Dedicated to Gaston…
Called you Jigga way before Hov ‘96 stepped on the scene
First word football, named after Gaston Green
When you were not yet born, I was only 18
Point guard lean, quarterback gleam
Athletic skills mean, leader of the team
Father’s love, pushed aside, diminished and shoved
Maintain your focus Gaston, if you need, look above
Do you smell the leather? Son grab that glove!
Yes, of course the baseball dream is in me
My dream is mine son, not for you to blindly be
On Wednesdays in the summer of 2003, my son and I would cross the street to the local high school and play “Fifty.”
It just so happened the high school team was having double sessions and this gave Gaston a chance to see how the big boys did it. He was ten and in his second year of quarterbacking his city’s league team. It was great to see his confidence rise and as a coach I could see the kid had potential.
This was a good time for us. A time a father needs with his son. There was nothing serious about it. We joked the whole time. “Old man” and “young boy” — you know how men do.
Fifty was a game we created where we would throw a football back and forth 25 times without it hitting the ground. Push ups were in order if either of us missed. When we got to forty, I made it tricky for the kids and threw the ball sideways–we called it the space ship–or as high as I could to give him a sense of focus while also making sure he caught the ball with his hands.
The game was fun. My son’s mother and I had recently split, so this gave me a time to bond with Gaston and make sure he was doing alright because of the divorce.
Sometimes we would count into the hundreds. You had to stand in place. You couldn’t step backwards to catch and couldn’t step forward to throw. I did this to develop my kid’s hand and arm strength.
As the summer passed, this time meant so much. My other two children were doing this and doing that and while I’ll write later on my time spent individually with them, this was my time with Gaston.
On the way home this particular day, I could tell Gaston wanted to say something because he was blushing:
“Gas? You alright? Why ya cheeks rosy son?”
“I”m thinking about being one of these pro athletes.”
“Yeah? What sport?”
“I don’t know. Probably football.”
“Hmm. I gotta tell you son, most likely you aren’t gonna make it. As your father, I have to tell you the odds are against you, but I will do whatever it takes to put you in position to realize your dream. One thing you have to do for me is get them A’s. You have to put in the work in school so colleges will take you seriously. Deal?”
“I promise to coach you in baseball when you are 12. I don’t want to coach you more than that because I want you to develop without me yelling from the dugout because you are looking at some chicks passing by the field. You know how they do,”Gaassston.” Don’t front, I see you trying to play hard. You ain’t slick.”
“Shut up Pops!”
“Alright, alright. Just make sure you keep that thing in your pants boy. Them girls can wait. You hear me?”
“I got you.”
I dropped Gaston off that day and couldn’t seem to stop smiling. I’d been knocking heads bouncing at night at this crazy ass bar, so it was chill to relax and enjoy the fam in slowed down increments I will remember forever.
Things were moving along smoothly for Gaston in his quest to be the best–both individually and as a teammate. I stressed to him to find the most intense opponent on game days and channel that intensity through his talent and then into the huddle. Most importantly, he had to learn how to be a leader and gain the respect of his team by coming through in the clutch. He has the temperament of Donovan McNabb, but Daunte Culpepper is his guy. He follows #11 all around the league and is really looking forward to see what the Raiders do with him and JaMarcus Russell this season.
I could also see he was focusing on his school work and he was having some nice success in both football and baseball. His football team made the championship game every year he played in the league. They lost heart breakers and also trounced teams as well, but they won more than they lost. The program he played in was the only team in the county that was racially mixed. I’m pretty sure this was the reason why his team was the team to beat, for it had a perfect mixture of coaches and players both Black and White.
Football was not a problem. He’s entering his sophomore year–still playing qb. (Gaston’s team is undefeated with one tie and has already locked up the county championship 10/7/08) He’s got a sick arm and was throwing the ball 50 yards by age 13. This translated well onto the baseball diamond and he became a standout pitcher and center fielder. He played all over the place–he hated third base–but the former two were his primary positions.
When he turned 11 he became a star on his team–the Yankees. Proud moment, because I also played on the Yankees in little league. We wore the same number–11.
He hit the ball in the alleys with power and could hypothetically throw someone with the speed of Mike Vick out if he dared to round third after the crow hop happened with gun cocked. The Yankees finished in third place overall. The team was led by a big country Lou Ferrigno lookin’ kid named Connor. Connor was a monster. He hit the ball so hard without even trying. A different sound came off his bat. Ferocious hitter and intimidating pitcher. Coaches dream.
