"Dear Coach Carl," by Bill Gaythwaite

Bill Gaythwaite

Bill Gaythwaite

Bill Gaythwaite’s short stories have appeared in The Ledge, Third Wednesday, Boston Literary Magazine, Word Riot, and elsewhere. His work is also included in Mudville Diaries, an anthology of baseball-themed essays published by Avon Books. He is a seven-time finalist in contests at Glimmer Train and was a second place finalist in the Lamia Ink! International One-Page Play Festival. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Bill is on the staff of the Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University.

Dear Coach Carl

So the very first thing you need to know is that I will certainly pay for whatever repairs to your windshield you deem necessary. The second thing is that I have no control over my son’s awesome gift, and this is what I believe was at the root of today’s unfortunate incident.

Of course, Coach Carl, you must be somewhat acquainted with Kyle Jr.’s capabilities if you have observed my boy for even ten seconds during your sporadic and regrettably disorganized practices this spring. But before you get any ideas, I am not one of those parents who sits around basking in his child’s accomplishments. I have had to accept the mixed blessing of Kyle Jr.’s exceptional athletic talent and the petty jealousies such skills have provoked. It is my job as a parent to advocate for my astonishing son, realizing that his future, if handled correctly, is beyond promising and as bright as a summer morning.

I realize when you volunteered to coach Kyle Jr.’s Little League team, you were probably only advocating for your son too – in your own way. Perhaps it was an attempt to give your boy (is it Jim or Tim?) athletic opportunities that he would not otherwise receive with a more experienced and competent coach, someone who recognizes God-given talent when he sees it and knows which players should play where.

You are obviously not the first suburban dad to take a job as coach only to advance his son’s fortunes on the playing field, so in good conscience I can’t heap too much criticism on you. In addition, my wife tells me you teach Economics at a community college in Boston. This explains a lot. Bookish types can’t always be expected to know much about sports or coaching in particular.

Ambition for your own child compounded by general ignorance of baseball are the only reasons I can imagine for why you felt driven to start your son in my boy’s proven position at first base this afternoon. Kyle Jr. was left to languish in the dugout during today’s season opener and you saw how well that turned out for you!

The bottom line is that if you do not instruct your little Jim (or Tim?) to focus, bend his knees and get his freakin’ glove down in the dirt, then groundballs will continue to dart through his legs, Bill Buckner-style, for whatever remains of his baseball “career.” And that was all I was trying to express to you between innings (we were already on the losing end of a 7-0 score!) when I discreetly approached you as our boys took the field – or at least as yours did. Mine was still warming the bench and fuming like a cartoon character with steam about to pour out his ears.

For this I can’t blame him. Why should Kyle Jr. deny who he is and sit patiently by as a foolish charade of Free to Be You and Me baseball mocks the sport he loves? Honestly, why should he? The image of my boy in a slack-jawed state of shock at losing his spot in the lineup already had me in a foul temper. But then you took that extremely uncivilized tone with me, first telling me that Kyle Jr. would need to change his “surly” attitude before being allowed to play and then ordering me to “go back to the fucking bleachers” where I belonged. Well, that belligerent phrase must have seared my brain, Coach Carl, because right after that is when I grabbed that DeMarini aluminum bat and stomped off the field to the parking lot (as if in a fever dream) and swung hard at your Toyota Camry while (frankly) picturing your head.

Admittedly, this was a bad moment, and despite what you may now be hearing about my past (because I’ve discovered this to be a rather gossipy, two-faced community) I am not normally a violent individual. In fact, I had reason to be optimistic when I first heard you would be taking over the team this year, precisely because you were new to town and didn’t know us at all. You had no annoying baggage that you were lugging around with you from past seasons either. I had hoped your opinion of me (and Kyle Jr.) would not have already been poisoned by the rumors that have clung to us like a rancid smell since I coached last spring. Anyway, no matter what has been whispered in your direction, let me tell you that the recreation department did not in any way, shape or form ban me from baseball forever and there was no town ordinance passed against me either. Very few people signed that petition.

