The Softball Coach and the Dreamgirl

One day, I dragged Mary — almost literally — to a basketball game at rickety old Boston Garden. My friend Jan Simmons had offered up her brother’s Celtics season tickets for the night: two seats, one behind the other alongside the tunnel through which players entered and exited the court. (Yes, they were the seats of, ahem, her nephew Bill Simmons and his dad.)

Mary allowed as how the stadium’s parquet floor was a nice touch, but explained that all the shamrock green — the team color! — was a little tacky and that it was going to take me a lot of trips to the concession stands to make her a good sport about this nonsense.

So I told her a story. It might have been about Bill Walton’s comeback from oblivion to the Celtics, the only team that would give the old guy another chance. Or the players’ “No Beer Until We Win a Championship” pledge. Or ex-garbageman Larry Bird’s “you can wear that if you want” wedding proposal, in which he placed the ring on the pickup truck’s seat next to his girlfriend. (She actually said yes.) Or that the first black man I’d ever seen in person — Celtics great Paul Silas — accidentally ran the 6-year-old me over outside the Garden’s locker rooms one day. (“You’re OK, little man,” he said as he gently picked me up.)

Whatever it was, Mary’s shoulders relaxed a little bit. So I kept it up, a steady stream of whispered tales — no stats — and observations about cool things to watch for (see the championship banners rustle as Bird launches a three-pointer and the crowd collectively sucks its breath in … and watch the rafters shake as the crowd roars when he makes the shot), which then would somehow happen on cue. Let’s just say that by the time 7-footer Robert Parish — “The Chief” — slapped her outstretched hand as he entered the tunnel, Mary had changed her opinion on a lot of things.

Today, a favorite refrigerator cartoon features a room full of men and women, with the women — not the men — filling the air with snippets of sports conversation. The caption? “Dreamgirls.”

Sports are about stories, from ones we heard at Dad’s knee to the ones we’ll one day tell anyone who’ll listen at the retirement home. The ones that require an asterisk to those no asterisk could explain. I like stats, too. But mostly I cherish the stories and the characters. The good stuff that makes sports so much more than grown men and women chasing a ball.

I always say that winning and losing are not everything — just two of the possible outcomes when you get together to play a game. Sappy? Whatever. I believe it. Mary calls me “the Softball Coach” — both for my tender approach to teaching and my unquestioning love for the games. It’s stolen from a line by a reluctant former employee who, irked by my encouragement, persistence, patience and good humor, finally asked: “What are you, a softball coach?”

So be it.

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