Friday, July 29, 2016

Don Lesco: When Heroes Played


I hunch forward, keeping my heavy first baseman’s mitt low to the ground. Overhead, the sun beats down through a cloudless sky.
“C’mon, Greg!”
“Throw it in there, pal!”
“He’s got nothing!”
The chatter picks up around the infield. Our shortstop takes a step to his left, his eye on the runner dancing off second base. I tug on my cap. I am a catcher, but as a coach’s son, I’ve learned to fill it at other positions. I've just turned thirteen, and I am one of the youngest players on the team. Our shortstop is eighteen. So is our third baseman.
Greg winds up and drills a strike on the inside corner.
“Atta boy, Gregger!”
“You got this guy!”
I join in the patter and glance over at our bench. My dad, tall and lanky in his uniform, is talking to our head coach, Mr. Lesco. They are bent over in conversation. Mr. Lesco is leaning on his stool, propped up by his crutches, his face a mask of concentration. As I will learn over the next decade, he takes everything he does seriously. Whether it is teaching English or coaching or his work as a guidance counselor.  Everything is precise and planned and well considered. And what he demands of himself, he demands of others.
I shift my focus back to the batter as Greg leans into his wind up. The ball blazes towards the outside corner, but this time the hitter is not fooled. He pulled his hands in, and smashes it on a line to my right. I move without thinking and dive…

…I cleared my throat and waited in line with the rest of my Grade 12 English classmates. Mr. Lesco had just given us back our most recent paper, and I had a question about my grade. When it was my turn, I showed it to him.
“Sir, I don’t understand why you gave me a ‘D+’. I worked on it for two hours last night.”
“You didn’t do what I asked, Steve.”
“But, Sir, I worked hard on this.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how long you spend doing it, you need to do what’s asked.”
He looked at me steadily through his glasses, his face betraying no emotion except expectation. He’d been my coach for years and his son, Josh, was my best friend. He was also friends with my father. But that had no impact on his sense of fairness. He was my teacher, and he held to his expectations regardless of relationship.
“Yes, Sir.”
I was upset, but he’d taught something I’d never forget. A lesson about time and work and expectations that would never leave me.
I wasn’t the only one who learned from him. Indeed, his would be legacy to not only his family, but to hundreds of students and friends along the way.
I was one of the lucky ones.
I still am…

…Clouds push overhead. Traffic roars twenty stories below my balcony where I sit, my laptop propped on my lap. Much like “love,” we throw around the words “heroes” and “role models” quite a bit these days. Perhaps that’s because we think of heroics in terms of grand gestures from famous people, or certain professionals like cops and firefighters doing extraordinary things, like saving someone from a burning building. We forget about the people who aren’t on TV. We forget about the ones who don’t have famous last names and don’t wear a gun.
We forget about people like Mr. Lesco.
I sip my coffee and watch the people on the street. From this height, they look small and insignificant. When I think about my old teacher and coach, I think about someone who lived heroically. Despite the chronic pain of his arthritis and the effort it took for him to simply get from one place to another, not only did he never complain, he accepted what he’d been given and spent his life passing on his knowledge to others. He was, without question, the best teacher I ever had. To be around him was to learn. 
When I was fifteen, he asked me if I wanted to manage the Senior Girls basketball team for him. I jumped at the opportunity. I still remember the smile on his face the day he led them to their third consecutive championship.
“That’s three for three, Stevie.”
The summer I turned sixteen, I helped Josh roof their house. Mr. Lesco's reward? Two basketball books. In one of them he wrote, “To Steve, the biggest sports nut I know.”
I still have those books.
I take a deep breath and put down my lap top. I am flooded by memories. All of them good. They are accompanied by a dull ache. When someone passes from our life, the human tendency is to talk about the good things – the good moments – of their life. Usually we exaggerate a little. For Mr. Lesco, there is no exaggeration. Instead, I am forced to pick through so many good things.
I remember the time my dad and I went to see Field of Dreams with him and Josh. I was seventeen. Mr. Lesco knew that I'd studied the history of the game, and when Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by Ray Liotta), settled into the right-handed batter’s box, he leaned over and whispered to me.
“What’s wrong with this scene?”
“Shoeless Joe was a left-handed hitter,” I said.
When he smiled at my answer, it was like getting a medal.
And when I sent him a copy of my debut novel last year and he emailed me back, telling me how proud he was of my accomplishment, I again felt the familiar thrill of having done something great.
I think, above all, that was his legacy. Mr. Lesco made others better. He expected more because he gave more. He expected effort because his life was filled with effort. He expected you to work through your pain because he worked through his. 
And we are all better for it.
I am better for it.
I pick up my laptop. I feel his loss deeply, but I need to write. I need to write about him. He would be self-deprecating about such a thing, but if I needed to write it, if I needed to do anything, he would expect me to get it done. And so I will…

…the ball flashes in the sun. I throw up my glove. Feel the smack into the webbing. I roll over and stare at my glove in amazement. It's the greatest catch of my young career.
“Way to go, Burnsy!”
“Nice grab!”
I trot off the field with the rest of my teammates, accepting their congratulations.
My dad gives me a thunderous pat on the shoulder. “Way to go, Son!”
I pause beside Mr. Lesco. He smiles at me, that small smile that says so much, that smile that always said so much.
“Hey, Stevie.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Mattingly wouldn’t have looked at his glove.” His smile widens.
I nod and return it.
I never looked at my glove again.