Let’s just say, as a coach, I was horribly misunderstood. Truth be told, I have a bit of the bookish side to me as well, though I do not make my living in the academic world the way you do. I’m in sales. Specifically, I sell internet security software to Fortune 500 companies or companies that aspire to one day be Fortune 500 companies. Choosing the right words and approach is my business, my livelihood. It is essential, when closing a sale, to be articulate, convincing and confident. I wanted to bring these qualities of clarity and assuredness to my tenure as coach, while guiding my gifted boy (and the other ones) to distinction.

But there were problems from the start. Mainly there was the unavoidable fact that no one on the team was as remotely athletic or determined as my son and this presented the biggest challenge. Still, I tried to stay positive because that’s what you do when you are faced with impossible odds and consider yourself a winner. I was set to dig in and mold these young men, if not exactly in the image of Kyle Jr., (because, let’s face it, I’m no miracle worker!) then at least to steer them to the best versions of themselves they could possibly be. And it might have been okay if not for that whining group of parents that immediately materialized -- that Starbucks loving, Volvo driving, Whole Foods shopping contingent of them. Right off they said I called too many practices. How else was I supposed to get results, may I ask? A prayer circle? I certainly never told anyone they would be cut from the team if they did not show up for suicide sprints on Easter Sunday. This was only a suggestion (and wildly misreported!) and not an ultimatum of any kind. These same parents said I screamed at their boys and made them cry. Hello people! Ever hear of motivational speeches? Please see any sports movie distributed by the Disney Studios in the past forty years! Did anybody wonder whether it was my inspiring words that might have moved their drama queens to tears and not some assault to their fragile little psyches?

But I acknowledge it was not a successful season, despite Kyle Jr.’s stellar contribution. Still, he couldn’t do it alone. Our losses, in my opinion, had less to do with any perceived coaching lapses than the shallow gene pool with which I had to work, as well as the pissing-in-the-well attitude of those holier-than-thou parents. They wanted their children coddled. Coddled! These boys were ten years old! They were hardly goo-goo babies with pacifiers in their mouths! And then came The Incident, of which you probably have already been informed. It was after Kyle Jr. got tossed out of the final game for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Let me only say that my son had shown remarkable restraint for some time, given that he had been required to carry the hitting, pitching and fielding burden on his shoulders in an Atlas-like fashion all season, which some of the other boys even seemed to resent. So Kyle kicking some dirt in the direction of the opposing team’s catcher as he sauntered to the plate and then allegedly spitting at him were, to my mind, minor infractions considering the season of frustration he’d had to endure. Sometimes you just need to let kids be kids. Am I right, Coach Carl?

Lamentably, the umpire (Sebastian Greeley, the manager at our local Trader Joe’s) didn’t see it this way and so obviously I was obliged to respond after Kyle Jr.’s ejection from the game. But no matter what you have heard, it only appeared that I intentionally head-butted the man. You see, I stumbled over the bat Kyle Jr. had hurled at the ump’s feet and my contact with the man’s face was purely accidental. The YouTube video shows this quite clearly, but because Greeley’s nose bled so profusely, that’s all anyone remembers.

So the recreation department did not banish me from coaching. My wife Jill did. She said I needed to stop before we were all run out of town by a crowd carrying pitchforks and torches. Jill has a tendency to overreact. As an events planner she anticipates disaster at every turn, but especially when it comes to me and what she refuses to see as my best intentions. She wouldn’t even allow me to attend practices this season and made me promise to watch from the car.

Lately it seems we can fight about anything. For instance this morning before we left for the game there was a commercial on television advertising one of those truly awful reality shows, the one about the family that’s had all the plastic surgery, where one of the daughters made the sex tape, which is the only reason why this person is even in our faces to begin with! But it’s not just the sex tape woman.

The whole clan is everywhere you look now, on billboards, talk shows, magazine covers. You can’t get away from them. They are like nuclear waste or creeping mold. You know the people I’m referring to, even if I won’t utter their name or write it down here. It’s like how people in the theater aren’t supposed to use the word Macbeth. They have to say The Scottish Play instead or else something rotten and irretrievable will happen. It’s like that when I think of these people, a sort of superstition. Anyway, I’m inclined to rant about this porn-based family whenever they are alluded to, which is pretty goddamn often if you ask me. Their tireless publicity machine is led by the matriarch, an older white woman who has had her face lifted so many times she now resembles an Asian blow-up doll. Jill just usually rolls her eyes or mumbles some vague agreement when I go off about these people, but today it seemed like she was actually defending them, telling me to calm down about this shameful bunch.

