Wolter: Reflection on, and respecting our long-time coaches
Adrian I was reading a Robert Creamer book yesterday called "Baseball in '41" and wondering to myself what it must have been like to have experienced Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams' quest for .400 in real time. Creamer wro...
I was reading a Robert Creamer book yesterday called “Baseball in ‘41” and wondering to myself what it must have been like to have experienced Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams’ quest for .400 in real time.
Creamer wrote that before the 1941 season got going, Williams was not yet considered a great ballplayer. His reputation as a self-absorbed young flake, however, was going strong.
It is so often the case that exceptional athletes aren’t fully appreciated until after they’ve left the scene -- or at least until it can’t be helped. In DiMaggio and Williams’ cases, they were so exceptional that they both received their due before they retired, but many other stars aren’t noticed until the more thoughtful among us take time to reflect.
Consider, for instance, coaches and managers -- those fonts of wisdom who move the pieces, who gladly stand back in the shadows while their players get all the glory.
They’re stars, too.
I don’t want to be one of those fans who underappreciates the people who make memories from sidelines and dugout benches. I’m like everybody else, I suppose, who misses great high school athletes after they graduate. But I wonder if I’m a little unique too, in that I also tend to miss the long-time standout coaches after they retire. In fact, maybe even more.
I telephoned veteran Adrian High School baseball coach Kevin Nowotny on Sunday and asked him to impart some wisdom. It’s probably the last chance I’ll get. Nowotny announced his retirement recently after leading the Dragons to the state Class A baseball tournament a few weeks earlier.
Usually, when I ask a newly-retired coach what he’ll miss most, he will talk about his kids. Well, sure, they all miss the kids after they fade into the background. Coaches are people-persons. But I think Nowotny’s answer to my question was refreshing.
“The winning,” he said. The winning the big games at the end of the year. It’s quite an adrenaline rush.”
Amen to that. In 23 years of coaching, Nowotny never took winning for granted. Perhaps that’s why he was able to post a 330-202 overall record and lead AHS to five state tournament appearances.
At 58 (that’s not so old, really, I think) Nowotny says it’s not so easy for him to hold up physically -- like when he pitches batting practice to his players. Kids shouldn’t have to throw batting practice themselves, he says, because they need to save their arms for more important moments.
“I want to be able to walk when I’m 75. A thousand pitches a week is getting to me,” the coach admitted.
I tell you no lie. As I dialed Kevin Nowotny on my cell phone, I thought for a moment about other retired baseball coaches I enjoyed -- like Slayton’s Tarry Boelter, who retired just a couple of years prior.
Wouldn’t you know it, Nowotny brought up Tarry’s name without prodding. Doing battle against great rivals like Boelter, he said, was a thrill he seriously missed when it was over.
“I always told him that that kind of took away my motivation for coaching,” Nowotny mused. “The landscape of baseball in southwest Minnesota -- it changed when he retired.”
With every veteran coach’s retirement -- especially the good ones like Boelter and Nowotny -- we all lose a little something. My theory is that the older coaches -- the experienced ones who are able and willing to withstand the considerable challenges posed by the pressure to win, and the added pressure imposed by overbearing parents, fans, players (and the occasional unsupportive school administrator) -- all too easily are allowed to retire without the thanks they are due.
Those who ply their coaching skills long enough to be called “veterans” don’t make it without learning valuable lessons along the way. Nowotny said he was influenced somewhat by parents earlier in his career, but somewhere along the way he decided that he had to do things his way.
“You gotta believe in yourself,” he said.
He did. And his baseball teams were the better for it.