Sometimes, all you need to know is who’s calling.
When my cell phone rang Wednesday afternoon, I glanced at the caller ID and saw the name “Mark Hanna.” Mr. Hanna was a teacher at my high school, but I knew his call had nothing to do with that.
A few months ago, I’d met Mr. Hanna at an assisted living facility in my hometown and we went in to see his father. Mark Hanna’s dad was Mack Hanna, and while Mark will always be Mr. Hanna to me, his father will always be Coach Hanna. It was the first time I’d seen Mr. Hanna in too long. It would be the last time I got to see Coach Hanna.
Coach Hanna passed away sometime Wednesday morning. Alzheimer’s, the
same thing that took my own father from me long before he actually drew his last breath, had done the same to Mr. Hanna. The day we went to see the man who taught me the real meaning of the
word “coach,” he didn’t know who I was. That hurt, sure, but it also
didn’t matter. I knew who he was, and what he had done for me and
hundreds of young men just like me.
Coach Hanna grew up in Gastonia, N.C., just like me. He just did it in a very different time. He became a young man as the world was trying to end itself, making him a part of what’s come to be known as the “greatest generation.” He served his country and then he came home to serve his community.
He worked for the City of Gastonia for nearly four decades, eventually serving as superintendent for the city’s electrical division. I worked for that department, thanks to Coach Hanna, for two summers while I was in high school, and I can tell you first hand that the people who do that for a living earn every dime they get paid.
For nearly 30 years, on every weekday afternoon (and a lot of Saturday mornings, too) of every summer, Mack Hanna hung up his hard hat and put on a baseball cap. For a lot of those years, that hat was Kelly green with a white “T” on the front. That stood for Temple, as in Temple Baptist Church.
For most of my adolescence, I lived in a house my parents rented for
themselves, my sister and I from the church. We lived in the upstairs and a lady named Arizona Stirewalt lived on the bottom floor. The ball field that Temple had was, literally, my back yard.
I loved baseball. I listened to Atlanta Braves games with Milo Hamilton at night and tried to pull in games from faraway places like Cleveland and Cincinnati when the Braves had a night off. I took the Sporting News for the box scores and read the paper, keeping up with the standings of the major leagues. My uncle Tam – his real name was Talmadge – took me along when he took his sons Ricky, Glenn, Greg and Joey to see the Gastonia Pirates play at Sims Legion Park. We saw Bob Robertson and Bob Moose and Fred Patek and Al Oliver and Frank Taveras and dozens of other
players who made it to the show, and guys like Zelman Jack and Frank
Brosseau who never quite did.
My dad had two things working against him when it came to baseball.
First, he grew up on a farm and worked all his life as a boy. He never got to play baseball that much. Second, he worked two jobs trying to keep a roof over my head. So he never got to watch much baseball, either.
When it came time for me to play the game in youth baseball, I had
plenty of desire and very little ability. Coach Hanna worked with me and got all there was to get out of me as a player, but it still wasn’t a whole lot. Ultimately, that didn’t matter. Good grief, did we have fun.
Powers Roland and Jerry Reese and Dewey Moses and dozens of guys just like them were more than just my friends. They were my teammates, and Coach Hanna made us understand that meant something.
We thought he was teaching us baseball. Thumbs up was the steal sign. I never got that one. A closed fist was the take sign. I did get that one, but not as much as I would have if winning was all that mattered.
He kept on me about stepping out toward third base as I swung – putting my foot in the bucket, he called it. We learned to get in front of the ball, to hit the cutoff man and to always, in every circumstance, “run it in.”
What we didn’t know, at least not at the time, that baseball was only a small portion of what we were learning. Coach Hanna taught us to hustle – not in the gambling sense, of course, but in the sense of doing things with efficiency. He taught us to back each other up. He taught us to “chatter,” so we could encourage our
teammates to do their best and keep our own minds in the game. He taught us to respect the rules of the game and its code, too, the unwritten rules that mark the difference between the right and wrong ways to play the game.
We learned how to act like winners, whether we won or lost, and to
compete as hard as we could as long as we could. Coach Hanna and Coach Bennie Cunningham would have rather won a game against the other than breathe, I believe, but they both also knew that it takes a gentleman to be a good sport, and vice versa.
It took me a long time, probably too long for Coach Hanna’s liking, to understand how those lessons transferred from the diamonds of our youth to the world outside those white lines.
Coach Hanna helped me get my first summer job, keeping score for the
same leagues I’d once played in, and many nights he hung through another game after his team’s game until I was through with another one so he could drive me home. He gave me my second job, cutting the grass around the city’s electrical substations.
When I got out of college and got into the sports department of the
newspaper business, I found myself dealing with a lot of coaches. I
respected them all, I think, because I respected Coach Hanna. Anybody who had earned the title of “Coach” had, in my book, earned a measure of nobility.
My father and Coach Hanna both spent their final days in a world I
couldn’t penetrate to reach them, to tell them one more time how much they both meant to me. When my father died, I felt like in some ways that brought him back to me. I believe he knows now how much I miss him.
Now Coach Hanna does, too.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Sometimes, all you need to know is who’s calling.