I stood in for the coaches one game and Connor pitched a 1 hitter and had 17 strikeouts.
In Little League 18 batters is the minimum.
He also had two homers. The first time he’d hit two in his career. I tried to make it fun for the kids while I was in the dugout. Most coaches and parents in the league feed kids the game in small portions. I was not one to tell kids they couldn’t hit another home run after hitting one. I would, in fact, tell them to do it again because they need to know they have the ability. Connor appreciated me helping him get over that hump. It’s all peace to see a kid turn the corner through building confidence.
There’s no greater feeling as a coach.
Well at the end of the season, Gaston was picked for the all-star team and what a team it was. They tore through the state and won the title with an 8-0 record. They were never really challenged. In the state semi-final, Gaston hit a three run bomb way over the fence in left. It was a proud moment because the ball traveled directly over the heads of his mother and I. I almost broke my ankle after landing I jumped so high (I have the video of my proudest moment (for Gaston) as a father, but the recorder is acting up). This came after he threw out two runners from the fence–one from third and another at home. I would never say Gaston was the best player on his team, but he definitely had the best tournament.
The coaching staff did a great job. The head coach was a master of small ball and bunted with any kid at any time. I was a little worried about this philosophy, but it worked because it put pressure on the defense and kept them on their heels. He was also very aggressive with runners on. The team was intimidating to their opponents but they all were good kids. When they ran a victory lap around the stadium in South Baltimore with the State Championship banner, you knew it was a moment they all would cherish for a lifetime.
Imagine the smiles on their faces.
What was really encouraging is that this team was now the favorite in the state for next year–which would give them a real shot to go to Williamsport, PA and play in the Little League World Series.
This was a great time for the family, because my daughter, Taylor, won the 10-year-old State Championship in softball a couple days earlier.
Baseball then became a challenge for which neither I nor Gaston was ready.
This is the thing and the reason why I’m writing this piece. Hear me out without prejudice, please. In a small town where he was the first Black quarterback and one of its most recognizable young talents, things could get a little tricky psychologically.
I want you to see how life throws us Gaston’s curve ball and that White coaches can be blatantly racist in plain view for all to see.
Envy was everywhere. It became ridiculous. I’d promised my son I would coach him that year. His stepfather was the head coach and made sure I was part of the staff.
I’m laughing inside, but this is not really funny.
There was this big bubble head cat who knew nothing about baseball and somehow became involved with the Yankees. His sons were on the team and were the most spoiled kids I’d ever seen. He would actually sit the kids on his lap–while they cried–in the dugout!
I’d never seen anything like it. He was a cancer to the team. We’d gone from blowing everyone out to losing every single game. It was truly a bad atmosphere.
Parents have to understand that sometimes your kids aren’t going to play–especially in the latter innings–until they become confident in their abilities. It’s our job as coaches to help expedite that process, but parents have to be willing to trust coaches to make that happen.
I just wanted to coach my son like I’d promised. This guy and I got into it one game because he said I was focusing too much on winning. He’d actually directed a racist remark to Gaston as he came off the field.
It goes without saying that I had to be restrained.
Of course I wanted to win, but I wanted it to be fun to the kids as well and it was no longer fun. It became very stressful.
One of his sons was raw, but talented. He just needed some instruction to help said talent boil to the surface and even though I had issues with his father, I set out to do this.
I’m a nuance guy. Practice is for fundamentals. Game time is where you learn how to win. That’s what I learned a long time ago from a coach named Bob Toomey. He was my model for coaching and was a helluva man.
I’d coached many years before this moment. I’d coached in a state championship game when I was 18 with a bunch of neglected Black and Latino kids in an area where kids would be dropped off in Porches. My top player showed up with passion marks all over his neck smoking–he was 12, mind you. We lost that game when my star shortstop dropped a pop fly in the last inning when we were up by 4. The wheels came off after that. I still feel bad for Damon.
The next year I took most of the same kids to the 13-year-old state tournament and had the fastest team. We were led by a future pro prospect named Randy Hottes. Randy was a fire balling lefty with a perfect bat. We did alright until we ran into a future Toronto Blue Jay named Kevin Mench. Kevin was the truth and the best young player I’d ever seen. He threw out every one of my runners. I’m not exaggerating when I say I couldn’t believe how good this kid was. I kept trying and trying and trying to steal on this kid until one of my team’s parents pulled me respectfully aside and said “Mike, stop. They’ll be better days, kid.”
Kevin also hit a bomb over the center field fence that is probably still going. I knew he would make it to the majors at that moment.
