Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

Learn to play hard -- and have fun

Wednesday, September 5, 2001

In the early 1990s, I volunteered to become a Little League baseball coach. What better way to get into the flow of the town than to participate in an activity I loved growing up?

Jim Grebing, former political editor of the Southeast Missourian and current spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party, was Little League commissioner at the time. He assigned me to be assistant coach to a young man named Brad who had played college ball at Oklahoma. Several years after graduation, Brad still wore his Oklahoma baseball sweatshirt and hat everywhere he went. Brad, needless to say, was intense about winning.

At the first practice, Brad lined the motley crew of boys along the dugout bench and delivered a speech that I will never forget. Picture Patton in front of a giant American flag -- with a class of seventh-graders sitting at his feet:

"Men," grumbled Brad, looking sideways at the boys who sat bouncing their legs (with mismatched socks) in front of him.

"Men, each one of us must ask ourselves the critical question: Do we want to be winners in life? Or do we just want to have fun?

"Winners practice hard, and they play hard. Winners put the extra hours in and give up everything else. Winners practice diving into first base until their elbows bleed. Winners hold batting practice until their hands ache. Winners take grounders until they get hit so often by bad bounces that they're afraid of nothing. Winners aren't afraid to get hit by a pitch if that's what's needed. Winners do whatever it takes to win, because that's what winners do. It means not missing practice for vacations, because that lets the rest of the team down. It means not swimming on game day, because it leaves a player too tired.

"Sure, you can come out here simply to have fun. But nothing is more fun than winning, because no one can ever take that away from you.

"So who are you? Are you someone who just wants to come out here this summer and be with your friends and have fun? Or are you, like me, a winner? It's your choice."

And with that, a gangly boy in wide glasses who would play catcher for the team held up his hand. "Coach, I vote for having fun, if that's not too much to ask."

The rest of the team members raised their hands, and a murmur began, "Fun sounds pretty good, Coach ... I vote for fun too ... Fun, Coach."

Brad's face turned Sooner red and froze in place.

While he recovered, the other assistant coach and I dumped out the bat bags and gathered the balls and began practice. Laughter filled the air along with the whir and pop of balls flying into well-worn gloves. It was a good group of boys, and they had a good year. I don't remember the final record, to be honest, and I lost track of Brad soon after the season ended. But except for him, we all had a lot of fun that summer.

I couldn't help but think about this coaching experience because of the Danny Almonte flap with the Little League World Series. Don't get me wrong: Brad would never have done anything illegal to win. And I actually believe Brad's intentions were right, even if his rhetoric was self-defeating. Winning does demand commitment.

But grown-ups sometimes have a way of ruining things that should be innocent and fun. Celebrate your kids' hard work. Challenge them to be great. And teach them, most importantly, and by example, what is right and wrong.

Danny Almonte's parents and coaches and neighborhood failed him. Even Brad would have been disgusted by that.

Jon K. Rust is co-president of Rust Communications.

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