He walked through the door of my family’s house close to five years ago.
It was late at night. Winter had fully set in. I put far too much kindling in the fireplace. The flames erupted up the chimney like an Allegheny furnace blast. The immediate heat was so intense coming from within that the grate quickly turned a bright, glowing orange. It’s not a good sign when half-inch thick wrought iron glows in your fireplace. I dialed 911 and raced for a bucket of water.
In the span of 90 seconds I had extinguished the fire calmly pouring the water beneath the grate onto the searing coals from ground level. My heart raced when I took a wet towel and shoved my arm up into the fireplace and closed the flue. The exploding, aircraft-engine whir ceased.
And in they came like some battle-worn combat unit returning from the blitzkrieged alleys of World War II France. Soot-covered and fully strapped with bunker gear and axes and flashlights and oxygen tanks, the handful of firefighters from Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills (COMM) were smiling and jovial but simultaneously purposeful and focused on the safety of everyone in the house. The kids had all awoken. There was a definitive sense of panic in the air. There was much shouting and the crackle of walkie talkies made the setting of our humble home seem oddly surreal.
And there he was. Still looking as young as the last day I’d seen him years earlier. To think that one of the greatest high school-aged baseball pitchers I’ve ever seen or coached was now a full-fledged, fully-outfitted, fully capable man “on the job,” was equally overwhelming as it was uplifting.
I’ve been a coach for a long, long time. You always toy with the idea that you’ve seen it all, but that’s an illusion. I’ve learned something every day of the 28 years I’ve been doing it and in this instance I learned that I had done right by this young man. I never question my players’ ability to grow up and take care of themselves one day, but sometimes you worry about “your guys” and how they will fare in the real world with wives and kids and houses and careers. I’ve always hoped each one would work on his weaknesses and take lessons from competing so that life doesn’t have to be as hard as it usually is. Ultimately, that’s my only mission as a coach: to help young men become better men. I’m not the greatest at it, but it’s what I aim for. It’s infinitely more important than winning games. Winning games is, as the late Vince Lombardi once said, as equally a habit as losing is. But it’s still an ancillary goal of what I do.
So to see former Stetson University (Div. 1) righty Chris Rogers storm into my house like a platoon sergeant – albeit a smiling one – dressed in full firefighter’s gear, axe in hand was an enormous triumph for me, personally. Here, I thought, is this former collegiate star pitcher, a young man whose sheer talent and willpower often forced us to win in spite of ourselves and in spite of a still young and often abrasive coach. Here is this former Cotuit Kettleer, the grandson of a former Cape League superstar in my man cave, prepared to save my home and my family from harm.
I simply was overwhelmed with gratitude in my heart. To combine the general trust and faith we all have in such public servants with knowing all that I did about his inherent selflessness, was almost too much to immediately make jibe, emotionally. But I could never forget it. There was no time to reminisce about strikeouts or home runs or the Glory Days long past. Just a simple nod and a handshake and chimney liners had to be inspected and there were feet pounding along the roof checking for wayward embers. Ashes had to be taken outside. Walls had to be checked with infrared devices. And then he left. All was well.
I see Chris around town once in a blue moon now, usually hauling around a handful of little ones at the hardware store or some pedestrian moment most dads undertake. We texted each other a couple of winters ago when the power went out for a week in Marstons Mills. We commiserated with each other about sitting in our frozen homes. He had been off-duty when his power went out. I was virtually petrified when the temperature plummeted inside to 37 degrees. I fully expected a pipe to freeze and burst at any moment. He kept me sane throughout it all.
It was still hard for me to believe that this young man who once threw 90 miles per hour took what other gifts were given to him and turned his life into something extraordinarily worthwhile, responsible and fruitful. He was another young athlete I could now check off my mental list as having “made it” in life, at least, as far as I was concerned.
He never wallowed in self-pity or took a turn toward less than admirable pursuits. He set a goal and attained it and he made the most of it to build a family and life for himself. To me, that is twice as heroic as hitting a ninth inning-home run with the bases loaded. To this increasingly and rapidly aging coach, it’s the only kind of thing I hope for each year when a band of new blood fills the roster. It’s the best thing all of us can hope for.
Sean Walsh is the Sports Editor for Cape Cod Broadcasting Media and www.capecod.com. His column will appear here weekly, each Sunday afternoon.
He may be contacted via email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at [email protected]