I retrieved the ball to give to Kevin, but his coach looked down his nose and said, “Who are you? He doesn’t need that ball?”
Wow, I was hot, but my instincts calmed me down.
So I chilled and left the ball park after we were routed with my ego stinging. I wanted it so much for the kids. I wanted it especially bad because the previous day I had a tryout with the Mariners and the Mets. My dumb ass showed up hung over and I thoroughly embarrassed myself being in such a state. I was a natural shortstop and center fielder but for some stupid reason I tried out at third that day. I caught every ground ball, but subsequently threw 5-10 feet over the first baseman’s head. I can still hear the ooohs and aaahs. It didn’t help that the recruiter gave me extra chances because he thought I had a good arm.
Popeye embarrrraasking, so it was not a good weekend.
I’d seen a lot. I’d played a lot. I’ve coached extra teenie gents with a boys-of-summer gleam in their eye, to sixteen to eighteen pimple-faced know-it-alls. I was the cat who hit the 2 and 3 bombs game with everyone wondering who I was as I rounded the bases. Wasted talent.
That’s when I became a coach. I wanted to teach kids the game while also letting them know about the little things that would come into play as they grasped the sport, like knowing where the ball was going before the play, anticipating the ball coming your way so you were always aware and in position to throw after the catch, watching the ball out of the pitchers hat if he had a fast delivery or some heat, or Joe Morgan pumping your elbow so the player wouldn’t fly out. That kind of stuff.
I also bounced a ball on my bicep and caught it around the kids to subtly teach hand and eye coordination.
Try it. It’s not so easy.
I say all that because I was confident in my ability to teach my son as well as anyone else’s kid. That last year was just a bad experience. Every coach had a son on the team. That’s normal, but their methods of coaching weren’t. Usually, even if your son wasn’t up to snuff, he would sit on the bench. These cats played their kids at the expense of the team and put their sons in a terrible position to be ridiculed off the field. I just didn’t understand.
Well, the all-star selections were made and Gaston, as expected, made the team. There was a lot of anticipation because of the opportunity to have a magical post season. Many kids are rightfully happy just to make the all-stars.
Not this team.
This team had a bigger goal that was not spoken publicly for obvious reasons. They were kids and no one wanted to put pressure on them unnecessarily.
The state tournament opened at the then governor’s middle school. The kids all took pictures with him even though they looked real goofy doing so.
It was very hot and the kids were facing arguably the best team in the state. My son’s team was highly ranked, but that was the first year where Little League allowed players who just turned 13 to play on the 11-12 All-Star team. It was safe to say there were some big kids. Their first opponent had a pitcher who threw the ball like his arm was falling off. The score was 0-0 going into the sixth inning and Gaston reached on a bunt and later scored the winning run on a squeeze play to end the game.
He didn’t play much after that. He’d gone from a kid with a lot of responsibility to a player who batted 8th in the lineup. All the parents were miffed as to why this was happening. It wasn’t just my son. There was another kid who hit a grand slam to win a game who came up the next game in the same situation and was benched for a pinch hitter.
Incredible. We all were shocked. (Deleted’s) grandfather traveled at least 2 hours to the game, even though he was frail physically, after hearing about his grandson’s heroics. (Deleted’s) Dad had words with the head coach and took his son off the team after the exchange.
Who could blame him?
I didn’t say anything. Since I was just getting into reporting, I thought it would be good practice to interview the kids–out of view–after games to see where their head was. Gaston was going through it because he couldn’t understand why he was relegated to batting eighth and later replaced after 1 or 2 at-bats. He told me his coach called him his second clean up hitter. Wow.
When Gaston did get a chance to bat, the coach would bunt him. He did so three straight at-bats with two strikes and two runners on. More often than not a major league player is going to bunt foul–let alone a 12-year-old kid. 2 times.
Gaston put down a successful bunt and twice he bunted foul–which is an out.
Why was he bunting a kid with power in RBI chances?
I couldn’t tell you the answer and neither could anyone else. Parents were surprised I was being so patient, but as a coach myself, I didn’t want to upset the team dynamic. It didn’t help that any kid who had a father on the staff never came out–except for one kid who rarely started.
His son was 11 and starting on a 12-year-old team. He also brought along one of his 11-year-old pitchers. The kid threw hard, but not as hard as Gaston or a couple of the other kids. The kid should have been the ace for the 11-year-old team. That team lost in the State Championship after pulling a Black kid pitching–one of two on the team–after he walked a batter in the sixth inning. The team was up I think 5-0 at the time and he was pitching a no hitter.
