One of my favorite books from about ten year ago was Bill Geist’s Little League Confidential, a funny but also serious true story about coaching Little League for nine years in his Ridgewood, NJ, town. Part of the story is about the excesses of the adult coaches, who basically cheat the system in any way possible in order to win the league championship. According to the league rules, if you recruit an assistant coach, his son gets assigned to the team. So by scouting ahead with younger boys and recruiting their fathers as coaches, a head coach can build a juggernaut.
The thesis of the book, though, is that kids these days have lost the ability to organize their own baseball games in the parks or the backyards. Unless adults are involved, providing equipment and supervision, kids don’t play baseball on their own. Baseball is no longer supposed to be play and fun as a game for children. It has to be organized and serious.
Geist admits to a few excesses of his own. All things equal, at the league player draft he will pick one player over another if the player has an attractive mother (at least I think I remember that detail). He fights the Little League battles with some subtle and clever rules bending of his own. Ice cream seems to be very important as a training meal for his teams.
But I remember one of his important rules for building a team roster during the league draft. It was important to have at least one player on the team who had a backyard pool, so the team had a place to go for a pool party.
This weekend we brought our Saint Ignatius cross country team together for what is likely to be our one organized gathering of the summer. Back in June I knew that our family schedule would put us in Chicago for the weekend of July 9 and 10. So about three weeks ago I sent out an email to our team roster, along with a few names of freshmen who will be entering in August and whose emails I have collected. I invited the team to run with me at Waterfall Glen, something that we have done more regularly during some summers—and something I have done more regularly when I have been running more myself. I offered transportation from Ignatius for boys in the city who needed a ride. I arranged for a school van. I offered to bring Gatorade for after the run. The drill is pretty simple.
Then I hoped for the best. With summer vacations, family conflicts, jobs, and other summer commitments—including boy scouts camp, school trips to Chile and Peru, and summer service trips—I hoped for a gathering of at least some of our key boys.
One of the first emails I got back came from Mara Devitt, mother of Peter, who will be a senior this year, as well as our number three runner and a team leader. The Devitts offered to bring the team to their home in nearby LaGrange after the run, for some food—and swimming in the backyard pool.
My quick reply was enthusiastic, and I suggested that Peter himself send out the invitation using my email list. I received Peter’s invitation a couple days later. I sent out a few more reminders over the next couple weeks—including one just before the weekend.
I should have been optimistic about the turnout when I got an email reply from a runner who said he had not been checking his school email during the summer—but he heard about the run and pool party when he went to the beach and talked with some other team members.
Adding the swim party to the run was the key, no doubt. When we gathered at the Waterfall Glen trailhead off Cass Avenue at Northgate, near exit 271 on Interstate 55, we were twenty strong. The group included some freshmen—three key boys, in fact, who will be part of what is likely to be our strongest freshmen team ever. It also luckily included one alumnus, Jimmy Connelly, Ignatius class of 2010, our former team captain in both track and cross country –and our MVP for track and cross country. He had brought his brother Joey, one of our freshman hopefuls, to his first Ignatius run. Jimmy and Joey are grandsons to former Ignatius track and cross country coach—also an Illinois Hall of Fame coach—Jim Connelly. Their father, Pete Connelly, another Ignatius graduate, is also a colleague who coaches girls cross country and boys and girls track at Montini.
I had almost been training over the previous three weeks for just this day, in fact. I told the boys I would be running 7 miles, out and back, starting at around 9:00 minutes a mile; I hoped to go faster. It would be appropriate for boys who have not been doing much training this summer, I told them, to run with me. The boys who had been training could think about running the big loop around the full trail—9.7 miles around Argonne National Laboratory. I’d be going out and back—and they could turn around before I did if they wanted to do so, even.
Thank goodness for Jimmy. Soon after we started out, the boys left me behind. I was not running quite as well as I hoped. A late night out the night before at a friend’s party probably did not help. Only Jimmy stayed with me. He wasn’t in shape to run with our top guys, for whom he had been mentor when they were new on the team. He didn’t know the younger boys on the team very well, he said. He also wanted to give his brother some space, I think. In any case, I was glad for the company as I struggled up the first hill and looked for the first mile marker.
We had boys who turned around before I did—a couple who ran as short as four miles, total. Another group turned around at three; Jimmy and I caught up with some of them, even, because they were walking at the top of one of the big hills. Then we passed a few who were on their way back from my turnaround at 3.5 miles—and we never saw the boys who ran the full loop.
