Over one hundred years ago, in 1916, the then Georgia Tech Engineers had their own ugly baseball game. Maybe it was a plot to appease a student base upset at the loss of their football program or maybe it was an opportunity to embarrass a rival, of course, a hundred years later it might just be a rumor, but the story goes, the Cumberland Bulldogs hired professional ringers to play in the game. A final score of 22-0 in favor of the Bulldogs left a sour taste in the mouth of Engineers head coach John Heisman (yes THAT John Heisman) and may have led to the most lopsided game in football history later that year. But that’s a story for another time. This is a baseball story.
Twenty-five years ago (give or take a month), on April 10, 1997, Canal Park hosted its first home game for the then Akron Aeros to the delight of some 9,000 fans. Every year since (with the notable exception of the years the Zips didn’t field a team and the collective groan that was 2020) the RubberDucks (or Aeros) have opened their doors to their collegiate brothers in baseball from just up the road for at least one game a year.
Twenty-three years ago, my family moved across the country to Copley, a small township just outside of Akron. I had started my baseball career in Everett, Washington the same year the Aeros took up residence in Canal Park and was happy to find that, despite the change in venue, I still felt at home on the diamond. I was always a shy kid, but that move, to a new school with new kids, had sucked me even deeper into my anxious shell. I spent my days walking lonely laps around the playground at recess and my nights dreaming of my friends back in Everett. But baseball, baseball still brought me peace.
On Monday May 16, 2022, the Akron Zips hosted the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Canal Park, home of the Akron RubberDucks. As far as baseball games go, it was ugly for the home team.
It's the first inning in Akron and my dad and I are settling into our seats. I saw the announcement for this game four days ago and was excited to catch my first (and last) MAC baseball game of the year. Between a recent move and work I hadn’t found time for baseball this season, but a free game just down the street from my new house, who could pass that up? I had tried to find someone to go with me, but when my wife had to work late and no one had responded to my messages, I was prepared to go alone until my dad called hours before the game.
“How are we getting to the game tonight? You want me to pick you up?”
So, we got our beers, popcorn, and promotional Coach Chris Sabo Rec Specs and found some seats on the first base line. Georgia Tech opens with a Chandler Simpson single followed by two quick outs, but a couple of walks and a three-run dinger by Tim Borden warn of a tough outing for the Zips. Akron’s two strikeout, one-two-three bottom half of the inning only serve to deepen that foreboding. I’m watching closely as Coach Sabo sends his boys out onto the field to start the second.
As the coach of our teams, my dad often used baseball to teach my brother and me some of life’s most important lessons. We learned to throw and catch, to crow hop and pop-up slide, to track flies and watch the pitcher’s feet when leading off. But we also learned deeper lessons. Sometimes things happen that we aren’t prepared for; sometimes we find ourselves down three to nothing in the bottom of the first. On the diamond and off, Dad’s number one rule was always “Don’t Panic.” Number two: “Think.” You might not be able to control what happens in the game, but you can always control how you react. Don’t let the situation overwhelm you and use your head to figure out what to do next.
Top of the second. Akron knows they’re outclassed. One of the top offensive teams in the country already has them in a three-run hole. Anthony Fett looks a little rattled as he takes the bump. The ping of the bat after only a single pitch makes my heart sink, but a solid play by third baseman Jerry Reinhart on a hard-hit ground ball has Akron feeling like they might just have a shot. A groundout to first and Fett seems to have settled in. Not to give up any inning without a
fight, Georgia Tech singles to get a runner aboard. I’m just starting to regret wearing shorts on this overcast night when a fly out to right field ends the inning. The defense steps up and the Zips are still in this game. The bottom half of the inning brings more hope as Shellenbarger sends one to left field for a single. Shellenbarger hustles his way to second to steal the bag, but a mysterious call by the umpire sends him back to first. Georgia Tech’s surprisingly large contingent seems content at the wisdom of this call, but I, with very little help from my now mostly empty beer, offer some constructive criticism. The next three Zips batters are sent back to the dugout without reaching base and the inning ends without Akron mounting a comeback. That first hit and working some deep counts, though, leave me optimistic we might just have an upset in us.
