The Coach Who Changed Michael Lewis’s Life

“Don’t Be Good — Be Great!”

David Zahl / 7.8.20

Very late to the game on this one, pun intended. For years people have been urging me to read Michael Lewis. Moneyball, The Big Short, Liar’s Poker; these are required reading for American dads my age. I know his appeal extends beyond that demographic, but I’ve resisted nonetheless, leaning more in the Brandon Sanderson direction to fill my airplane time (in days gone by!).

Clearly I sold Lewis short, pun once again intended. All it took was a long-ish road trip, and she-who-is-never-wrong-about-these-things AKA my wife insisting that I listen to a recent episode of Lewis’s podcast, Against the Rules. The basic theme of the cast has to do with authority figures and fairness, and this most recent season tackles coaches.

The episode in question is “Don’t Be Good – Be Great!” which I realize sounds like the least Mockingbird-friendly title imaginable. In it Lewis relates the story of how a particular coach changed his life, and to call it an example of grace working via imputation would not be an understatement. The incident clearly means a lot to him, as he wrote about it first for The NY Times back in 2004, then published a little book called Coach in 2008 before podcasting about it in May. Here goes:

My own experience of [Coach Fitzgerald] began the summer after my freshman year [of high school] — after he quit the Oakland A’s farm system and became the Newman baseball and basketball coach. I was 14, could pass for 12 and was of no obvious athletic use. It was the last night of the summer league for 13-to-15-year-olds. We were tied for first place with our opponents. The stands were packed. Sean Tuohy was on the mound, it was the bottom of the last inning and we were up, 2-1. There was only one out, and the other team put runners on first and third, but, from my comfortable seat on the bench, it was hard to get too worked up about it. The first rule of New Orleans life was that whatever game he happened to be playing, Sean Tuohy won it.

Then Fitz made his second trip of the inning to the pitcher’s mound, and all hell broke loose in the stands. Their fans started hollering at the umps: it was illegal to visit the mound twice in one inning and leave your pitcher in. The umpires, wary as ever of being caught listening to fans, were clearly inclined to overlook the whole matter. But before they could, a well-known New Orleans high-school baseball coach who carried a rule book on his person came out from the stands onto the field and stopped the game. He, the umps had to listen to: Sean Tuohy had to be yanked.

Out of one side of his mouth Fitz tore into the rule-book-carrying high-school coach — out of the other he shouted at me to warm up. The ballpark was already in an uproar, but the sight of me (I resembled a scoop of vanilla ice cream with four pickup sticks jutting out from it) sent their side into spasms of delight.

As I walked out to the mound, their hairy, well-muscled players danced jigs in their dugout, their coaches high-fived, their fans celebrated and shouted lighthearted insults. The game, as far as they were concerned, was over. I might have been unnerved if I’d paid them any attention; but I was, at that moment, fixated on the only deeply frightening thing in the entire ballpark: Coach Fitz.

By then I had heard all the Fitz stories. Billy Fitzgerald had been one of the best high-school basketball and baseball players ever seen in New Orleans, and he’d gone on to play both sports at Tulane University. He’d been a top draft pick of the Oakland A’s. But we never discussed Fitz’s accomplishments. We were far more interested in his intensity. We heard that when he was in high school, when his team lost, Fitz refused to board the bus; he walked, in his catcher’s gear, from the ballpark at one end of New Orleans to his home at the other…

And now he was standing on the pitcher’s mound, erupting with a Vesuvian fury, waiting for me to arrive. When I did, he handed me the ball and said, in effect, Put it where the sun don’t shine. I looked at their players, hugging and mugging and dancing and jeering. No, they did not appear to suspect that I was going to put it anywhere unpleasant. Then Fitz leaned down, put his hand on my shoulder and, thrusting his face right up to mine, became as calm as the eye of a storm. It was just him and me now; we were in this together. I have no idea where the man’s intention ended and his instincts took over, but the effect of his performance was to say, There’s no one I’d rather have out here in this life-or-death situation. And I believed him!

As the other team continued to erupt with joy, Fitz glanced at the runner on third base, a reedy fellow with an aspiring mustache, and said, ”Pick him off.” Then he walked off and left me all alone.