Needless to say they lost and Raheem no longer plays baseball.
Gaston’s coach was pretty hard on the team practice wise. They would practice in the heat–doing all kinds of drills to help with awareness and situational stuff. I didn’t mind this, but it was wearing on Gaston that he wasn’t playing to the point he was complaining to his mother and I. I tried so hard to keep his spirits up–to no avail.
After winning their first two games, the team lost its first game in their three years playing together in all-star competition. They then had to fight out of the loser’s bracket and faced the team they beat last year in the semis.
Shocker to all that Gaston was starting and batting cleanup. His 11-year-old was pitching and having a decent game with two doubles. The game went back and forth until the opposing team led 5-4 with us coming up in the last of the sixth.
The stage was set for whoever wanted to be the hero.
Guess who came up to bat with a runner on and 2 outs?
I tell the kids to take deep breaths to keep them sane in these moments. Gaston stepped into the on-deck circle with his mother and I a nervous wreck out in center field.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Gaston was pulled for a pinch hitter – after hitting a homer against this team the previous year.
You could see the opposing coach pump his fist and say “Yesss!”
I couldn’t believe it. I began to pace angrily around 20 feet past the center field fence where my girl and I had set up a blanket.
He pinch hit the clean up hitter with the only coach’s son who didn’t play as much as the others in an elimination game?
Are you serious?
Ya damn right.
(Deleted) was given the bunt sign and was thrown out on a close play at first to end the game.
One of the other mothers, whose son was also pinch hit for, totally went off on the coach. She said everything I wanted to say.
I looked over at my son expecting to see him upset but he almost had a smile on his face. I really think he was happy it was over.
His stepfather told me later that his football coach dropped off a football for him the night before and Gaston told him he couldn’t wait to play football.
This is coming from a kid who is playing on a team with a chance to go to Williamsport?
Maybe we wanted more as parents, but in that situation could you blame us? Besides the grand slam hitting kid’s father, no one said anything to any of the coaches about the incredibly illogical moves the head coach was making. Not one word.
I just wanted to grab my son and give him the biggest hug. I also felt relieved he didn’t have to put up with this any longer. His mother and I had a few words after the last out because I feared what was going to happen next.
I sent the coach the following email 24 hours later:
For the life of me, I can’t quite understand why you had him batting in the latter stages of the lineup even though he arguably was the best all around player (attitude aside, that’s my fault..and I’ll be a man and own up to it) in the entire league. Especially when he definitely was one of the offensive stars last year. What’s wrong with giving kids respect who got you there? Do you truly think that Gaston would have been 0-16 if you batted him 1-4 in the lineup? You stuck with your philosophy and these kids will remember this for the rest of their lives. When Gaston got the opportunity to show he wares, he most certainly did. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that he could hit a ball to the left field fence like he did against WS. He never got more than two at bats in any game. I don’t think I’m in the minority to say and know that that’s utterly ridiculous. What does a kid have to do to prove to you that he deserves to be put in a leadership position? I was shocked when Gaston all of the sudden–in an elimination game mind you–was batting cleanup. The thinking is what I have a concern with here, not the action.
Let me say this. If (deleted), (deleted) and (deleted) came out of any game, then my gripe here would be rendered irrelevant. What are you saying to the league? What are you saying to the parents? What are you saying to your team? Most importantly, what are you saying to your son? Isn’t he 11? Isn’t he going to get another opportunity? He most definitely is a fine player—who has very good instincts. You have taught him well. He will be back.
Why was (deleted) picked for this team instead of a twelve year old that is not going to ever get the opportunity? It looks bad that he plays for you and (deleted). Today, (deleted) pitched a good but not great game and hit the ball. There are no moral victories here. I don’t know if that was the right position to put him in because it put the team in jeopardy to be eliminated.
He will get another chance.
Pinch hitting for your cleanup hitter in the last inning? My goodness! I wish a couple of more coaches would have done that against me. We will never know what would have happened if Gaston was allowed to finish what he started.
All he will remember about this all star experience is being benched most of the tournament.
This is life. Yes it’s a game, but to a man, I bet you can reminisce about when you all were twelve. What are your thoughts? Was it a good or bad experience for you? You aren’t babysitters–don’t get me wrong–but you are human, so you should understand the basic premise of cultured humanity in my words.
(Deleted) Mom spoke for all of us. While I think her method was unconventional, maybe it was something you needed to hear at that precise moment.
I truly don’t think you can relate because your son never came out.