“Jeez, Kyle, it’s not like they’re doing you any personal harm,” is what she said. “It’s not like they have a Kyle Lawler voodoo doll and are jamming pins into it out in Malibu or wherever they live. Why can’t you do what I do and simply ignore them?”

“Because they won’t let us!” is what I responded. “And, by the way, they are harming me and you and Kyle Jr. too and everyone else we know and those we don’t. They are tearing up the fabric of society every time they tweet something, drop a single or release a new perfume. They’re stinking up the whole goddamn planet in fact.”

“Here we go,” Jill said in her cynical manner, which would have been okay, but then she added, “Maybe you need to start looking at why these people annoy you so goddamn much. Is it them or is it their fame and prominence that gets you into these silly uproars? I mean, I’m beginning to think there’s some sort of weird jealousy factor at work here.”

Coach Carl, there should be a Geneva Convention for marriage; straightforward guidelines for what remarks are fair game between couples. Because accusing me of being jealous of this nauseating family is clearly out of bounds. It may be true that I have always felt destined for greater things, but I can honestly say that I never thought it would lead to sex tapes or my own show on the E! Network.

But the issue of destiny is probably pertinent to this communication with you, so let me explain something. It all stems from the most crucial experience of my childhood when my brother Matt (now a paunchy, self-satisfied accountant at Microsoft) and I traveled to New York City to participate in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We were both members of our middle school’s marching band. I was 12 and Matt was 14. Both of us were trumpet players. Matt practiced more than I did, but I possessed a naturally purer sound, though this might be up for debate and is beside the point.

Anyway, it was a huge honor to be invited to participate in these famous festivities, where we would be playing a few selections from Sweet Charity, a risqué musical about an optimistic prostitute. There were all sorts of fundraising activities in our small Ohio town to even pay for this trip and on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving an enormous charter bus delivered our band to the heart of Manhattan. We stayed at an old and crumbling hotel near Times Square, that had been spruced up with spiky plants and ornate mirrors in its lobby, which was likely meant to distract their guests from the sirens and murderous calamity going on just outside.

I’m not sure if I appreciated New York much at the time, which seemed bloated with overdressed pedestrians and non-stop racket and was rather filthy and intimidating. But it was also the most exciting place I’d ever been. On Thanksgiving morning our group performed for the cameras, marching in our new crisp uniforms, along the parade route. It had been an overcast and windy day and what I mostly remember about the march is how the Charlie Brown balloon had nearly blown off course and run amok like Godzilla. We were all quite disappointed when Charlie was finally lassoed and disaster was averted.

After the parade was over, we made our way back to the hotel through the teeming, but jovial, Thanksgiving Day crowds and took the elevators to the 20th floor where we were staying in a cluster of grim, interconnected suites. Now that the hoopla was over and we had stashed our instruments and changed out of our uniforms, the younger kids were all hyper and itchy with boredom. Someone got the idea we should make paper airplanes and sail them out the windows.

This was fun for a while until we decided it would be more entertaining if we were to douse them first with spray deodorant and then light them on fire. This did not disappoint. The planes exploded as they hit the air and we leaned out the windows to follow their flaming trajectory. The building had all these juts and angles, so you really had to crane your necks to watch the show. I was at one of the windows, stretching and leaning, kids crammed in back of me hollering their heads off. I’m not sure exactly where the chaperones were. It went on like this for a while, the launching of planes, the blazing spectacle, the hollering, until it suddenly became obvious that my balance was beginning to shift and I was slipping out the window. When I tried to straighten up, it only made me slide further. My feet, in fact, were off the floor behind me, but there was such chaos in the room no one was noticing. I was too terrified to scream for help, though no one would have heard me anyway. I flashed to my parents back home in Ohio. They must have been jubilant after their sons’ national television appearance. My father would be watching football now and my mother was probably making a pie to take to my Aunt Deb’s later in the day. Soon, though, Matt would be calling to tell them I’d been killed in this horrifying way, something they’d likely never get over.