If Zeus had landed on the pitcher’s mound and issued the command, it would have had no greater effect. The chances of picking a man off third base are never good, and even worse in a close game, when everyone’s paying attention. But this was Fitz talking, and I can still recall, 30 years later, the sensation he created in me. I didn’t have words for it then, but I do now: I am about to show the world, and myself, what I can do.

At the time, this was a wholly novel thought for me. I’d spent the previous school year racking up C-minuses, picking fights with teachers and thinking up new ways to waste my time on earth. Worst of all, I had the most admirable, loving parents on whom I could plausibly blame nothing. What was wrong with me? I didn’t know. In the three years before I met Coach Fitz, the only task for which I exhibited any enthusiasm was sneaking out of the house at 2 in the morning to rip hood ornaments off cars. Now this fantastically persuasive man was insisting, however improbably, that I might be some other kind of person. A hero.

The kid with the fuzz on his upper lip bounced crazily off third base, oblivious to the fact that he represented a new solution to an adolescent life crisis. I flipped the ball to the third baseman, and it was in his glove before the kid knew what happened. The kid just flopped around in the dirt as the third baseman applied the tag. I struck out the next guy, and we won the game. Afterward, Coach Fitz called us together for a brief sermon. He told us all that there was a quality no one within five miles of this place even knew about, called ”guts,” which we all embodied. He threw me the game ball and said he’d never in all his life seen such courage on the pitcher’s mound. He’d caught Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers and a lot of other big-league pitchers — but who were they?

A few weeks later, when school started again, I was told the headmaster wanted to see me in his office. I didn’t need directions. (My most recent trip, a few months earlier, had come after I turned on an English teacher and asked, ”Are you always so pleasant or is this just an especially good day for you?”) But this time the headmaster had good news. Fitz had just spoken to him about me, he said. There might be hope after all.

Beautiful, right? An authority figure appointed Lewis ‘good enough’, despite all evidence to the contrary and–shazam!–the ‘narrative’ of Lewis’s life switched tracks. New vistas opened up inside the young man, all because of a single wordless proclamation by the right person at the right time. And completely by surprise.

Lewis’s story points to a larger and dare-I-say eternal truth of human nature, one that’s easy to lose sight of in the midst of our current “mania for punishment”. How does a self-involved layabout become something other than a self-involved layabout? How, for that matter, does anyone really change for the better? I’m talking about lasting change–the kind you continue to write and talk about forty years later. That’s the real question, one of the biggest.

The default answer of the human heart–and the one I hear trumpeted with accelerating volume from all sides of our current discourse–involves some form of leverage. That people only change when they’re forced to, usually out of fear of having something taken away. While no doubt such an approach can occasionally work, my sense (and experience) is that it just as often produces an unintended reaction in the opposite direction. Teenagers who are threatened into obedience may eventually comply, but they just as often wreck your car.

Coach Fitzgerald takes a risk in putting Lewis on that mound. He surprises everyone, most of all his ice cream scoop of a pitcher, by ignoring the logic of deserving and going with the opposite of a good idea. Who knows, Fitzgerald may not have been conscious of what he was doing. But to Michael Lewis, it was an act so out of proportion with the facts on the ground–as they related to himself–that all these years later he’s still scratching his head in disbelief and gratitude at the moment he became unstuck. (He relates later in the piece that when he was accepted at an Ivy League school a few years later, Fitz was the first person he wanted to tell). This isn’t a formula to be replicated; it’s an instinct that hints at a deeper magic.

Martin Luther once wrote that, “The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it”. Similarly, the coach’s words inspired the behavior they asked for. This is what we mean when we talk about imputation as the engine of grace. Michael was treated as if he were something he wasn’t, and it made all the difference.

Perhaps the episode feels low-stakes and irrelevant, like a relic of a time retreating into the collective rear-view. Maybe youth sports seems a little quaint right now. But if you’re at all like me, then you could use the reminder that there are forces in the world more potent than guilt, shame, condemnation, and revenge.

Where coercion and fear fail to inspire goodness, all hope is not lost. Grace may yet unstuck.

Just ask Robert Smith:

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One response to “The Coach Who Changed Michael Lewis’s Life”

  1. Calum says:

    May the deeper magic prevail. Only just discovered Michael Lewis too. Thank you for this. I needed this.

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