lines should have been drawn and ended up between them, where we didn’t belong.Roger Marolt knows that winning has its price. Sometimes it’s better to just break even. He’s taking hits at email@example.com.