My pace gradually slowed to a crawl—partly because it was already over 80 degrees at 9:00 AM when we started. It was a heavy sweat run for me—with heavy legs and a weak stomach, maybe from too much sushi the night before.
But Jimmy and I had a really nice talk. A 4:19 miler at Ignatius, Jimmy was excited to go to Loras College, where he roomed with another runner, Jerry Olp, from Benet Academy. They were highly touted recruits for the team. Like many runners who find the college running experience different from high school, Jimmy just didn’t like it—and his roommate, as it turns out, didn’t like it, either. Jimmy ran cross country at Loras, but did not go out for track. That decision came with some bigger decisions as he weighed his college experience more generally. Jimmy has followed the footsteps of his two military-career uncles, and he enlisted in the Marines Corps. He will do one more semester at Loras this fall, and then in February he goes to basic training in San Diego.
He expects the basic training experience to be especially meaningful. He has spoken with his Marine Corps uncle, who is actually stationed in the San Diego-area. “After basic training, people say that you are a different person,” said Jimmy. “You finally understand who you really are. ”
That reminded me, in a way, of Once a Runner, I told Jimmy; he had been one of the boys who received a copy of the book, a gift of a parent to twenty members of our team. “I know it is not quite the same thing,” I said. “But maybe you remember that it is only after the main character, Quentin Cassidy, quits college and begins to train on his own, dedicating himself only to his running, that he finally really figures it out. Sometimes maybe you can’t find that just following the path that so many people do, just going to college.”
We talked about other things, including our team and its development over the years. Coaching Jimmy, one of our most serious runners, I had learned a lot, I told him, about how to build the team. Jimmy said that it was good the way I gave runners room to train the way they needed to train, in the summer, and even in practice, trying to figure out what they need, and didn’t always try to force things on the boys. I recommended another book to him, Kenny Moore’s biography of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman. I had been Jimmy’s English teacher when he was a sophomore, in my American Studies class that I team teach with a United State history teacher. I still remember that on the first day of the class, when we listened to Ronald Reagan’s farewell speech of 1988—something we still do, in fact—Jimmy was the only student in the class who could identify Reagan’s reference to Jimmy Dolittle, the World War II hero of “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”
Bowerman had some military ideas in his method. The book, I told Jimmy, has a chapter on Bowerman’s own World War II exploits, in which as an Army major he negotiated in the spring of 1945 the surrender of a German division as they battled in the snowy Italian Alps. It was another book, I suggested, about really figuring out who you are. One of Bowerman’s ideas about coaching, I also told him, was that runners are different, and different runners need different kinds of training.
It was a slow and painful run for me—but talking with Jimmy made it much better. I told him that whatever we did, he couldn’t let me walk—because then I couldn’t give a hard time to the boys who had been walking.
We were one of the last runners to finish at the trailhead. Dripping wet, I headed directly to the car, where the boys anxiously pulled out the orange cooler filled with Gatorade and water, my main contribution to the day, perhaps. We had a few words as a team. On Wednesday of this week, I reminded them, it would be just four weeks until the start of practice. If the team is going to have real success in the fall, some of the boys needed to run with a little bit more seriousness for the rest of the summer.
When I had finished, Peter Devitt said, “Shouldn’t we do a Wolfpack or something?” The boys huddled and after a 1-2-3, they all shouted, “Wolfpack.” It was the first of many Wolfpacks to come for the freshman—and maybe Jimmy’s last one. He could not stay for the pool party. He had work to do on his car that afternoon, he said, and he had no time to do it during the week when he worked long hours for his father’s roofing company as a summer job. But he promised to make it to some of Joey’s meets in the fall.
With the other boys, we had a quick word about directions and the Devitts’ address. And then they were all gone to their cars. I had just one boy left in my own who had needed transportation from Ignatius that day.
At the Devitts’, no surprise, the boys went for the pool first. There were water guns. There was some wrestling in water basketball. There were some close calls as boys jumped off the diving board onto the heads of the others, but no accidents. Then they ate; there was a lot of really good food, thanks to the Devitts. Then they talked. Then they swam some more. I had some quiet words with key boys who seemed to need more encouragement to do more summer running.
As it started to seem like it was time to go, there were some questions about when could we do this again? Even the Devitts seemed interested.
I suggested to the boys that they should try to organize it themselves.