Style vs Substance: Life lessons from an index card

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The baseball coach was also the school’s driver’s education teacher. He used to teach three Phys ed classes a day until he won back-to-back state championships. After that, he was allowed to drop the PE. All coaches were required to teach at least one class, but seeing promise in the young leader, the school gave him license to select his own schedule.

No one understood why he picked drivers ed instead of PE. Drivers ed had actual teaching elements. There was accountability at the end. If a student passed his class, they received a special permission slip granting them immunity from taking a driver’s test when the student turned 16. Just head down to the DMV with the pink slip, a birth certificate and a smile, and bam, freedom on the road.

Why not simply take the three classes of dodgeball every day? Sit in the corner with a clipboard on the ground for attendance and spend the rest of the time focusing on next week’s games? This logic seemed sound to many other coaches throughout the county, but for reasons passing understanding, coach loved driver’s ed.

In a previous life, coach served his country in Vietnam. He was a medic. While his buddies ran through the jungle with pounds of metal and high-powered rifles strapped across their bodies, coach ran around with a huge red cross on his back (what he lovingly referred to as a target), pistol on his hip, and medical supplies in his bag.

At the end of each season, coach would call the players into his office and review their performance. He’d send them out with an index card listing skills to hone, workouts to complete, and an indication of whether they’d played well enough to keep their roster spot the following season. If you hadn’t, you were placed with the others trying out for the squad in the spring. Your teammates would be off in the batting cage while you’d fight it out for a handful of bench spaces in the dugout.

I was fairly talented in my younger years. In 8th grade, coach had a couple of open slots on the bench heading into the postseason. Since my junior varsity season was over, coached called me up. After a week of practice, I earned a starting spot in the outfield for the final three games. We didn’t make it deep into the postseason, but the experience was enough to land me a coveted meeting with coach and an index card.

Walking into his office three weeks before summer break, we had a good conversation about my potential. There wasn’t a lot of game film to review, but when he handed me my card, I immediately looked to the bottom to find out I had proven enough to solidify a spot on next year’s squad. I thank him, busted my ass all summer, and eventually earned the starting shortstop position.

Being a freshman starting shortstop at a school with a baseball reputation was a boon for a 15 year old. I was flying high. I had made it. By year’s end, I was hitting third in the lineup, and we fell one game short of the state playoffs. This time, I wasn’t surprised to learn my place on next year’s team was mine for the losing.

That offseason, I bought Nike sweatbands. Come fall workouts, I started wearing eye black and taping my wrists like the guys in the College World Series. If I was going to be the starting shortstop for a baseball powerhouse, I wanted to look like the starting shortstop for a baseball powerhouse.

By the end of the year, we made an early exit in the district tournament and missed an opportunity for the state playoffs for the first time in ten years. My batting average dropped below .200 and I had committed more errors that season than I had the previous four seasons of varsity, junior varsity, and Babe Ruth league combined. For sure, I’d be trying out again come spring.

Coach disappeared for a bit after our untimely exit from the playoffs. To date, coach had never taken any sick or personal time. No one questioned whether he’d come back. It was just abnormal to find out coach was human.

Walking into coach’s office two weeks after the final game, I was resigned to my fate. To my surprise, coach was in a chipper mood. Twelve days at the beach and away from driver’s ed can heal almost anything. The light mood helped ease the sting of reality. I played like garbage. I didn’t perform. I had regressed in my ability, and I’d need to pull a rabbit out of my ass to convince him to keep me.

Coach didn’t say a word. He didn’t hold up his hand to signal me to be quiet. He didn’t try to console me. He simply slid my index card across the desk while I was mid pity-party. Not wanting to see the bad news. I ignored the card for a moment and kept trying to talk. Perhaps if I could show I’d eaten enough crow, he’d show mercy.

He slid my card over and went back to his crossword puzzle. In that moment, I knew I’d be starting from scratch next spring.

Nothing had changed in my skillset. I hadn’t lost the ability to field a groundball, hit an off-speed pitch, or sling a baseball to a target the size of an oven mitt from 100 feet away while running sideways. Those skills don’t just disappear. They’re honed over time and seared into muscle memory. Recalling them can become difficult, but they don’t just go away. Coach knew this.

Slowly, I took the card off his desk, but I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to read my fate in front of my judge. Head down, I quickly exited his office, got into my car, and finally pulled it out of my back pocket.

Normally, these index cards were full of text. They had words neatly organized into columns and bullets outlining your roadmap for the coming months. These were recipe cards and coach was the executive chef. All we had to do was follow the recipe, and the restaurant would succeed.

My card had seven words on it, “This game is about substance, not style.”

I had become obsessed with the attention and flash that came with being the starting shortstop. Seeing my name in the paper became the goal. Hearing my name tossed around at school the day after a win was a drug. Armbands, wrist tape, eye black and a new batting stance that resembled a yoga position were all window dressing. Looking and acting the part became more important than playing the part, and coach recognized that.

Eerily absent from my card was my fate for the following season. Was I welcome back? Did I have to tryout again? Had I burned this bridge? Did I shoot myself in the foot by showing my inner diva?

Three weeks passed before I’d see coach again. This was my choice. Although I had questions, I wasn’t sure I wanted the answers.

The team and their families gathered at one of the player’s parent’s homes. A potluck dinner was followed by a few stories from coach about the year, a couple of simple awards, and a nice tribute to the outgoing seniors. At this point, everyone knew about my card and the uncertainty of my fate, and it wasn’t until the speeches were over and the seniors were recanting their war stories that coach pulled me aside.

It seems I walked out of his office too soon. The first card was meant to be a wakeup call, and in his hand, he held the second card I was supposed to receive that afternoon. There, I saw the litany of drills and workouts he recommended for the offseason along with the words, “Go get to work. See you next year” on the bottom.

He told me his intent was for me to sweat for a few minutes right there in the office before we’d talk about what the first card meant and why I needed to get back to basics. However, when I preempted that conversation with my exit, he decided to let that run its course.

Ironically enough, that was the best thing that could’ve happened. Junior year rolled around, and I was back in the starting lineup.

I ditched the eye black, lost my dozen rolls of athletic tape, and left the sweatbands in my locker. I refused to look at the newspaper during the season (although my father kept a scrap book for me to peruse post-season), and I had my most productive season in all my years on the team.

The accidental Jedi mind trick worked. I guess running through the jungle, trying to survive, and keeping others alive doesn’t leave much room for panache.

The same goes for achieving goals.

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