As we got older, each year Dad planned out practices to teach us the new skills we’d need for the coming season. These ranged from simple throwing and catching to tracking fly balls to more sophisticated baserunning, but one practice each season was dedicated to the same lesson: make your teammates look good. We would drill bad throws that might pull you off the bag, backing up the guy in front of you when he boots a ball, making sure everyone knows how many outs you’ve got in the inning. When you’re on a team, you must support the guys around you. Sometimes that might mean working harder when your teammate has a bad day. When the shortstop makes a bad throw, it’s easy for the first baseman to hide behind “doing his job” and let the ball crash into the fence as the batter makes his way to first. It’s easy to roll your eyes when the second baseman lets the second or third ball go through his legs. It’s easy to blame your pitcher for baserunners when the walks and easy hits start to pile up. But, as a teammate, you’ve got to make those guys look good. Make the stretch at first, charge that grounder in shallow center, give everything you have on defense. Send a message to your teammates that you’ve got their backs. It can be awfully lonely on the mound when you’re struggling, but a couple of tough stops on defense or your catcher throwing out a runner can remind you you’re not alone. On and off the diamond, teams succeed when they support one another. Just like the Zips, when their guys are struggling, the best ballplayers step up and make their teammates look good.
A damp, overcast evening in May and a typically eclectic Ohio spring has Canal Park feeling closer to the crisp cool nights of early season MAC football than the hot dust I’ve come to associate with baseball season. The sun’s occasional peek from behind the clouds is more blinding than warming and the kids in front of us have grown restless. Not enough foul balls to chase. Fett finally looks comfortable on this professional mound, but a tough battle with the lead-off batter leads to a full count and then, regrettably, a walk. But he fights back with two quick strikes to the next batter. Then, just as quick, a missed breaking ball goes for a ride to startle a jogger outside the ballpark. The Yellow Jackets go up 5-0. The rest of the third passes without much intrigue; a walk on one side and a hit-by-pitch on the other combined with some stout defense on both leaves me ready to return some of my rented beer so I take a walk before the start of the fourth.
Like many coaches’ kids, I became a catcher by default. Nobody wants that job when you’re young. The gear is too hot, you don’t get to move much, the squat can be uncomfortable, and, above all, kids are scared to get hit by the bat. No one wants to deal with that fear and be the catcher, so the job so often falls to the coach’s son. I grew to love the position. Its unique view of the field, its involvement in every play, the leadership that comes with it; I loved it all. And though I could save my teammates from the fear of the bat, I couldn’t save them from the most common fear in baseball: the fear of the ball. Standing in the box is hard for kids and dad tried everything he could think of to keep us from bailing. We spent most practices our first year of kid pitch trying our best to conquer our fear of the ball. It took some of us to the end of the season and some of us longer, but once we realized the lesson it became far easier to stay in the box. Of course, when you start out, you’ll be afraid to get hit, but the key to not getting hit isn’t running away. It’s staying in the box and watching the ball. You can’t get out of the way if you don’t know where the ball is, and you certainly can’t hit what you can’t see. I called this lesson “Don’t Be Afraid of the Ball” but the lesson isn’t really about not being afraid; it’s about confronting that fear, looking it in the eyes, and swinging away.
I miss the first pitch of the fourth, but, on my way back to my seat, I witness the scramble as a group of kids chase a foul ball. This inning is ugly for the Zips as a three-run bomb by Parada brings the score to 8-0, but this teeming mass is having more fun now than before the Yellow Jackets had begun their onslaught. They weave between the seats elated for some action until the message comes over the loudspeaker. “Please return all foul balls to the dugout. Please return all foul balls to either dugout.” I scoff and look at my dad. I can see he has the same thought. He says, “Really? Let the kid keep the ball.” But that’s not what happens. An usher takes the ball from the kid and returns it to the dugout. Akron goes down in order to end the fourth, but at least they got those balls back.
In youth baseball especially, ballplayers are sometimes surprised when the ball finds it’s way into their gloves. A startled shortstop can look a bit like the proverbial deer in headlights as he tries to figure out what to do next. Know where you’re going with the ball before it comes to you. Every play. If the ball comes to me, what am I going to do with it? Dad might have shouted that a million times. Baseball, like life, is marked by periods of relative calm broken up by brief flashes of excitement. You can either use those periods of calm to daydream, pick grass, and stare at the sun or you can use them to prepare for your next moment of excitement. If the ball comes to me, where do I go with it? If my life gets turned upside down, what do I do? You might not always have a voice over the loudspeaker to help, but, if you’re lucky, you might just hear your dad’s voice guiding you; showing you where to throw the ball.
Popcorn gone and beers dwindling, Dad suggests we use the opportunity to get a couple hot dogs and a couple more beers. He tells me a bit about work and a bit about spending time with his dad in the nursing home. He feels guilty every time he goes to visit, I know, but he keeps going. Dad has never been one to let a little bad ruin the good. Akron starts the inning with a little bad of their own. They give up another home run, this one a solo shot, to bring the score within one of the run rule. They buckle down, though. A strikeout, some defense, and a run-saving throw bring the Zips to bat and their second hit of the night breathes a bit of life back into the team. A couple groundouts end the fifth, but it’s clear these guys aren’t letting what’s happened so far weigh them down. They’re coming at each play fresh without getting stuck thinking about the previous one.
