Coach Remo stands six foot five and weighs a healthy two hundred and sixty pounds. He has played college football, baseball, and had a short career in the farm system for the Chicago Cubs; today he is my coach for both of those sports. A shiny white head and a limp from years of athletics are his only visible signs of age. His strength seems not to have diminished over the years; after a football game my freshman year, he broke a cinder block with a hammer. However,the hammer not only crushed the block, but also continued with enough speed to smash a six-inch deep hole in the concrete floor below. For years, upperclassmen have perpetuated to underclassmen the legend of Remo finishing a thirty pack of beer by himself in a single night. Remo hates to lose. The best way to piss him off: talk to him after a loss. His physical toughness continues to coaching, where he preaches his ways through heavy weightlifting and running. Fine skills like perfect footwork through groundballs or batting stance are less significant than one’s ability to have both the physical strength and mental fortitude to dominate our opponents. There are no excuses allowed. Coach Remo’s motto is “don’t tell me how rough the waters are, just bring the ship in.” Some athletes come to Mahwah High School and can’t handle the yelling, the puking, the soreness, and they quit. Others buy into the program’s principles and learn quickly what it takes to win.
I walk into coach’s office and tell him my honest thoughts on the situation: “Coach, I think I’ve played well enough this season that I deserve to start this game. I am a senior. I’ve played in two state championship games, and if we are going to win this playoff game, we need as many seniors as possible.” Walking into Remo’s office used to be, well, daunting to say the least. But when something keeps you awake at night, makes you stay up for hours just thinking, it becomes easier to face it over time.
He looks back at me, scratches his bald head, and in an unencouraging monotone voice replies, “I’ll think about it.”
I felt hopeful Remo would hear my argument and agree, but his answer doesn’t surprise me. Remo likes to take time to think through his decisions, and I respect him for that. I leave the office, and on my way to the locker room, reflect on how I got here.
I remember my mom taking me to tennis lessons as a young kid. Although I didn’t want to go, she made sure I had the opportunity to try every sport. I would swing the racket like a bat, return the serves over the fence, and imagine I had hit a clutch home run. My disgruntled instructor made me retrieve the balls, but I simply continued to relish my fantasy; I was Derek Jeter retrieving a home run ball and he was a cheering fan.
I remember running off the field as a sophomore in high school with my dislocated throwing arm wobbling around, hanging out of its socket like a wet noodle; I was ignorant that my childhood dreams of playing in Yankee Stadium had just been shattered. I remember when the doctors told me I’d never throw again without surgery and joking that I would learn to throw lefty so I wouldn’t have to miss a baseball or football season recovering. I also remember joking about that when the same thing happened to my left arm. Yet here I am, playing baseball without the ability to throw.
It’s hard to grasp the fact I’ll never be able to play catch with my son… never throw snowballs with him on snow days… never teach him the art of skipping rocks…. It’s hard to stomach the year of physical therapy for my right shoulder, the six months for my left, all just so I could play at a handicapped level. I remember the first practice of the season. We walked into the locker room and Remo asked each of us which positions we wanted to play. When he asked me, I replied “designated hitter.” Everyone laughed. Usually the DH is a backup position, one where a person who plays the field goes temporarily while his arm is sore, or if he has been struggling defensively. While people thought I was joking, DH is the only position in baseball that doesn’t involve throwing, so, without a backup plan, I entered this season fully invested in earning that spot.
I feel content that I am restricted, by definition, from half the game I love. After missing half my sophomore season and playing a very limited junior year on JV, I’m blessed to be able to play at all, let alone do so in a varsity uniform. All off-season I worked on my swing, took batting practice, and lifted weights. That work paid off, and I hit a home run in our first preseason game. I started every game from that point on. I was so happy to finally be able to play again that when I struck out three times in a game last week and got benched before the playoffs…it crushed me. And it certainly doesn’t help that my replacement is a sophomore. But I am an optimist. I tell myself Remo decided to bench me temporarily, and that after our conversation, he will choose to start me.
