A Tribute to My High School Baseball Coach

Michael AugsbergerContributor IOctober 21, 2008

There are panties strewn across my bedroom floor.

They are pink, thin, and small. They bear not logos of Victoria’s Secret and Boston Proper but embroideries of Barney and Dora the Explorer. They belong to a certain long-haired girl—who stands at hardly two feet.

My sister Alyssa has awaken before I have on this weekend morning, and, as all three-year-olds seem to do, has shed whatever clothes she has felt like shedding before climbing to shake me from sleep.

“Get up, Mike-go!” Kids usually have trouble, I guess, with that last syllable of Mich-ael. On this morning the kid is bouncing, and the game of choice is guess-the-drawing. It is not Don’t-Wake-Daddy. Or -Brother, for that matter.

It was a game that, on the few occasions he would visit me, my absent father and I played on sleepy Saturday mornings. I was always the artist, and he would guess the masterpieces I would draw gingerly with my fingernail on his shirtless, morning back.

Likewise, Alyssa has picked up the custom I passed along to her. Among her favorite drawings are pictures of our family and a Philadelphia Eagles logo, but I normally can’t place a guess anywhere near the dart board.

“Is that a picture of me?” I’d ask when complete.

“It’s the really really scary Beast!” she’d reverberate. Oh, from Beauty and the Beast. I guess this time I wasn’t too far from the correct answer.

Other times it is coloring my L-shaped desk with Crayola markers—hardly fitting my room’s navy color scheme. The desk is no longer its manufacturer-painted gray.

Also a pastime is the ritual Penn State cheer. She’ll point out one of the many Nittany Lion logos decorating the walls of my abode. And when I muster enough energy to sit up and wipe the sleepers from my eyelids, I’ll give her a mighty, “We are!”

To which the toddler, arms flailing like mine during a Nittany Lions game, responds a deafening, “Penn Steak!

(What of the 12-inch Beaver Stadium replica on my desk? A Crayola smiley face sits at the 50-yard line—now it’s really "Happy Valley"—and an upper deck section of seating has broken off. Closed for renovations.)

Alyssa may have a crush on Link, the legendary hero from the Zelda series. She’s constantly begging to play with my action figure of Link—though she insists his name is Monsters, Inc.

Eh, it only cost 25 dollars on eBay and is only a limited-edition, special-edition, collector’s-edition figurine of my favorite character of all-time. The answer was a firm, “No,” at first. But the heart felt heavy, and I lent Link, with his Master Sword and Hylian Shield, to her on the condition that “you put it back when you’re done.”

That thing’s long gone now.

But there are few things in life that put a bigger smile on my face than seeing Alyssa running toward me to plant a filial kiss or charging at me, wingspan open, to throw down an NFL-style hug.

And, frankly, there aren’t many long-haired girls throwing panties all around my room, either.

My high school baseball coach would approve of an adolescent male's bedroom carpet covered in panties (that's mine!) about as readily as a 3-0 swing from a light-hitting infielder (that's me, too!).

Dennis Walker is one of the most successful high school baseball coaches the state of Delaware has ever seen.

He won three state championships and over 200 games in only 14 seasons as the head coach of Salesianum School, an all-boys Catholic institution in Wilmington, Del. For years, the aura of playing for Coach ruled my young, wide-eyed baseball career. It fueled my career.

Then it was gone. His 2005 resignation at barely 47 years old came suddenly to me and my teammates, listening in utter disbelief, on the heels of the end of my junior season and a heartbreaking state semi-final loss. I could only imagine it was to provide him with more opportunities to spend with his loved ones, a gift that I often take for granted.

It is difficult for a player to fathom the astonishing sacrifices a mediocre coach makes, let alone a great one. But Coach had said himself in press interviews that his 14-year baseball managing career had been too taxing on his wife and three children: Kevin, who is my age, Sara, and the tyke, Jon, who was only seven at the time. Business-trip fathers should take out their Blackberries and take notes from Coach's realization of priorities.

Coach Walker’s children no longer wear Barney underpants—with the possible exception of the brawny Kevin, now a Mount St. Mary's lacrosse transfer to De Sales, whom Keith Jackson would lovingly describe as a hogmollie. And that simple realization is all the justification you need.

His kids aren’t that young anymore. And kids aren’t getting any younger. At this point, it’s the Blues Clues tighty-whities that are gone. But who’s to tell when they start shedding first dates? First days of school? Little League games? Graduations? Living at home altogether?

So Coach Walker’s retirement has been, for me, a trial. A tribulation. An inspiration. His career and its culmination have provided me with experiences that I would never wish to relinquish but also with tender moments during which I have been at my most vulnerable. And when I look into Alyssa’s brown eyes—like mine...

At times Alyssa will shun me, despite my requests for a kiss goodbye, as I walk out the door to my house for another long semester at college or a weekend trip. And as I trod the stone walkway from the porch to my driveway, I’ll hear a high voice from behind a sheet of glass.

She has raced to the window’s shade alongside the front door and brushed the shade aside, banging on the glass, praying that I might turn around. I’ll rush back inside to be greeted by two arms wrapped tight around my ankles and a kiss goodbye.

God knows how many kisses goodbye any parent, or sibling, or lover, or friend has left. These are the moments, though they will probably arrive to him in different forms, Coach no longer misses. Hopefully not any of Kevin’s lacrosse, Sara’s field hockey, or Jon’s Little League games. Knowing that sometimes provokes the same emotions as Alyssa’s callbacks for a goodbye kiss.

People often quote a saying, made all the more famous by baseball great George Brett, that equates displeasures with kissing your sister.

I don’t understand them.