Dad was a great coach, but, like most youth coaches, he saw a lot of bad baseball. We would let ground balls slip through our legs, drop easy pop-ups, and throw the ball nowhere near our intended target. He mostly let those errors go without comment, but I didn’t. Each screw-up would weigh on me and, of course, that weight would lead to more errors and more frustration. I would swear at myself hoping the umpire didn’t hear me. That’s when Dad would step in to remind me of the benefit of a short memory in baseball.
“You’ve got to forget about that play. Move on to the next one. You can’t focus on the last play because the next play is happening now.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever fully learned that lesson, but I can still hear Dad’s voice when I’m dwelling on my mistakes. I’m still letting go of the last play and moving on to the next one.
Georgia Tech opens the sixth with a single by Jenkins who advances to second on a wild pitch. A little classic baseball sends Jenkins home with a single by DeLeo, who advances to second on the throw, and this game is officially in run-rule territory. The Yellow Jackets return to their long ball ways with a two-run blast from Reid to make the score 12-0. Akron knows they need to score to keep this game going. The Zips don’t have time to play small ball; they need to hit the ball hard. A long fly ball gets the kids in front of us excited before it’s tracked down in right field. When Arrivo follows that double where he advances to third on an error, I start to feel it too. Unfortunately, a strikeout and groundout end the inning, but a few big cuts show these boys are swinging for the fences.
We had an old basketball in the garage growing up. I can’t ever remember the thing being fully inflated. It sat next to our favorite balls: the really nice Spalding and the carnival prize fire ball. One day Dad, always inventive with his coaching techniques, cut a hole in the old ball and filled it with sand. Then he attached an eyebolt to the top. At our next practice he strung it over the backstop and introduced us to our new hitting trainer. Dad had noticed we were finally learning to make contact, but we weren’t driving the ball. So, every practice each of us spent time hitting this heavy old basketball as hard as we could. Sometimes you could get the thing to swing a little but for the most part it just hung there as we pummeled it. Slowly, we started seeing the ball jump off the bat in our games. Dad’s plan had worked. We had learned it’s not good enough to stand in the box and tap the ball; you’ve got to hit the ball hard. Dad taught me to take big swings. Not because chicks dig the long ball (though they do!) but because you only get so many at bats. You don’t want to waste them just trying not to strikeout. When it’s time to hit, hit the ball hard.
The game ends less with a bang and more with a whimper. Georgia Tech starts the seventh with a strikeout and a foul ball popped out to first. A walk and a laser through the left side has me worried they might tack on a few more in this likely final frame. Akron isn’t ready to roll over just yet, though, and a great throw from the outfield gets the overzealous Giesler as he tries to take third. A strikeout, a walk, and a double-play send the Yellow Jackets back to Atlanta with a victory. The Zips got beat up today, but they make sure to shake hands with their opponents before they head back to the locker room. They may have lost, but they never gave up. They always respected the game and those opposing ball players.
Things didn’t quite work out for the Zips, but a day at the ballpark is never wasted. Whether the dusty diamonds of my youth or the damp seats of Canal Park, this game has always been my sanctuary. Dad made sure all his teams knew respect for the game, your coaches, teammates, officials, and opponents was what maintained this beautiful pastime. Like the Zips, those teams didn’t win every game, but they always fought to the final out, supported each other regardless of skill level, and forged lasting bonds. Just the other night, on a walk with my wife, I ran into an old teammate from one of those teams and as we talked, we couldn’t help but remember how much fun we had on those summer days. As he left, he made sure to ask me how my dad was and to wish Coach Giles well. I’m still friends with a handful of the guys from the baseball teams my dad coached, and I see other former teammates around town; they always make sure I say hi to my dad for them. That kind of legacy might not get you a bronze statue outside a stadium, but, at least for my teammates and me, it’s far more important. As the years have gone by, I’ve forgotten the wins and losses of those teams, but the lessons of my dad, my coach, those have never faded.
On this Father’s Day, I hope you think about all the dads in your life. Those people who sacrifice their time and their energy to teach you life’s most important lessons are rare. I hope you take the time to thank them for all they’ve given you. I hope you spend some time with them; get outside, maybe enjoy a little baseball. I hope you share with them how important they are to you. And, above all, I hope you never forget Dad’s most important lesson: Have Fun. Thanks, Dad. I’ll see you this afternoon.
Special thanks to Jack Giles for all his help condensing all of Dad’s lessons into what you see above. Thanks to my wife, Danielle for helping me sound a bit less rambling. Thanks to my mom for so often translating Dad’s lessons for young me and for providing the pictures for this piece. And thanks to my dad, Jeff “Coach” Giles, your wisdom and encouragement have always been my guide whether I was rounding second, trying to fix my car, or getting married. Happy Father’s Day.