By Henry Piarrot
“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” – Henry Ford
As a young boy living in the Lakeview area of New Orleans, there was always something to do. However, a sport was never on my single Mother’s list of safe activities. Consequently, I could read all the books I wanted, ride my bicycle around the block as many times as my legs would allow and catch as many crabs from the Orleans Canal that I could carry home.
My Mom also felt it was safe for me to play with the Dalmatian named “Spots” that lived at the fire house a half block away and collect buckets of figs from the big tree in my backyard. But every time I brought up playing baseball, her answer was always NO!
Chad LeBlanc was one of my 3rd grade classmates and his Dad was the little league baseball coach for most of the boys in our class. One May afternoon, I was waiting with Chad for my bus ride home, when his Dad arrived at our school to pick him up for baseball practice. I had not met Mr. LeBlanc before, so my friend introduced me.
Extending his hand, the Coach asked, “What team do you play for?” “Oh, my Mom won’t let me play sports.” I replied. “Is there something wrong? Are you sick?” he inquired. I told him, “No Sir! She is afraid I will get hurt.” “I see.” he said. “Do you want to play baseball?” he asked. I explained I had never played baseball before, but it looks like fun. “What’s your phone number Son? I want to talk to your Mother. Is that OK with you?” I agreed and gave him my number as I got on the bus.
Later that night my Mom answered the telephone and I could tell it was my friend’s Dad. She basically explained to him that there was not a man in our home to teach me how to do these things and she was afraid I would just embarrass myself or get hurt trying to do something I had not been taught to do properly. But to my surprise, she agreed to write a letter to the school allowing him to take me to the game the next day when he came for Chad.
When she hung up the phone, I asked my Mom what he had told her that changed her mind. She said, “He told me you might get embarrassed and you might get hurt too. But that’s life!” She called me to her side and gave me a big hug. Whispering in my ear she said, “He told me if I want you to grow up to be a strong man, you will have to learn how to be strong now because later may be too late.”
On the way to the game the next day, Coach explained to me that the season had just started and most of the boys on the team have already played a season or two so I will have some catching up to do. However, he promised me that if I listened carefully to his instructions and did my very best, he would teach me to play baseball. I remember his first rule was, “Do not be so afraid of messing up that you forget to do good.”
I am not sure how it is done today, but in 1968 the Saint Dominic Little League played on asphalt. On each corner of the blacktop playground behind the Church, was a painted baseball diamond. Fortunately, sliding was against the rules. Teams from kindergarten to 4th grade played there on alternating days so the older boys were never there on the same days as the youngsters.
When we arrived Coach gave me a blue t-shirt with number 51 on the back, a plain blue cap and an extra glove he had in his trunk. He told me, “You may not play in the field today, but you will get to bat at least once. So pay attention during the game and be ready when it is your turn.” I know he told me not to be afraid, but I was really scared I would not know what to do.
The games for the 8 & 9 year old teams were 7 innings long. I sat with my heart in my throat until my Mother showed up during the 4th inning. She could not be there when the game started because she had to finish working. Once I saw her take her seat, my anxiety only worsened but I tried to stay focused on what was happening. The longer I waited for my turn to bat, the more nauseous I became.
The bottom of the 7th arrived and we were trailing 7-5. Chad was the first batter of the inning and he hit a double. Suddenly, with nobody out and the Coach’s son standing on second, he called my name. On the way to the batters’ box, Coach put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Don’t be afraid. Even if you strike out we had fun today and I am very glad you are on my team.”
My knees were weak as I stood beside the plate awaiting the first pitch. “STRIKE ONE!” yelled the umpire as the bat flew from my hands and clanked against the fence. Totally embarrassed, I ran to pick it up for the next pitch. “STRIKE TWO!” rang out as I swung so hard I fell down. To make matters worse, I skinned my knee on the asphalt and made a bloody hole in my new jeans. Two pitches and I had already experienced embarrassment and injury.
Coach ran out to make sure I was ok. He looked at my knee, patted me on the helmet and told me to keep my eye on the ball. Then he slapped my backside on his way back to the dugout. Miraculously, I hit the next pitch down the 3rd base line. If we were playing on grass, I may have had a single, but the ball rolled over that painted base and all the way to the Church resulting in a 2 run homer that tied the game.
I do not think my feet even touched the ground as I ran the diamond and the entire team was waiting for me at home when I arrived. The confidence I received from hitting a home run my first time at bat could not be purchased at any price.
On that afternoon in May 1968, during my first at bat in my very first baseball game, I learned that being afraid is not the worst thing in life. It is not trying.
Henry Piarrot is a hotel manager and Sevier County resident. Please send all story recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org