Last summer, I wrote a little essay about Coach Mac, who led our Little League team in fifth and sixth grade. I described how I loved baseball from the start -- but it didn't love me. In tee-ball, I was so short that if the catcher put the tallest tee on the far corner of the plate, I couldn't reach it. Yes, I struck out -- in tee ball.
Our first year of live pitching didn't go any better. I wanted to be a catcher -- like my hero, Tigers catcher Bill Freehan -- but I was stuck in right field picking dandelions, and batting last. But when Mac McKenzie became our head coach the next season, my world changed almost overnight.
Coach Mac wore a baseball cap above his big, square glasses. He looked tough, with a permanent squint and the underbite of a bulldog. When he was smashing ground ball after ground ball during practice, sweat dripped off the tip of his pointy nose. He occasionally engaged in mild profanity, which we thought was pretty cool.
He thought I was feisty, and funny. I could tell he wanted me to do well, and that he believed I would. Trust me, I was no bigger, faster or stronger than I was the previous season. But I had one thing I didn't have the year before: confidence. The effect was immediate, dramatic and lifelong.
From the very first practice under Coach Mac, I started crushing the ball as if I'd been waiting years to do it -- which I had. Instead of playing back on my heels, I was up on my toes, and swinging for the fences. Our first game that season, he started me at catcher, and had me batting leadoff. I got two hits -- the first of my life -- and my teammates voted me captain.
I was on fire for baseball. I recall one Saturday morning practice was rained out. But, this being Michigan, a little while later the sun came out, so I biked down to our elementary school to check it out. There were a few puddles here and there, but the biggest one was behind the plate, where I would be playing, and it didn't look that bad to me.
I rushed home and called Coach Mac. He told me if I made the phone calls, we'd have practice. I did, and Coach Mac's promise was good. We had practice.
After he'd hit ground balls to the infield, I'd say, "C'mon, Coach Mac -- gimme one!" Meaning, bunt the ball, for me to scoop up and throw to first.
He'd grin and say, "There ya go," and tap one out just for me.
The next year I became a better hockey player, too. I've spent most of my adult life coaching and teaching on the side, because I know how much difference it can make to have someone believe in you.
I closed that piece by admitting I had no idea where the McKenzies had wound up. I didn't even know if Coach Mac was still with us. But he was still with me.
Well, a couple days later, I got a full-page thank you letter from Coach Mac himself. Just getting it thrilled me, but his message was even better. It was direct, honest and funny -- just like the man himself. He told me about his family, about moving to Scottsdale, about his two bypass surgeries. In 1990, he received a heart transplant. He said he'd read my books and had every intention of writing years ago. But that day, when his wife found my story online, he was moved to write:
I don't know if Coach Mac got choked up writing it, but I got choked up reading it. I promised him I'd write him a longer letter soon, and fully intended to. But my fall filled up with travel and speeches, deadlines and classes. I kept waiting to find enough time to write The Perfect Letter -- and I kept waiting. I wrote down Coach Mac's name on my to-do list month after month.
On Tuesday night, I was teaching my sportswriting students at Northwestern University how to write a profile. I told them their subject doesn't have to be famous. It could even be a former Little League coach. Then I spontaneously launched into my story of Coach Mac, right down to the sweat dripping off the tip of his nose while he smashed grounder after grounder. I couldn't resist telling them how great it was to hear from Coach Mac -- which provided just another reminder I still needed to write him. I scribbled his name down yet again.
The next day, I received an email from a friend of Coach Mac's, a man I'd never met before. He wrote, "We lost Mac yesterday."
This hit me harder than I had expected. After all, I couldn't have believed he'd live forever. I was glad I'd written the story about him -- and felt even better Coach Mac had read it, and responded. But when I went back to read our correspondence, I was pained to realize I had never written him the longer letter I'd promised. I felt worse when I noticed he lived in Scottsdale. A couple months after he sent me his first letter, I was invited to give a speech in Scottsdale. If I had kept in better touch, I would have put it together, invited Coach Mac to join us, and he and I would have gone out afterward for a beer I would never have forgotten.
We can't do everything. I realize that. And I'm lucky to have gotten back in touch with Coach Mac. I know that, too. But my regret was hard to shake. When I went for a run that day, around a few Little League baseball diamonds in Chicago, I wasn't ready for the tears streaming under my sunglasses.
After I drove back to my home in Ann Arbor on a beautiful summer night, right around game time, I swung by our old schoolyard, where Coach Mac smacked all those grounders years ago. I was surprised to find the ball field has been replaced by a garden, with a shed in the middle of it. But when I crouched down into my old position, where home plate used to be, I could see it all -- right down to Coach Mac, sweat dripping off his nose, tapping me another bunt to throw to first base.
Sorry it took me so long to write.
-- John U. Bacon is the author, most recently, of Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, a New York Times bestseller. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.