Marolt: One last gift to Coach Clapper | AspenTimes.com

Marolt: One last gift to Coach Clapper

Roger Marolt
Roger This

It was sacred territory for a black felt-tip pen to cross. You got one chance, so it was seemingly inexplicable how I guided my hand. I drew my number carefully, like anyone else would have there on the half-moon portion where there isn't any stitching. Then I committed the sacrilege.

I wrote what was supposed to be my name, except I mixed up the letters in my most careful hand — "Ramolt"— then I just as carefully drew an "x" through it. Just below I did it again, still mixing up the letters — "Molrat" — and X'd it out. I repeated twice more, two more misspellings of my own last name crossed out, before I finally did it right — "Marolt."

There was one person I knew who would think it was funny, but I couldn't just walk up and show him. To make the joke work, he had to discover it in his own time. The greatest ally of humor is patience. I put the hat on my head, my deed hidden on the underside of the bill, and headed out for practice.

It's obvious I loved the guy. There are few people I would have desecrated a pristine Aspen ball cap for and gone through the trouble of trying to pull this off. Part of it was that you had to understand what the baseball cap meant, to both of us.

To have one meant a lot of things. It was a symbol. You were a ballplayer. It was cool on campus. It gave you status around town. It was a bond. It meant you were part of the team, and he had a way of letting everyone know that was the most important thing. He wouldn't leave alone the idea of how each and every player had to contribute in their own way, not just to increase our chance of winning but to make sure our hometown, Aspen, was a better place because of us. After all, we were damn lucky to live here.

He was a guy who could chew your butt and make you feel good about it. He didn't do it to appease a bruised ego and assign blame elsewhere, as is the common reason for dressing someone down. When called for, he did it because baseball was almost as important to him as we were.

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The previous season ended badly for the team, in good measure because of me. It is one of those few expertly self-framed scenes from the past that stands alone clearly for what I'm guessing will be the rest of my life. It was the bottom of the last inning, and we were down by one. I singled down the right-field line and stupidly tried to stretch it into a double. It was the end of a rally that never was.

After the game, he gave it to me hard in front of everyone. "I appreciate the hustle," he started. "But for crying out loud, you've got to think of the team in that situation! That was piss-poor!" And that is the abridged, family version of his speech.

He finished characteristically with a message that would make me slink out of that dugout with my head hanging but my heart lifted. "If you make a bonehead decision like that when you're playing in college … "

I don't remember the rest. He used "when" and "if" perfectly for an awkward high school kid struggling with confidence, trying to figure it all out. While I certainly got the message, it was years later that I truly appreciated the wisdom, encouragement and care behind that post-game piece of mind he verbally gift-wrapped for me. He believed in me. He loved me. There was no doubt.

I knew humor was something he appreciated a lot. I guess my joke to Coach Clapper was orchestrated to thank him for all he had given me from the time he began teaching me through baseball when I was still hitting off a tee, because above all he was a teacher.

It wasn't until my senior year was almost over. Coach Clapper came storming back into the dugout after arguing with an umpire. He grabbed the first object he saw and flung it hard into the dust on the dugout floor. He sat down still ranting over the displayed incompetence. Then he just stopped. He chuckled. He started laughing. Finally he was laughing so hard that tears rolled down his cheeks. I followed his eyes to the dirt. There was my hat, upside down, my small gift finally delivered.

Throughout the years, Roger Marolt tried many times to tell Willard how much he meant to him. Of course, Coach Clapper already knew. Contact Roger at roger@ maroltllp.com.