I walk out on the field for warmups. The team is in the outfield playing catch to loosen their arms. I am carrying the cooler full of Lemon Lime Gatorade into the dugout so they can drink. I used to go out with them to try to feel like part of the team, but now I just try to be helpful in whatever way I can. When Coach Remo sees me, he runs over and pulls me to the side: “Cantow, I thought about it and while I respect your seniority and your history in the program, you are in a slump right now and I can’t start you.” I tell him okay and thank him for listening to me.
On the surface I imagine that my large, black Oakley sunglasses mask my dejection. I imagine the emptiness I feel inside is manifesting itself on my face; Remo is staring back at his dark, mirrored reflection in my glasses, complementing an expressionless mouth and otherwise unflinching facial features. I am terrible with emotions. I have a relatively low threshold for handling anger and disappointment. When I pass that threshold, I act abruptly and unpredictably. Now I am well beyond my threshold. I try to think about taking batting practice to calm down before I deal with the situation. Usually, I am a methodical individual focused on intelligent decision-making. Anger causes this to collapse; all I can think about is the anger, and until I feel I’ve rectified the source of that anger, it seems ceaseless. I notice this as it transpires, trying always to distract myself, calm down, and not make any impulsive decisions.
I get to my spot manning a bucket in shallow center field. My teammates field the batted balls and throw them to me, where I drop them in the bucket and run them back to the mound after the bucket fills. It’s a hot May afternoon, and I am relishing the sun as I conduct the tedious labor of my task–exactly what I need to calm myself. I love baseball for moments like these. I love being in the field, listening to the pop of a bat and a glove, enjoying the sun and the hum of the birds. Baseball is a simple game, and it brings you back to a simpler and younger age. It allows you to truly be in the moment and only worry about the task at hand.
While I try to stay in the moment, I become distracted. I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I am not playing. Despite my attempts to calm down and address the situation later, I keep thinking about losing the game, my season and baseball career ending, and moving on with summer. Never again will I be able to savor the idiosyncrasies of the field and game. I think about watching the game, sitting on the bench, munching on sunflower seeds, and feeling utterly powerless; my baseball career will end or continue today, and I have no power to affect that. I just keep thinking. I calm myself and start to look on the bright side; then I am abruptly overcome with anger. The game is a blur of deep thought and emotional turmoil…then Remo tells me to get loose to pinch hit.
As I enter the locker room, my melancholy shifts to excitement, then quickly nerves, until an undulation of nerves and excitement forms. I had been wallowing in self-pity for so long I had not even paid the slightest attention to the game. I have no idea what I will face, only that I am going in to hit. I stretch and take some swings off a tee. Tom (my hitting coach) comes into the locker room and throws me batting practice. He has been encouraging me through my slump, working on my hitting mechanics, and talking me through the psychology of the hitter’s slump. My issue (at least from my perspective, though Tom would certainly tell you I’m dropping my back shoulder) is neither mechanical nor mental. I’ve just been playing poorly lately, and that’s a difficult reality of baseball–sometimes you just don’t play well and there’s really nothing you can do about it. I take swing after swing until a teammate comes into the locker room and tells me I’m on deck.
I walk past my parents on the way to the field. They smile at me with the same expression I imagine I gave them on Christmas morning as a kid. I remember them driving me to visit Dr. Ahmad, my first shoulder specialist. Ahmad is the team doctor for the New York Yankees and was a glowing recommendation from several people at the time. He told me there is zero chance I would ever play baseball again without surgery. When we objected, he went as far as to say my parents were being irresponsible by not immediately scheduling a surgery; they immediately scheduled me an appointment with a different doctor.
I proceed past dozens of other excited faces on my way to the dugout. I grab a quick sip of Lemon Lime Gatorade, walk to the on-deck area, and go through my normal routine. I take three quick swings, unsuccessfully try to crack my back, and look out to the field. It’s the bottom of the sixth inning (high school baseball plays seven innings) and the score is tied 4-4. There is a runner on first base and one out.
“Strike three!” exclaims the umpire.
