Jonah not only struggled in baseball, but he had been struggling in school. Did this kid have any shot of winning the game, did it even matter?
“If you touch the phenomenal realm deeply, you touch the ultimate realm. The ultimate is Nirvana, it is God, and it is available to us 24 hours a day.” -Thich Naht Hahn
When Irwin Ozborne and I met in early recovery, we discovered we both loved baseball and began coaching as a sober activity that allowed us to try to give back to the community.
We have coached baseball together for many years. One year of the many, sticks out. It is the year we met Jonah.
The team was from a small and well off community. We usually coached the poor communities to try and give back. The cities that had no money, and no resources. This year we were recruited by an old friend to coach this wealthy community, the challenge was that they were small and moving up to play all the big schools. No community this small had ever done this successfully, so the challenge was intriguing.
We reluctantly accepted this challenge, thinking that these rich community kids have everything.
We thought, “this won’t be fun, these guys have it all figured out.”
Boy were we wrong. We found out they were much sicker, they only masked it better. As it turns out, money can buy you a nice fancy mask that is hard to uncover.
We walked into the first practice, the kids were still just kids. No different. They did not see money. This is always true of kids, they have not been domesticated yet.
We were told of one particular kid on the team, Jonah, who was the best player by everyone’s account.
We get to the first practice and do the normal speech regarding who we are and what the season will be like.
When we were talking, Jonah seemed to space out. Was he not paying attention? Did he think he knew everything? He is the star player we were told, so we wondered what this was about.
Then we start practicing and he is awful. He is dropping balls. We were thinking, is this the same kid everyone told us was so amazing?
Yes it was.
So we start playing games, and we have him in the lineup because everyone else knows him better, and assures us he will be amazing. He drops balls, strikes out, makes mistakes constantly, and costs us a few games.
One game in particular, he is in tears running off the field in embarrassment, no one is able to console him and he runs off into the old rink at the field and will not move from it for about 6 hours after the game.
At this point we needed to find out what is happening as this appears to be more than just a baseball issue. We talk to him, and he tells us that his parents are divorcing, he is scared and confused. He has to take sides. It is a chaotic environment in his house.
It would be best described as putting a rat in a maze and starting the maze on fire. How would you expect that rat to behave?
We decide to talk to his parents about what is going on as this kid is struggling. They confirm what he has said, they are divorcing and it has been a bit chaotic. His parents are both emotional people, and you can tell this has become an issue as they fight in front of us and try to get us coaches to take sides.
Jonah’s Dad was a great baseball player in his day and knows a lot about it. You can hear him screaming at us during the games about coaching decisions. His Dad is also screaming at the umpires. You can hear his Grandpa screaming at us as well. They watch our practices and attack us verbally, even as we practice.
They love their baseball. They are great people, as we have gotten to know them well over the years now, and still talk to them today. They were good people in a rough situation that year.
His mother was kicked out of a few of our games for screaming as well. She went out of her way to attack Jonah’s Dad in front of us and the other parents. If they did it in public, you can imagine what would happen at home.
During the meeting with the family, they told us important information. Jonah not only was struggling in baseball, but he had been struggling in school this year. So they had taken him to the doctor before baseball season and he was diagnosed with ADHD and placed on Ritalin.
As the season continues, Jonah struggles and is spaced out. It is heartbreaking to watch. He is losing friends, and he is losing his purpose.
He is the rat in the maze with fire.
We of course being the way we are, show up 3 hours ahead of game time and prepare for games. After a while, we noticed something, Jonah would notice how early we were, and he would start showing up early every single game. He was there an hour before practices and 3 hours before games.
He loved the game so much, but also, his parents didn’t want to deal with him and he did not want to be in the maze on fire as well. The medication wasn’t enough to slow him down, so they had dropped him off as early as they could.
I remember one pre-game Jonah crying to us, he said, “coach, this team is my family now, and it is the most important thing in the world to me.”
He didn’t care that we had benched him. At this point we could not have him play much, as the team was getting close to qualifying for the state tournament, something that no team from this city had ever done. Jonah still showed up, played when he could, and cheered on his teammates. He became the teams emotional leader, He cracked jokes, he was happy when he was at the field. He was energetic and it was contagious.
