“Hey, batter, batter, SWING!” These are some beautiful words to my ears. I’ve been a hemodialysis patient for fourteen years, but, more importantly, I’ve also been a volunteer coach in a youth baseball program for the past 24 years. My kidney failure and my years and years of dialysis have robbed me of some of the things that many 53-year old men take for granted – like being able to work or being able to play eighteen holes of golf on a hot summer day. But ESRD and dialysis have not taken away my desire to be a volunteer in my community. Helping little kids learn to love the game of baseball is one of the greatest joys of my life.
At the youth baseball complex where I volunteer, I’m not a dialysis patient, I’m not a sick man, and I’m not disabled. There, I’m simply “Coach” to fifteen precious nine and ten-year-old kids. Yes, the players on my team know that I can’t do everything else that other coaches do. They see the scars on my arms from failed dialysis accesses, but it doesn’t bother them. They touch the working fistula on my forearm and call it a “magic bumblebee” because it buzzes. They understand that I’m different, but it doesn’t matter to them. In spite of everything else about me, my players know that I love the game of baseball and that I care about each and every one of them.
When I’m on the field with the kids, I don’t have time to think about my health, my dialysis treatments, my doctors’ appointments, my phosphorous level, or my physical limitations because there are more important things. Who’s going to start on the mound today? Who’s batting clean-up? Does every kid remember the signs for “bunt” and “steal”? Have we prepared our minds to be on top of our game? Did we give it our all? When the game’s over, are there enough hot dogs for every child to have one (even if I can’t eat one myself). Does every kid have a ride home? Did everyone have a good time and learn something? These are the important questions on a youth baseball field.
Being a youth baseball coach in my little town, I have a clear purpose and I am needed. I live in a rural, socioeconomically disadvantaged area of the country. Most of the kids on my team have been labeled “underprivileged,” and many of them are being raised by single moms or, for some, grandmothers. Some of them come from families that are struggling just to keep food on the table, and a couple of them live in the government-subsidized housing project in town. Few of them have contact with a positive, adult male role model in their homes.
The kids on my team need me to teach them about sportsmanship, how to practice hard and then play hard, how to win with grace and, sometimes, even lose with dignity. They need me to show them what it means to be part of a team; they need to see that raw talent and brute strength alone are not enough and that, instead, determination and perseverance will carry them a lot farther. They need me to pat them on the back when they’ve done something good and to bench them when they get out of line. More than anything else they need me to be there at that field; they need to hear my laughter and see my smile. They need me to teach them “life’s lessons,” and if they learn something about the game of baseball too, that’s just icing on the cake.
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