My teammate walks back to the dugout with his head down and throws his bat into the fence on his way. Coach Remo signals for me to come over to him. He tells me that with two outs this late in the game, I should swing for the fences and try to break the game open. I love how unreasonable coach is. He wants the best out of his players, even if that is seemingly unreasonable or unlikely. Because why shouldn’t I hit a home run? Why should I let probability dictate whether I have an unforgettable moment of greatness?
I think back to my junior year of football, when the team went to the state championship under Remo. We all expected to win the game convincingly since we beat our opponent the first week of the season. At halftime, we were losing 28-7. This was the first time our team had been losing all season–the sole game we lost all year was on a field goal as time expired. Typically, we would discuss how our plays are working and make corresponding schematic adjustments. Instead, Remo looked at us, told us a story about a comeback he led in high school, then said it is up to us to “decide” to win the game: “to go out there in the second half and kick their fucking asses until the game is over and we’re state champs.” Many disgruntled players and parents like to criticize Remo’s strategies in baseball and football as overly simple and borderline naïve. I see Remo as a leader who is striving to be a great executer of simple plans, rather than a mediocre executer of ornate strategies. He knows very well that he is coaching mistake-prone student athletes, not professionals, and he believes the key to winning games is through execution. (It’s worth noting that Remo is the only coach in the history of Mahwah High School to earn over one hundred wins as a head coach in three different sports.) The second half began. We went out with the same plays, a new mentality, and won the game 35-28.
I step up to the plate. Taking a deep breath, I think about my career as a baseball player, and try to fathom in a moment the fact that this may be my last time at bat if I am unsuccessful. My nerves shift into focus. My anxiety is still there, but in this moment, my focus is the ball and putting it over the fence. The pitch comes in. I swing with all my might and the ball sizzles past my bat. “Strike One!” I step out, take a deep breath, and think about my hitting coach telling me to keep my head in and relax. The next pitch comes. I hear the contact, but I don’t feel it. The ball strikes the sweet spot of my bat and produces no vibration. I look up, trying to find the ball, not sure if it’s fair or foul. Everyone is screaming and cheering but the sun is shining bright above left field; I still can’t see the ball. Eventually, based on all the cheering from my teammates and coaches, I decide to start a trot around the bases, still only knowing that I hit the ball directly towards the sun. I round first base and notice the left fielder looking beyond the fence and the pitcher kicking dirt around on the mound. I round third base, high-five the coach whom I just told several hours ago to start me, and run into the sea of cheering teammates circling home plate.
I brought a few athletic relics from my high school days to MIT with me: a small football helmet all the seniors receive when graduating our program, some Mahwah Thunderbirds clothes, and a baseball. I remember my dad walking in the woods beyond left field with me to look for that ball. We searched thorn bushes for an hour. Then we sorted through ten green, old, rotted baseballs until we finally discovered the brand new, pearly white game ball sitting alone well past the others. We measured the distance from the left field fence to the ball and added the distance from home plate to the fence… 400 feet. As Remo put it in the postgame meeting after that huge playoff win: “the longest home run hit at Mahwah High School since I played.”
Now I have my 6.042 (Discrete Math) problem set in front of me. It’s late, after 1 AM. I look down at the pages of proofs I’ve spent the last four hours on, realize that I am not going to sleep for another few hours, and grab the ball. A lot of my accomplishments, like getting accepted by MIT, were merely steps towards my goal of being an affluent adult. This ball is different, though. I love this ball because it reminds me of something I did for me, because I loved baseball and didn’t want a doctor to tell me when it’s over. That perspective is what I gained from coach Remo, and while many people speak poorly of his methods, he taught me the toughness to work through things people say can’t be done. Most importantly, he taught me life is about doing things that make you proud of yourself, not trying to impress other people or conform to what society expects of you.
MIT is hard in in terms of the level of difficulty of problems more often than the quantity of work. I generally spend far more time thinking about how to solve problems and finding out how not to solve them, than working through the correct approach. It’s easy to try every approach you can think of and find yourself utterly stuck; to just stare at an assignment, actionless, for hours. At these moments I hear Remo’s old saying: “don’t tell me how rough the waters are, just bring the ship in.”