Eventually, things started to cool down at home and he was with his Dad for the end of the summer. As things stabilized at home. Jonah started to perform better. We started to have him play more as his confidence gained. He never became the player we had heard of, but he was not dropping the balls and his focus was better.
We had made it to the big tournament to qualify for state. Everyone was there from the city. They were trying to be the first group from this town to ever make it. It was loud and a lot of great teams were there trying to qualify. It was unusually cold and rainy. The energy was amazing.
We had to win the last game to make it. We had run out of arms to pitch. The kids were tired, the parents were tense. We could have all the pitchers pitch about 2 innings each and try to win that way.
We had a meeting with the assistant coaches. We said “how about we let Jonah pitch?”
The response was “so we are trying to lose now?” ‘
Or “It will ruin all the kids’ lives. You are going to embarrass him more than he already has embarrassed himself and his family.” or…
“He is a trouble maker and he will embarrass the city. He was only good when it was not against these good teams, look at how he behaves. You cannot be rewarding his behavior.”
It was a resounding NO from everyone.
We decided we were going to do it anyways. We pulled Jonah aside, who had not pitched all year long and it never was even a thought.
We said, “Jonah, how do you feel about pitching the final game?”
His eyes got wide open, his smile was the biggest I have ever seen still to this day. His eyebrows popped up. It was the most happy I think I have ever seen a human being.
“Really coach? I will shut them down. This is awesome.” He gave us both huge hugs.
We did not care at this point what happened and if we got run out of there by a mob of angry parents. It did not matter to us anymore. We were set on this now. We went to tell everyone the news.
It was worse than you can imagine. The parents were up in arms, they were yelling, and cursing. They were verbally aggressive and right in front of Jonah. It was sad, pathetic, and the moment we decided not to ever coach these guys again. The parents were too sick. They were like a mob ready to kill us. They were talking about how bad this kid is right in front of him and their kids. So THEY could WIN a baseball game.
The kids look bewildered and were all watching their parents. This is who is going to guide them the rest of their lives. Parents who were so obsessed with winning at all costs that they had turned into animals.
However, in the background you could see the look on Jonah’s Dad’s face and it was the same as his son. He was proud. They had a rough summer, his Dad had become the outcast of the parents group. He sat by himself now as they called his Dad “crazy,” and “Schizophrenic.” He was isolated.
His Dad still yelled at us from afar, but he was usually right. We enjoyed it because we knew where his heart was at. We learned to appreciate the yelling, he had great baseball knowledge. So we knew if he wasn’t yelling, we really were doing well.
The big game begins as the parents and community had turned on us in a second because we had ruined their dream in their eyes.
But something else happened, the other kids loved how much Jonah had cheered them on during the season. He was their once best player and was struggling. He still showed up every day. He still cracked jokes. He still hugged them when they made a bad play. They saw true leadership in him, and so did I.
The other kids couldn’t quite comprehend what was going on in Jonah’s life, but they saw the yelling, and they saw the chaos. They also saw Jonah crying and scared. They all were as excited as he was to watch him pitch finally, as he had been begging us all year. They were more pumped up than anything to play. They were all screaming and jumping up and down.
Some of the parents came to the bench and said, “be quiet, you are embarrassing the community.”
But they could not come in the bench.
So Irwin said to the kids on our team, “You get told to be quiet everywhere you go, school, home, church, and you just want to yell. So go ahead, yell, and play like animals. No one is going to tell you to stop today.” He had given them the okay to be kids.
The team we were playing was one of the better teams in the state. We knew we were going to lose. But we also knew we were not coaching this community again after this, and we saw what this whole thing was really about, so we didn’t care either. It was a bench full of kids and us, with our masks all off at once.
If there truly is a heaven, or nirvana, that’s what it is like, no masks, no negative feelings, no man made problems, pure unstoppable love and energy at its full force.
We all have moments that we see this piece of nirvana, or heaven on earth, this was one of those moments.
Jonah took the mound. The first batter crushed the ball as we all expected, no one cared except the parents. The ball was flying long in the air, our center fielder ran and ran, and there was no way he was going to get to it. But he sure was trying. The energy and love had infected him. We looked at each other and laughed, “This will be fun. I hope we don’t lose by 20.” But it was the happiest the kids had been all season.
