Have any of you seen the video from this year’s Little League World Series, where the one coach from New Jersey gets all emotional saying how honored he was to be called coach?
If you haven’t, you should. You can view it by clicking here.
To me, there’s only been one coach. Sure, I’ve been coached by many, but that term – “Coach” – is and always will only point to one person in my mind. And many others in my town or who graduated from my Alma mater would likely agree, especially if they were coached by him.
Coach died last week at the age of 75. I hadn’t seen him over the past few years, but what he meant to me over the course of my younger years can’t be measured. The memories can’t be erased.
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Coach was a top-notch baseball player in his youth. I remember him telling us he got looks or was offered a minor league contract out of high school, but he opted for college. He played two years (1966, 1967) for the University of Scranton, which, again, if I remember right, he blew out his arm and thus ended his baseball career.
Turns out, that would be something that would benefit many kids in my town as he went on to teach history for 30 years at Delhi. He also coached cross country, baseball, and golf. On top of that, he served as a high school and college basketball official for several decades.
Three times he led the girls cross country team to state championships – in 1978, 1979, and 1981. Those stood as the school’s only state championships until the football team won in 2001, followed by girls basketball in 2018.
I knew Coach from a young age. He had a larger-than-life personality, a smile that wasn’t overshadowed by a slight gap in his front teeth, and those thick-rim glasses he wore for decades. For decades, it was never “P.J.,” with me – it was always “Piege,” something that only a few ever called me. If he wasn’t teaching, you’d likely see him in a Detroit Tigers hat, and if cooler out – jacket.
He was always involved in baseball, from youth to high school. I played varsity my junior and senior years and spent time back and forth from starting to the bench, I was never much of a great player – a bit average and never a standout. He always would give people chances, though. Sometimes we succeeded, sometimes we failed.
To be sure, those who played for him or were in his class will likely have stories. I mean, for those in school at that time (when teacher’s still could smoke in the break room), who doesn’t remember him smoking at his desk after school? Or those on the baseball team remember Coach in the catcher’s position, leaning against the fence during a game with a smoke?
Times have changed, that’s for sure.
I used to sit toward the front of the bus on baseball road trips. Following games, Coach would take the book, go through everything and have the team and individual stats updated before we got back to school. All by hand. No smart-phone calculators or anything. Just knowing how to calculate ERAs, averages and everything else. I love baseball stats, but I definitely need a calculator.
A few memories really stick out to me with baseball over my two varsity seasons. These first two came during my junior season.
First, we were playing in Afton. I had singled, so I was pretty stoked. My brother was the assistant coach at the time and was coaching first.
The steal sign was pretty simple – Coach would say your name and clap. So he did that. I looked at my brother and seemed confused. I asked if he did what I thought. My brother shrugged. So I .. stayed put. It had to be a mistake. I was definitely not some nimble-foot runner.
Before the next pitch, Coach looked across the diamond, and with a little more force said my name and clapped. I got a lead and took off and slid in safely, much to my surprise.
Again, I am not some sort of a base stealer.
So I was pretty stoked. Stolen base… all right! I look over and wouldn’t you know it… my name and the claps… AGAIN.
I took a deep breath and on the pitch, I took off, sliding in – shockingly enough – safe again. I couldn’t believe it. He says to me, quietly, if I hadn’t ignored the first sign, he probably wouldn’t have made me steal third – though it worked out in the end. Seems he was always teaching lessons.
But hey, in my high school baseball years, I had a 100 percent stealing average – he never sent me again.
The second memory came during a Saturday double-header. As a junior, I didn’t play a ton. So, that was normal. Our third baseman – also one of our top pitchers – got hurt in the first game. So, Coach looks down the bench, calls for me and sends me out to third.
OK, let me get this out there – I am not a great fielder. I never have been, I never will be. I do OK, but I am average at best, if not a bit below. My strongest point was always my hitting, or at least my ability to sacrifice bunt (which I did a lot during my junior and senior years). I was a pretty good catcher, but there were several ahead of me on that totem pole. So when I played the field, it was more at second base.
Today? I was the one going in.
Coach, I said… I’ve never played third base. Just get in front of the ball he said.
So off I went to third. I must have looked nervous as the opposing coach said something to me. And, despite knowing I shouldn’t say anything, I noted it was my first time ever playing third, and that I was a wee bit nervous. He told me that it was like any other position and just relax and play the game.
First batter rips one right at me and I had no chance to think. I scooped it and threw it across to get the out. The opposing coach noted it was a good play and well done. At the end of the inning, I ran into the dugout and Coach didn’t say a word to me – he didn’t have to. He just looked and smiled.
I ended up playing third base for both games. I made some plays. I had one or two errors, too. I never played third base again after that game, but the lessons were endless it seemed.
There’s plenty more. From being benched my senior year, to getting other chances along the way, Coach was also working to give everybody the chance to succeed in baseball and in life.
One final one I need to add — the nicknames. Those of you who played for him in baseball, do you remember your nicknames at the sports awards? I’ll never forget mine — “WWF Hulk Harmer” and “Coach, I can pitch if you want me to.” I think we all looked forward to those names every year.
In his later years, I had the chance to play a few rounds of golf with him, or even just seem out when he worked at the local course as a ranger. He was one of the three or four teachers many of us wanted to have a beer with when we hit 21, and I had a couple with Coach over the years.
His passion was also found in his teaching of history. It wasn’t just from books, it was from his research and learning that made you get into his classes. He was unique and ahead of his time. He found ways to reach all kids and make them interested. History wasn’t just about what happened – it was much bigger. He found a way to get you interested in the topic by his passion and the way he’d deliver the material. He challenged you as a student to think outside the box. He’d offer advice and tips. He always was teaching.
But baseball was a love we all knew about.
And goodness did Coach love the Detroit Tigers. Many conversations I had with him over the years, be it seeing him on the street somewhere or at the golf course, centered on our mutual love of baseball. When I was covering the Oneonta Tigers for the local paper, I had a bunch of conversations with Coach about the old Tigers I had the chance to meet and get to know.
He truly loved this community. He gave back and he was definitely a one-of-a-kind personality. May you rest in eternal peace. You will be missed.