But then all these bleak thoughts stopped because it was happening. I was actually dropping, hurtling 20 stories to my certain death. As I felt myself go, slipping the rest of the way, out into space, my legs kicked up in back of me and locked for a split second on the raised window sill. That’s when my brother suddenly noticed and was propelled into action, grabbing me by my ankles and dragging me back into the room. I had been saved.

I thought about my rescue all the time after that. In fact, I spent years of my rather ordinary existence wondering why I had been spared at all. I took to having rather personal conversations in my head with God, which weren’t exactly prayers, but more like informational interviews. I waited for a sign to present itself, an explanation, some brilliance to peek out from my inner core, a golden path to materialize. I waited all the way through school, up through meeting Jill at Ohio State and our living together in Columbus and then our marriage and starting my sales career, all the way through moving East and settling in the suburbs outside of Boston. But nothing.

At least not until after Kyle Jr. was born and his super athletic abilities began to appear almost immediately, revealing themselves fully and in triumphant fashion during a spectacularly successful T-ball season when he was 5! That’s when I realized my gifted son was the answer, the reason I had been saved. It wasn’t me after all, Coach Carl, it was Kyle Jr. He’s the one poised for Hall of Fame greatness, the one the world has been waiting for. It was simply my duty to produce him and now my somber responsibility to shepherd him along his path. It was such sweet relief when I finally knew.

Jill always liked the Thanksgiving story, but it wasn’t until last year, after that troubled season, when we began arguing about Kyle Jr. and my role in his athletic life, that she finally told me she never believed there was any celestial intervention involved with the events of that particular day. To her, my story is only a cautionary tale about the dangers of tossing fiery paper airplanes out of outdated hotel windows and how you can’t underestimate the number of chaperones when planning a school trip. She says the story is mostly about Matt’s quick reflexes.

Of course my wife, like everyone else, was appalled by my adrenaline fueled assault on your windshield today. But a little support would have been nice too. Instead, when I got home (after walking in the nearby reserve for over an hour, thinking about what I’d done) Jill said she’d never been so embarrassed in her whole life. She said everyone had a perfect view of my meltdown from the bleachers and to her it seemed like it was happening in slow motion. It was even worse, she said, since the windshield didn’t actually shatter, but only cracked in the manner of a spider web, after my two anticlimactic thuds. She said that I had humiliated Kyle Jr. too, though he looked perfectly fine to me -- sitting on the sofa in front of the television wolfing down a bowl of mac and cheese and watching a bunch of talking heads yammer at each other on Sports Center. He barely even glanced up at me.

Jill insisted that I not write this email or put anything in writing at all until we get some legal advice. Her sister’s husband is an attorney for the IRS, and she wants me to call him, but unless Dave plans to file a tax extension for me, I don’t know how he’s going to help. I told her I had no intention of sitting here doing nothing, waiting for the police to knock on the door. Honestly, I’m surprised that the cops haven’t already made an appearance, given all the witnesses today and the fact that I wouldn’t win any popularity contests around here.

At any rate, Coach Carl, I am writing you now to express my sincere regret over today’s events and to tell you again I will make things right regarding your windshield. You could also consider this a formal, if awkward, introduction to our family and to our town. Welcome! I was afraid you’d hang up on me if I tried to phone or you might have even brandished a weapon if I’d shown up at your house. I wouldn’t blame you. It is my fervent hope that we can move beyond all this and that especially my behavior won’t negatively impact your opinion of Kyle Jr. or any future contributions he can make to the team.

As I’ve just explained, I can’t allow myself to scuttle whatever divine providence may be at work here involving my boy. Please forgive the passion. It can sometimes leave me feeling a trifle unhinged and flailing about, an experience not so different from when I found myself dangling out of that hotel window so many years ago, dizzy with the knowledge that at any moment I would be plunging, like a large, damaged bird to the unsuspecting world below.