Why didn’t he? If I was coaching, I wouldn’t have hesitated in pulling Gaston. You had a lot of quality gloves on the team. Nobody should have played in every inning of every game. Who seriously was head and shoulders above every other player on this team?
If someone was swinging a hot stick, why couldn’t you put (deleted) or Gaston at short, or either one of them at second? Do you really think they couldn’t handle balls there? You had a rotation and you stuck with it…..putting your teams overall success in jeopardy. I truly feel that most games in the tournament were unduly close because of your rotation.
Gaston bunted his first three at bats in the tournament. You told him he was batting in the eight spot because he was your second cleanup hitter? I couldn’t believe you had him bunting with runners on second and third and with two strikes.
The coach’s response:
Thank you for letting me know how low of an opinion you have of me.
That’s all. Nothing else.
Gaston quit the sport even though he’s one of the best players in the state.
Ryan Howard was a spectator at a Cleveland game (Yeah that game AG and Carolyn) I covered in Philly this past season and after the game, he outside the locker room to talk to LeBron. I’d spoken with Ryan before about my son, but asked him again if he could talk to Gaston to hopefully change his mind and get him back in the game. He obliged and told me to set it up with the Phillies P.R. When I told Gaston, he said he didn’t care who I got to talk to him. He was done with the sport and there was nothing I could do about it.
Sad moment for me. It’s been three years and still nothing. As parents, we want the best for our children and it was a crime for a young kid to go through what he went through that fateful year that began with so much promise.
I’m going to be straight forward and tell it like it is here.
In my heart’s soul, I truly feel that this all star coach wanted to kill Gaston’s baseball spirit.
It is my experience that some White coaches do not take the time to teach Black kids the game. I’ve seen it in three states and it’s all the same to me. I’m not mad vocal like I am here–unless I’m coaching.
When I get a kid of any race, I treat him like he’s my son. I learn his personality and teach the game accordingly. You can ask Gaston yourself. When the kid acted up, I would pull him off the field in front of everybody. I was not going to let my son disrespect the game, his team, his opponent, the umpires but more importantly, himself. I never played favorites. If I did, I made sure the kid without a true feel for the game felt comfortable around a team where he otherwise would feel like an outsider.
What is it with White coaches who don’t want to teach young Black kids and then label them attitude problems when they rebel?
I’m just giving you my experience. Yes, I have had White coaches who have stepped up and taught me the game, but it was a different time. Michael Jordan hadn’t yet ushered Black kids onto the hardwood. Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew and Jim Rice were the players I emulated.
Now, baseball is a White sport with American Blacks only making up 8 percent of its players. That’s the worse in the two decades where such statistics were measured.
Yes, Gaston has other opportunities to become a collegiate student athlete in football and basketball, but does that preclude coaches to force him out of the sport so a young White kid can have a spot rightfully reserved strictly because of his race?
I know not.
Gaston, I love you son. I don’t want you to miss out on an opportunity because of a bad experience. Yeah, it was bad, but you can’t let the world steal your flame.
I give you my star, son. I give it to you with hopes and prayers you will have a successful life in whatever you do. Of course, I want you to play sports because of your God given ability, but you know I stress academics first and foremost. I’ve noticed a drop off in your confidence since you last swung a bat and I want you to get back to the kid you were. Do not let this stain your way. Do not let this become the regret you most remember. Life is not fair sometimes. I just want the best for you. You know your sister looks up to you and has become quite the player in her own right. I need you to help guide her because you’ve been there.
I want to personally apologize to you as your Dad because maybe I did have a hand in this. I made promises to you I had to keep. Sometimes I wished we were out in the field just playing fifty again. You are too young and too talented for sports to become a job.
I would be honored one day if post-game in the Big House you tilted your helmet to speak in my mic midfield, but that’s a dream of mine. I’m not going to be disappointed if you don’t win the Heisman at Michigan. Son, that’s a huge task. I would never hold you to something unattainable to 99.99% of all Division 1 athletes.
Your dream is yours. If that’s what you want to go after, who the heck am I to stand in your way…
I’m proud of you, your brother and your sister, no matter what you do in this life.
I just want you to be happy, son, in whatever you want to go for.
My star is out there for you son, now go get it.
I love you GTrey,
Added August 2…
Gaston I forgot to add this track to the piece. Listen closely to the lyrics. Remember when I used to bang this,1-9-9-9 and Respiration incessantly when you could barely look over the car door to look out the window? The Light is how you treat a woman son. You will get your heart broken but remain steadfast to the thought of this love regardless.