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Don't Widen the Plate

In Nashville , Tennessee , during the first week of January, 1996, more than 4,000 baseball coaches descended upon the Opryland Hotel for the 52nd annual ABCA convention.

 While I waited in line to register with the hotel staff, I heard other more veteran coaches rumbling about the lineup of speakers scheduled to present during the weekend. One name, in particular, kept resurfacing, always with the same sentiment - "John Scolinos is here? Oh man, worth every penny of my airfare."

Who the heck is John Scolinos, I wondered. No matter, I was just happy to be there.

In 1996, Coach Scolinos was 78 years old and five years retired from a college coaching career that began in 1948. He shuffled to the stage to an impressive standing ovation, wearing dark polyester pants, a light blue shirt, and a string around his neck from which home plate hung - a full-sized, stark-white home plate.

Seriously, I wondered, who in the hell is this guy?

After speaking for twenty-five minutes, not once mentioning the prop hanging around his neck, Coach Scolinos appeared to notice the snickering among some of the coaches. Even those who knew Coach Scolinos had to wonder exactly where he was going with this, or if he had simply forgotten about home plate since he'd gotten on stage.

Then, finally .

 "You're probably all wondering why I'm wearing home plate around my neck. Or maybe you think I escaped from  Camarillo State Hospital ," he said, his voice growing irascible. I laughed along with the others, acknowledging the possibility. "No," he continued, "I may be old, but I'm not crazy. The reason I stand before you today is to share with you baseball people what I've learned in my life, what I've learned about home plate in my 78 years."

Several hands went up when Scolinos asked how many Little League coaches were in the room. "Do you know how wide home plate is in Little League?" After a pause, someone offered, "Seventeen inches," more question than answer.

 "That's right," he said. "How about in Babe Ruth? Any Babe Ruth coaches in the house?"

 Another long pause.

 "Seventeen inches?"came a guess from another reluctant coach.

 "That's right," said Scolinos. "Now, how many high school coaches do we have in the room?" Hundreds of hands shot up, as the pattern began to appear. "How wide is home plate in high school baseball?"

 "Seventeen inches," they said, sounding more confident.

 "You're right!" Scolinos barked. "And you college coaches, how wide is home plate in college?"

 "Seventeen inches!" we said, in unison.

 "Any Minor League coaches here? How wide is home plate in pro ball?

 "Seventeen inches!"

 "RIGHT! And in the Major Leagues, how wide home plate is in the Major Leagues?"

 "Seventeen inches!

 

"SEV-EN-TEEN INCHES!" he confirmed, his voice bellowing off the walls. "And what do they do with a Big League pitcher who can't throw the ball over seventeen inches?" Pause. "They send him to  Pocatello !" he hollered, drawing raucous laughter.

 

"What they don't do is this: they don't say, 'Ah, that's okay, Jimmy. You can't hit a seventeen-inch target? We'll make it eighteen inches, or nineteen inches. We'll make it twenty inches so you have a better chance of hitting it. If you can't hit that, let us know so we can make it wider still, say twenty-five inches.'"

Pause.

 "Coaches ."

 Pause.

" . what do we do when our best player shows up late to practice? When our team rules forbid facial hair and a guy shows up unshaven? What if he gets caught drinking? Do we hold him accountable? Or do we change the rules to fit him, do we widen home plate?

 The chuckles gradually faded as four thousand coaches grew quiet, the fog lifting as the old coach's message began to unfold. He turned the plate toward himself and, using a Sharpie, began to draw something. When he turned it toward the crowd, point up, a house was revealed, complete with a freshly drawn door and two windows. "This is the problem in our homes today. With our marriages, with the way we parent our kids. With our discipline. We don't teach accountability to our kids, and there is no consequence for failing to meet standards. We widen the plate!"

 Pause.

 Then, to the point at the top of the house he added a small American flag.

 "This is the problem in our schools today. The quality of our education is going downhill fast and teachers have been stripped of the tools they need to be successful, and to educate and discipline our young people. We are allowing others to widen home plate! Where is that getting us?"

 Silence. He replaced the flag with a Cross.

 "And this is the problem in the Church, where powerful people in positions of authority have taken advantage of young children, only to have such an atrocity swept under the rug for years. Our church leaders are widening home plate!"

 I was amazed. At a baseball convention where I expected to learn something about curveballs and bunting and how to run better practices, I had learned something far more valuable. From an old man with home plate strung around his neck, I had learned something about life, about myself, about my own weaknesses and about my responsibilities as a leader. I had to hold myself and others accountable to that which I knew to be right, lest our families, our faith, and our society continue down an undesirable path.

 "If I am lucky," Coach Scolinos concluded, "you will remember one thing from this old coach today. It is this: if we fail to hold ourselves to a higher standard, a standard of what we know to be right; if we fail to hold our spouses and our children to the same standards, if we are unwilling or unable to provide a consequence when they do not meet the standard; and if our schools and churches and our government fail to hold themselves accountable to those they serve, there is but one thing to look forward to ." With that, he held home plate in front of his chest, turned it around, and revealed its dark black backside.  ". dark days ahead."

