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The death of the teammate

This column first appeared in The Pilot News

By Rusty Nixon

Anybody who knows me knows that I’m just a “glass half full” guy, always looking for the bright side in every situation.
I’ll pause here.
Ok, is everybody that knows me off the floor from their fit of laughter? Then let’s continue.
I am here to lament the death of one of the most key elements of sports as I know them – the teammate.
During the pandemic, I have missed local sports as much as anybody. My life and that of most of my family members has revolved around athletics, for better or worse. I started playing baseball when the only bats were $10, wood, and you could pick out your favorite at Yoder’s every two weeks or so when the shipment came in. You had two choices of basketball shoes – Adidas, and Converse. Rawlings was the glove of choice but I liked the new kind – Nokona. I still have the one my grandfather bought me as a 12th birthday present. I never used another glove.
Over the years things have changed. Some for the better, some for the worse. There were some things that just simmered under the surface and were fed steroids at some point given their exponential growth.
I’ve talked with several athlete friends during the pandemic ban on sports to add fresh stories to our sports pages and no matter who I talked to, whether I was their teammate, colleague, coach, no matter what the era they played in, there is one common thread that we universally miss – the all-day neighborhood Wiffle ball game. The “Sandlot”.
The sport didn’t matter. You went home when your parents made you. You fought over who’s yard the game was at that day but it lasted sunrise to sunset. I loved it when we played at my house because the “fences” were short and I might be able to muscle a couple out into the home run tree and hope nobody caught it out of the tree for an out. Clearly, you made your own ground rules. Sometimes my dad would come out with us and be an “all-time” pitcher.
Every athlete I’ve talked to misses the camaraderie – being best friends with your teammates and sharing all the trials and joys of competition and more important the friendships off the field. Playing just because you loved to play.
I can tell you my memory of Pilgrim baseball is that during the season we piled into Tim Trump’s car and went to A&W every Tuesday at lunchtime (“coney dog special” day) to compete over how many coney dogs we could eat. I don’t remember really any specific play in any game we played. But I remember that.
Anybody reading this under the age of 30 has no idea what the heck I was just talking about.
Of course, they are probably not reading it because they’ve never read anything that wasn’t on a screen.
But I digress.
More than just the “neighborhood game” died with that bit of culture. A more important thing died with it. The teammate.
They don’t exist anymore. There is no end of teams but the position of “teammate” is gone in every sport. It’s funny but it wasn’t so long ago that was the only position anybody played. Of course, that was before “specialization” and concentrating on your pro career in one sport in one position from the time you are eight years old.
It’s funny. Nobody “specializes” in being the pick setting forward that cleans up the boards. Nobody specializes in being a defensive specialist. Nobody specializes in being the fullback/H back that throws a block on the backside of a play. Nobody specializes in being a bullpen catcher or a pinch hitter.
I’m pretty sure no strength coach has ever been asked to come up with a workout plan so a child could be a better long snapper.
The funny irony – you can make an extremely nice living in pro sports if you can do any of those things well.
But remember, “…chicks dig the long ball…”
All of that entails moving out of the spotlight to do what’s best for the team. A stupid career move.
We live in an age when parents dictate to high school coaches the number of pitches their son will throw, the number of touches he will have on the basketball court because his travel ball coach taught them that high school sports are a waste of time. They have to stay fresh for travel ball where they can really have a real future, that, of course, the parents can pay the travel coach for.
I’m no detective but it takes a special person to not be able to find a motive there.
You don’t make lifelong bonds in sports anymore. You don’t become a part of something bigger than yourself by being part of a legendary program, which – by the way – are uniquely plentiful in Marshall County. It’s about what the program is going to do for me and my career. I will get mine, let everybody else get theirs. Those on the team are just competitors for the “scouts’” spotlight.
Nobody sacrifices anything to win and be part of a tradition. After all, that might not catch the attention of a scout.
My father, for those who don’t know already, is the Bill Nixon that the baseball field in Plymouth is named after. I’m not trying to impress you. I’m trying to tell you that his lifetime of lessons learned and taught has infected a lot of former players.
He (and any other great coaches I’ve ever talked to over the years) always told anybody who would listen that his success had nothing to do with him. It had to do with great athletes who bought into what he was teaching.
He also marveled at the end of his career about people saying he was out of touch and what he was teaching was out of date.
I paraphrase now.
“What’s out of date about integrity? What’s out of date about teamwork? what’s out of date about thinking of everybody and not just yourself? What’s out of date about respecting others? That’s what I teach.”
“There are some things that never change. Or they shouldn’t.”
We’ve got “project-based learning” now in our schools. Enormous time, effort, and money to teach teamwork.
I’m not finding fault. Everybody learns in a different way. But it seems to me that in my day those things were taught in a gym or on a field. Those were the reasons we played and the reason everybody I’m aware of, got into coaching, to pass those values along.
There are those that would say that “the old ways” diminished the player’s experience. You are entitled to your opinion. The experience is different certainly. But was it really diminished?
We’ve killed the teammate.
Of course, there are many that haven’t understood a word I’ve said. Pity. You missed out on something truly amazing.

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