Life lessons learned on the diamond

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Justin Grieve
  • 509th Operations Support Squadron
When I was a kid, my parents moved around a lot. I was not a military kid -- my parents were always in search of a better home closer to one job or the next. In addition, I was what was referred to as a "latchkey kid." My afternoons consisted of eating snacks, doing homework, doing the very occasional chore for my mom or dad -- and television, loads of television. Moving around a lot, coupled with parents that both worked, did not help my ability to play sports. I dabbled in soccer from year to year, location to location, and had a brief run as a Cub Scout. On a positive note, I became great at making new friends, learning to be the very definition of independence and self-reliance, and I had a truly wonderful childhood. 

In middle school, I cornered my parents and informed them that I wanted to play baseball with my best friend, Josh. Why not? Let's just jump right into one of the most complicated sports out there with kids that have been playing little league since age four. Turns out, Josh and I were put on different teams. His team was really good and mine, not so much.  I did not know it at the time, but I missed the years where the learning was allowed to occur during game time. We were in it to win, and my contributions did not exactly always help that endeavor. So, I spent a lot of time watching baseball and learning as much as I could at practice.

My dad, thanks to a new late-night shift at work, would spend countless hours after school just hitting me pop flies in the soccer fields near our neighborhood. I can still remember getting to purchase a new baseball glove.

After two years learning the ropes with a neighborhood little league team, it was time to try my hand at high school baseball. The tryout process for the baseball team was like nothing I had ever seen. This massive class 5A school with more than 2,000 students in North Texas had varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams. It was like a major league scouting event with more coaches, stations and baseball events than I had ever seen in one location.  I did not get laughed out of the park, but neither Josh nor I made the roster. Bummer.

After freshman year: Surprise! It was time to move again. My sophomore year would be spent at Van High School in Van, Texas; home of the Vandals. It was here that I gave baseball another swing.

The baseball coach was a young man named Brady Pennington. I think his true passion, like every other coach in Texas, was football. Regardless, coach Pennington was a leader on the baseball field and he had a tremendous impact on my life.

He could be terribly intimidating and brutally honest ("You're not very good at this, are you son?"). Generally speaking, he did not appear patient. In hindsight, the guy did an amazing job putting up with a bunch of high school baseball players, and he demonstrated more than a few moments were he was very patient with me. He constantly mentored and developed the entire team. For me, it was the first time someone other than my own father had taken an interest in my personal abilities. 

This guy taught and reinforced baseball fundamentals. We learned to hit, throw, catch, run and take care of our field each and every day.  There was only one way to play baseball with coach P -- the right way.  He knew how to instruct, coach and lead. We learned from his expertise, practiced hard and reinforced skills during every game.

Very early in my time as a Vandal, we were visiting Athens, Texas, during the weekend for a baseball tournament. I had never even heard of the concept of looking to the coach at third base for a signal before hitting. So, the yelling began even before getting a look at my first pitch. After a little conference with Coach, where I learned to step out of the batter's box and get the sign -- swing away in this case...good -- I locked myself into the batter's box were I saw some of the most terrifying pitching I had ever seen. The ball moved so fast. For a brief moment, I thought I might get killed by this pitcher. Practice had been wonderful, but the culmination of individual training events this early in the season was becoming overwhelming to me.

After two unbelievable curving pitches that had been called for strikes (and checking for a new signal, of course), I decided it was time to swing. Luck was with me, and I absolutely crushed the ball. I stood there with the flair of Frank Thomas (back-to-back American League MVP in 1993 and 1994), but I was not admiring my work -- I was in shock. I remember the look of disbelief on the pitcher's face clear as day. I remember watching the ball bounce off the very top of the outfield wall and back into fair territory.  Then, I remember hearing Coach yelling at me to "run!"

I only made it to first base on what should have probably been a triple, and Coach yelled at me from across the field for what felt like several minutes about how I should have been standing by him over on third base. 

When I made it to the dugout after getting stranded on base, he greeted me shaking his head. I was sick to my stomach. Then, he smiled, laughed, and said "nice hit.  Next time run, okay." I could tell he was proud.

That was just the beginning. He, and my very demanding teammates, taught me more about the game of baseball in one year than I felt I had the right to know in a lifetime. I never came close to college aspirations, but it sealed my fate. Now, I absolutely love baseball!

Now, I did not share this life story with you to impress you with my lack of skill or even my love of baseball. As I look back at my relatively short life thus far, I have come to realize that these moments and this coach shaped my life. I believe that this story captures loads of leadership lessons. I will attempt to share some of them with you to ponder.
1) A great leader is a great coach. The best leaders, like Coach P, push you, believe in you, help you realize a greater potential and invest time in your development.
2) If you maintain high expectations, folks will rise to meet them.
3) If someone is giving you effort, but they are just not quite getting it, reward them with patience.

Finally, I will conclude with a few pieces of advice. 
1) Be a leader/coach!
As an Airman, the Air Force has given, or will give, you the tools to become a subject matter expert. You have the opportunity to be a coach and leader each and every day. Do your best to train those under your supervision and challenge your peers by raising your game to their level or pushing them to surpass it. Believe in the power of teamwork.
2) If you ever get the chance, take the time to coach kids -- especially yours. 
They will dazzle you. Today, I have the privilege to help coach my youngest son, Zachary, and his baseball team. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The laughs are endless when you are trying to get 6-8 year-old kids to play baseball.
3) Last, but definitely not least, tell someone thank you for impacting your life. 

Maybe it was a teacher, perhaps a coach, or possibly a supervisor that shaped who you are today. Pick up the phone, write an email or letter, or if you are lucky enough to sit down and talk with them, let them know the impact they had on you. Share a funny or serious story from your perspective. I promise you will remember events they probably do not, or at least with more clarity than they will recall. 

If all else fails, Father's Day would be a great time to tell your dad how proud you are to be his son or daughter. I promise it will be a rewarding experience and they really will appreciate it.

So, without further delay, Dad, and Coach P -- thank you both.