“I’ve never been humbled by anything like baseball. And I’ve been humbled more coaching than playing.” – Jonathan Lyons, former college and minor-league pitcher and now a coach of a 12-and-under competitive team
This, you should know up front, is not one of those columns deriding the very concept of competitive baseball. Nor is it one of those columns attempting to defend the sometimes-indefensible aspects of it.
But maybe it is fair to say this column is a little bit of both and a whole lot of the gray area between those extremes. More important, it’s a story of one local boy made good who wants to ensure the game does not eat its young.
Jonathan Lyons is now 39 years old. He has been inducted into the Christian Brothers High School Hall of Fame, pitched for the University of Memphis and in the minors for the Boston Red Sox.
He faced adversities, injuries and disappointments along the way and he came out on the other side still loving baseball. And that’s really the point here as spring nears and the games begin again.
“Eventually, the jersey will be taken off your back,” Lyons said as we talked inside his office at Raymond James, where he is a managing director, and where pictures of his wife and three children abound. “I knew a lot of guys who defined themselves by the game. You get lost in it because it gives you so much. When it’s gone, you’re lost.”
That’s not what happened to Lyons, and for that he credits having “phenomenal parents,” adding, “I defined myself through spirituality and hard work.”
In other words, things he can still put to use in his everyday life now that his low 90s fastball is long gone. Of course, he lost games and gave up home runs – had his moments of failure – like everyone else.
Baseball humbled him, like it does all who walk between the white lines. For that matter, like anyone in the financial game; Lyons can tell a few war stories from work, too.
But here’s what he has discovered while simultaneously handling vast amounts of wealth for corporations and families and coaching little boys in baseball: Hell hath no fury like a competitive baseball parent scorned.
People will accept a loss of $300,000 in the markets, Lyons says, much more easily than their son only playing three innings out of seven on a cold Saturday night in Southaven.
Lyons has two sons who play, a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old, so he gets it. But he looks at the kids he coaches and knows that for all of them, the clock has already started. Maybe it’s when they’re 14, or 17, or 23, but one day baseball will no longer have a lineup card with their name on it.
“I don’t want them to lose themselves in the game,” Lyons said.
It’s a line he repeats often. And he could say the same for the parents. All parents, at least some of the time. Himself included.
So I asked Lyons for a few quick tips for both parents and coaches. He obliged.
Enjoy the moment. If your son’s healthy enough to play, you’re ahead of the game. Don’t obsess over the player he might or might not become. When he’s 12, you can’t know how far he’s going to go.
Help him to not define himself by the game. And if you trust his coach, teach him to trust his coach.
“One day that little boy will have a boss,” Lyons said.
Have more empathy for parents. Understand that, yes, they love their kids enough that “even as good people, they might act half-crazy.”
Check yourself to make sure you aren’t falling into a “win-at-all-cost” mindset, even if it means some parents might question if your coaching style is too laid-back.
And always teach your players to love the game.
Because if they do, then one day – no matter how their playing days ended – they just might wind up standing where you are now.
Ready to teach someone else to love the game.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.