 Coach Scolinos died in 2009 at the age of 91, but not before touching the lives of hundreds of players and coaches, including me. Meeting him at my first ABCA convention kept me returning year after year, looking for similar wisdom and inspiration from other coaches. He is the best clinic speaker the ABCA has ever known because he was so much more than a baseball coach.

 His message was clear: "Coaches, keep your players - no matter how good they are - your own children, and most of all, keep yourself at seventeen inches.

 

“The Baseball Coaching Bible” 

Inspiring Today’s Player

By Skip Bertman

 

When I started at LSU in 1983, naturally I was new to the players.  But I had a vision.  I had been to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series before.  The sights, sounds, and smells were familiar to me.  I had explained to the players that anything you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon must, absolutely must, happen.  That first season I told them about TEAM- Together Everyone Accomplishes More, Totally Excellent Alliance for Magnificence.  The pledge of allegiance starts with “I” and ends with “all”.  It takes all of us for any one of us to be successful.  I told them about the Boston Celtics, all the titles they had won without ever having the league’s leading scorer.  Our players had t-shirts on which were printed a large baseball that said “Team” and a smaller baseball that said “Me”.  We ate together, we worked together, we prayed together, and we did all right the first year.

The second year I told them a story my high school football coach had told me.  It’s a story about holding on to the rope.  I called each player into my office and showed him a piece of rope that I threw over the edge of my desk.  I asked each player, “If you were at one end of the rope with nothing between you and a thousand foot fall to certain death, who would you want holding the other end of the rope, knowing that his hands were so strong and that he loved you so much he would never let go?”

Well, Marty Lanoux said Jeff Reboulet, and Reboulet said Andy Galy, and Galy said John Dixon, and so on.  I said, “Fellas, when you tell me, ‘It doesn’t matter who holds on to the other end of the rope, as long as he’s a teammate of mine’,  then we’ll be one.  We’ll be free to trust one another, make mistakes, and still feel good about our decisions.”

That season we did very well.  We ended the year in a series at Auburn University, where we had to win two of three to capture the first conference championship at LSU in 10 years.  On Saturday we split a doubleheader, so it all came down to Sunday’s ballgame.

It was May 1, 1985, and that’s when our program turned around forever.  The game was tied, 1-1, through nine innings.  We scored a run in the 10th to go ahead.  In the bottom of the 10th, with the tying run at second base, a fly ball was lifted to my left fielder.  He ran to his right to catch it - it wasn’t a really tough chance - but as I looked down to see the play, I noticed all our players straining their necks, wondering if he was going to make the play.  They were transferring a message of non-trust.  The ball hit his glove and fell to the ground.  Heads went down, spikes started to shuffle.  I said, “Fellas, what’s important now is to pull together and believe in one another.”

We went ahead again in the 13th, and with a runner at third with two outs in the bottom of the inning, I brought in Eric Hetzel to pitch for us.  Eric was an excellent pitcher and an excellent competitor, but he had pitched the day before.  In looking at the pinch hitter coming up for Auburn, I told Eric, “Let’s just use fastballs, get him out here, and we’re going to leave here with a championship, right?”  He said, “Right.”  But as I turned towards the dugout, I saw our players with their heads down, spikes shuffling, again transferring that message of non-trust.  Several pitches later, the Auburn batter blooped a single over third base, and we were tied again.  Of course, the heads went down again.  I said, “Fellas, pull together.  We need each guy.” 

In the 14th, we went ahead again.  Stan Loewer, who had also pitched the day before, came in to face Auburn in the bottom of the inning.  Stan worked himself into a situation with a runner at third base and two outs.  He was standing behind the mound, rubbing up the ball.  That’s when everything changed.  A senior pitcher from Miami, Florida, Robbie Smith, stood up on the edge of the dugout and called, “Stan, Stanley, hold on to the rope, hold on!”  Marty Lanoux at third base turned to shortstop Jeff Reboulet and said, “Jeff, hold on to the rope!” Jeff shouted across the diamond to first baseman John Dixon, “John, hold on!”  I can remember our catcher, Rob Leary, with his fist in the air, shouting, “Hold on to the rope!” 

Did Stan strike out the batter with three pitches?  No, it was better than that.  He worked himself into a 2-2 count against an excellent hitter.  Stan delivered a good pitch, and the batter swung, and as the ball hit the ground, our dugout emptied, transferring a positive trust message.  With that kind of trust and belief in his teammates, Jeff Reboulet fielded the ground ball, threw to first base, and we were the champs.

As a coach and team leader, people expect you to hold on to the rope.  They expect you to hold on to the rope of communication as well.  And, of course, people in your family expect you to hold on to the rope of love.