On the eve of my favorite holiday last week — the holiday that isn’t about gifts under a tree, rather all about a very good meal in the middle of a table with a couple of extra leaves inserted and, more importantly, about the special cast of family and dear friends gathered around that elongated table — I headed out to the mall to get serious about the gift-giving ritual that comes upon us each December.
While I was en route from Macy’s to JCPenney, I saw someone unmistakable to the sports-minded in our community, both for his basketball-coaching accomplishments and for his physical appearance, which is unmistakable. Sauntering along, giving every indication that he was more interested in using the wide concourses of the mall as a walking venue rather than a shopping one, there was Dick Kortokrax, who retired in 2016 after 56 years of coaching and more wins than any high-school coach in Ohio’s history, 890 of them to be exact.
So, before I finished some shopping and returned home, I was already thinking a bit about old coaches. That turned out to be just a precursor, for when I was back home in my crib and perusing my local paper, it was then I saw in the obits a photo of Dick McGraw, my and many a 60-plus-year-old’s former Little League baseball coach, who’d passed away at his residence the previous Sunday.
While the boys he mentored over his several years as the Ravens’ coach in the Lions League surely numbered far fewer than those coached by Kortokrax and despite the fact that his work with kids was a hobby rather than an occupation, Dick McGraw’s importance cannot be diminished.
In a 2004 column, I wrote of the man we all called “Quick,” short for the Hanna-Barbara cartoon character from the early 1960s, Quick Draw McGraw, and his deft touch in working with kids whose interest in diamond-related matters so often far exceeded their proficiency in playing on the skinned infields at Faurot Park.
And, in that column, much of the focus recounted a particular moment, one that remains frozen in my memory, despite the 57 years that have passed since I enjoyed the thrill of my very first Little League home run on Faurot Park’s Diamond 8 down in what has been known for years as The Hole.
The opponent that day I’ve long since forgotten, but, as verification that life is less about our years, months, weeks, days and hours and far more about our individual moments, I do remember my moments encompassing my first at-bat that day, the very instant when bat met ball with a sweet solidarity I had never known before and the moments after my rubber-cleated foot touched home plate.
My coach, having witnessed as I did an endless parade of my maroon-shirted teammates swing and miss at the opposing pitcher’s wrinkle of a curveball, came down from his spot coaching third base to speak to me on my way to the plate for my first at-bat, no doubt, because he saw the manifestations of my nervous fears that three pitches hence, I’d also be walking back to the bench clutching a useless Hillerich and Bradsby in those days long before there were aluminum bats.
Coach McGraw told me although the pitcher did have what he disparagingly called “that nickel curveball,” he’d also noticed he had a habit of throwing a first-pitch fastball, so I should be ready for that.
And, so it was, a first-pitch fastball, one at which I swung, I remember, with my eyes closed. Following contact, I started my run to first base with my now-opened eyes on the left fielder. Rounding first, I saw the ball on a line high above where he began his back peddle, and then I saw his back as he made his retreat.
My first home run, untainted by error and completed not by sliding into home but standing as my hero Mickey Mantle did, felt wonderful. Coach McGraw ran up to me, perhaps more excited than I was, grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “I think you’re a future star!”
The fact that my big at-bat would prove to be more outlier than any indication that I would develop a habit of punishing the baseball was borne out on my next trip to the dish, one that ended quickly, with a foul ball straight back and three straight swings and misses.
I remembered those moments yet again last Wednesday when I read of Dick McGraw’s passing, and I thought of his Midas touch with kids on the dusty diamonds from so long ago.
I also thought on that Thanksgiving Eve of the impact a coach can make, from those like Dick Kortokrax, whose occupation it was to coach, to those like “Quick” McGraw, whose talents and unbridled enthusiasm found their release in an avocation.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.