Baseball season has returned. Driving around last week I noticed baseball and softball coaches on the field with their players and it reminded me of my own days playing baseball, and the best coach I ever had, who gave me the best advice I ever heard.
There are six quotes I live my life by. One is from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. One is from American author Anais Nin. One is from American poet Mary Oliver. One is from American naturalist Henry D. Thoreau. One is from Jesus Christ. And one is from Ken Stilson.
He was my baseball coach.
I was fortunate to be the same age as Scott Stilson, who was Ken’s second son, and I was doubly fortunate that Ken took an interest in Scott’s well-being.
Ken was my baseball coach from my first year in tee ball to my last year in pony league. Ken gave several hundred hours of his time to me and the other kids fortunate enough to be on his team.
I was probably in fifth or sixth grade the day that Ken gave me the best advice I ever heard. Our little league traveled to the neighboring town of Elmo, Utah where we faced one of the toughest pitchers in our league: Kelly Mortenson. He threw the hardest, fastest pitches of any little league pitcher in Emery County.
Kelly was a gifted athlete who would go on to have a successful pitching career through high school. Kelly could read his batters. He could tell if they were a confident, competent hitter, or if they were timid and uncertain. When he saw me come to the plate that day I’m sure he saw a timid, uncertain batter.
And his observations were right. I was a great fielder but I really wasn’t much of a hitter. I was shy at bat, and passive, with little confidence in my hitting game. Sure, I would swing at the obvious strikes coming in directly over the plate, more out of obligation than determination, but my main hitting strategy was hoping that the pitcher would walk me.
But all that changed on that day I faced Kelly Mortenson in Elmo. Thanks to a short talk I had with Coach Stilson.
It was late afternoon and hot. The mosquitoes were plentiful and maddening. I walked to the plate to face Kelly Mortenson.
This was just little league. I hadn’t yet faced a pitcher who knew how to throw a curve ball, but Kelly threw a wicked fast ball, and his pitches were almost always right on the corners. On my home field, that fastball grazing the corner of the plate might have been called a ball, but in Elmo, the umpire was going to call that same pitch a strike.
I watched the first pitch come in. lt was on the outside corner and the umpire called it a strike. The second pitch also brushed the outside corner. Again I didn’t swing at it and again the umpire called it a strike.
My coach called a timeout. “Steven, come over here a minute.”
What Ken told me that day has stayed with me for the rest of my life, and I’ve applied its wisdom in a variety of circumstances. He said, “You can’t count on Kelly to miss his mark. He isn’t going to miss. And you can’t count on the umpire to call it your way. Not in this town. But the bat is in your hands. You’re not defenseless. You can still take a cut at the ball, and you’re a pretty good batter. You’ll probably hit it. So what happens next is entirely up to you.”
This wasn’t casual advice given from someone who barely knew me. This was advice given from a man who had dedicated five nights a week, all summer long, for the last three years of my life. This was a man, who from much devoted time and observation knew me well. He knew my strengths, and my weaknesses. This was a man who had gained my trust.
There are coaches, and there are mentors. Ken Stilson was both. And this is why: there are three kinds of courage a man knows in his life (perhaps more, but so far, I’ve only faced these three). The first kind of courage comes from having faced a thing and conquered it, or mastered it. That gives you the courage and confidence that you’ll succeed the next time you face it. The second kind of courage is pure, raw courage. You’ve never faced this thing before but you have no choice but to face it now. And you do it.
The third kind of courage is when someone you trust, when someone who knows you well, tells you you’ve got what it takes, that you can do it. This person must be a person who has put in the time. And that person was Ken Stilson.
So when he told me I could do it, when he told me that Kelly was going to put the ball on the outside corner again, that the umpire was going to call it a strike again, that I had to stand my ground and had the bat in my hands to do it with, and that he believed in me, that, in fact, I was due for a home run, I believed him.
I went back to the plate. I stood my ground in a narrow batter’s box. I held an empowering aluminum bat, and I had a coach who knew me and believed in me. That was enough.
I didn’t hit a home run, as Ken thought I was capable of (thank you for the faith) but I hit a long line drive that fell between the left and center fielders. I made it safely to first base. Two runs scored. I was exhilarated! I had hit a single and scored two runs off of Emery County’s hardest, most notorious pitcher. I looked back at Ken. He just smiled and nodded. As every athlete knows, the nod between a coach and his athlete says and means a lot.
It’s been nearly forty years since that day and I’ve come to realize that holding and wielding the bat is everything. It is hope. It is faith. It is confidence. And most importantly it is empowerment. Few people inspire more confidence than coaches. I was fortunate to have Ken Stilson as my coach from age eight to fourteen.
The Pitcher, and the Umpire, in the intervening years, have come to represent a great many things. One time it was a college professor and I convinced him to raise my grade from a B+ to an A-. Once it was my editor, and I proposed to her an idea to write a new column. Another time I was rowing a tiny raft through the Grand Canyon’s most terrifying rapid. But I had the oars in my hands!
As an adult I can’t believe how many pitches I face every week that are right on the corners. And coming in fast. The advice I so fortunately received from Coach Stilson back in 1981 is continuously pertinent.
I’ve kept that advice in mind, and I’ve hit a lot of singles, and more than a few home runs.
Thank you Ken Stilson for your character, your example, your advice, and, most of all, the giving of your quality time to a new generation that needed it. You were a true builder in every sense of the word.