I learned yesterday that one of my old baseball coaches, Buddy Burkhead, passed away. For a generation of ballplayers in D.C., Burkhead was and is a legend. A few years ago, I wrote a piece about Burkhead for the local NPR station and I’m reprinting it below in his honor. The lessons he ingrained in me have shaped how I parent my kids, and the lessons apply to girls just as much as boys (though Burkhead was famous for his colorful, even misogynistic, language).
It’s been 25 years, and I can still hear the growling voice of Coach Burkhead yelling at my teammates and me, “On the field!”
It was supposed to be a normal baseball practice with my Police Boys Club #8 team in Northwest D.C. During our previous game, Coach Burkhead had spotted one of my teammates walking off the field in between innings. Now, we all were paying for it.
For the rest of the practice, Coach Burkhead had us sprint from the bench to our positions on the field, and then back again. Dozens, and dozens, and dozens of times.
“Welcome to the real world, gentlemen,” he said at the end of practice. “You will hustle to your position every time.”
Today, such behavior from a coach might draw howls of protest from outraged parents. Back in the mid-1980s it was what you came to expect from Coach Burkhead. He was an institution within Police Boys Club #8. A gruff, thickly-built cop, he intimidated younger kids who had yet to have him as a coach — and inspired devotion among older players, who had survived a year or two on his team. He was defiantly “old school,” even then.
On my team, Coach Burkhead worked with a motley collection of hard-headed 14-year-olds from a cross-section of the city: private school kids and public school kids, white and black, spoiled and neglected. He held all of us to the same high expectations.
Unlike college admissions officers, he did not bend his rules for children of the wealthy. Unlike some of my public school teachers, he did not excuse kids from disadvantaged families when they behaved poorly. No matter our background, he treated us harshly, and fairly. You had to earn everything you got.
Coach Burkhead taught us the fundamentals of baseball, from how to hit the cutoff man to why we should always take the first pitch. He also taught us the fundamentals of manhood. Though his discipline could be exhausting, he was never arbitrary. He carefully crafted his message in a language that teenage boys would understand.
That day we sprinted on and off the field was a lesson that the little things matter, that how we act reflects not just on ourselves but also on our team, and that hustling to our positions says something about our character.
Coach Burkhead could accept errors and strikeouts. What he would not tolerate was laziness. He would not suffer carelessness. He would not excuse a lack of effort. And now, 25 years later, whatever field I happen to be on, I always hustle to my position.