He dove all out and as he stood up he had the ball in his glove! We didn’t see it, but we heard the screaming and turned around. We could not believe it! Both our mouths opened at once. The whole team went crazy!
Jonah pumped his fist against his glove, smiled, and pointed at us.
The next hitter hit a line drive towards the 3rd basemen who dove, and grabbed the ball. Then an amazing thing happened. Jonah, with his new confidence, struck out the next hitter. The team was so happy for Jonah. After that first inning they all were running and jumping towards us. They got to the bench and all were hugging him and screaming. We looked at each other and didn’t say a word. We knew we were going to win. We didn’t have to speak it.
When you experience heaven, or nirvana with someone else, you do not have to speak, you just feel it. We both knew what we were experiencing, a thing like this bonds you for life with someone.
The kids on our team were all diving all over the place like they never had before. The other team was crushing the ball off of him all day. But it did not matter. If we played this team 100 times, they would have beaten us. But not today. Not on this Sunday. This was Jonah’s day.
The parents rolled their eyes, and acted disgusted. They were hoping we lost. Saying “He can’t keep this up.”
But it wasn’t just him, it was all of us. We all were in on this. That is where they were wrong.
It was the best team effort of the year. They all knew how important this was to Jonah and they showed it. He did not pitch well. But well enough. The team made play after play. Then as the game went on. Jonah gained confidence and started becoming the old Jonah, the one not in the maze, the one with his mask off. By the end, he was the player we had been told about.
I think he had been forced to wear a mask earlier than the other kids. So they saw it, then they saw it come off on this Sunday.
But this other team was great and it was a big city that had always gone to state. This was a major upset for us to even be there. They had their best pitcher on the mound. It was 0-0 after the top of the last inning.
We went in to the bottom of the last inning tied 0-0. There was 2 outs. Jonah stepped up to the plate.
He had maybe 2 hits all year. The first 2 pitches came from a kid who is now in the minor leagues, the ball zipped right by Jonah, 0 balls 2 strikes. No one could come close to hitting it off of this kid all game. He was the best pitcher we had ever seen.
On the next pitch, another fastball, and Jonah hits the ball. It is high in the air, and it is far. It keeps going, the kids all get up off the bench. They all start looking, and screaming. The parents are looking. Jonah’s Dad is over the fence where he always sits trying to make the ball come over with his hand gestures. It fly’s and fly’s, and then it goes over the fence!!
The kids are jumping up and down screaming. The parents are doing the same. Everyone is in complete shock that was not inside the bench of nirvana.
We are going to the state tournament!
Jonah has led us there. On this day, out of the maze on fire, Jonah has done something no one thought he could.
I watch him round first base and slap Irwin’s hand, I look at his face, at the crowd, at the rain, at the clouds, at his Dad, at his Grandpa, and I am in tears coaching 3rd base waiting for Jonah to get to me. I am crying as I write this, remembering the look on his face as he came to me.
He comes to me and slaps my hand, he holds it tight, and I am in tears, I say “I love you Jonah, you did it, and we did it!!”
The atmosphere was amazing. Everyone was running, screaming and hugging in the cold, windy rain. We all forgot it was raining outside. That’s what Nirvana does, everything else goes away.
The energy finally died down.
We went up to his dad. We talked for an hour.
Then as we are ending the conversation, he said “thank you for giving him the chance, it has been a rough year. He needed someone to believe in him.”
We said, “those meds really started to kick in after a while I guess. Those ADHD meds you had him on.”
His Dad, you know, the “crazy” one, said, “What? I had him for the end of the summer, I took him off that stuff about a month ago. I don’t care what anyone says, he is not sick, he is just a boy going through a rough time.”
A few years ago Jonah was named an all state athlete in 2 sports, in our state. He is going to college on a full scholarship.
He never took ADHD meds again.
Our kids take their emotional cues from us, maybe it should be the other way around.
Thank you for Nirvana Jonah.
Originally appeared on TakingTheMaskOff. Reprinted with permission.
Photo credit: Getty Images