Don't Widen the Plate
I never met John Scolinos. But I wish I had.
He was a US college baseball coach, and a successful one. From 1946 to 1991, his teams, first at Pepperdine and then at Cal Poly Pomona, won over 1000 games. Captured three NCAA Division II championships. He was named Division II Coach of the Year three times, gained entry to the College Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, and, as a member of the USA Baseball staff, won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympic Games.
Accolades aside, it is his work as a clinician and speaker that resonates.
It is January 1996. Five years retired, Scolinos presents at a baseball convention in Nashville, Tennessee. Some 4,000 coaches attend, many with the primary intent of listening to the great man.
He shuffles to the stage to warm applause. He is neatly dressed, other than the fact a full sized, stark white home plate dangles by a cord from his neck.
He speaks for fifteen minutes, seemingly oblivious to the rather oversized prop. A number of attendees at the event fidget restlessly, others even start snickering. Perhaps the great man, now aged 78, is having a senior moment, and has forgotten about the home plate accessory.
Yet, Scolinos, undeterred, continues with his tale. I may be old, he tells the assembled throng. But I am not crazy. Instead, I wish to share with you important lessons I have learned in my life. What I have learned about home plate.
Going around the large room, he first asks the coaches how wide home plate in Little League is. Eventually, someone responds. Seventeen inches.
Scolinos nods. Then he barks, how wide in high school? The coaches concede it is also seventeen inches. The theme continues, from high school to college baseball, from college to the minor leagues, from the minor leagues to the majors. At each level of play, home plate is seventeen inches wide.
“Seventeen inches!!” he booms out to the rafters. Then, pausing for effect, he turns back to his audience. And what do we do with a pitcher who won't throw strikes, can’t consistently throw the ball over a seventeen-inch-wide plate?
Answering his own question, and drawing hearty laughter in the process, he says, very bluntly, we replace him with someone else. What we don’t do is give him a bigger target. Don’t make the plate eighteen or nineteen inches wide. Or twenty inches, so he has a better chance. Or, if he can’t hit that, expand to maybe twenty-five inches.
Then come more questions from Scolinos, as his message begins to sink in. What happens when players fail to reach fitness requirements, ignore team protocols, break team rules by showing up late or improperly dressed? What if players are caught drinking or using drugs? Are they held responsible? Are there consequences? Or do the rules constantly change, in a desperate pursuit of wins or to avoid difficult decisions?
The room is still. Chuckles fade into uncomfortable silence.
Pulling a sharpie from a pocket, Scolinos rotates the home plate hanging around his neck. He begins to draw. With the point of the plate now facing upwards, a door and two windows complete a house. Then he returns to his theme, noting issues that exist in many homes, the problems with relationships, parenting, discipline. He bemoans the fact that accountability is too often lacking, that there are no repercussions for failing to meet important standards. Instead, he concludes, we just widen the plate.
Another pause. To the top of the house, Scolinos then adds a small national flag. This represents education he suggests. The overall quality is slipping, teachers are stripped of the tools for success, cannot instruct or correct behaviour as they need to. Outside groups are allowed to widen the plate, with negative results.
From the coaches, not a word. Just an eerie hush.
The flag is then replaced by a cross. This symbol stands for the Church, an institution whose leaders and authority figures have too often taken advantage of children, with resulting atrocities swept under the rug. Moving on from religion, Scolinos targets government, the elected officials who set rules and policy that do not apply to themselves or their cronies. Add in bribes from lobbyists and foreign countries and it is clear many politicians widen the plate for personal or party benefit.
The address then reaches a powerful conclusion. Scolinos flips over the home plate that rests upon his chest. Revealing the jet-black side.
Remember this, he says. Remember this one thing. We must hold ourselves to higher standards, each of us, as well as our loved ones, our friends, our schools, our businesses, our churches and our governments. Failure to do so will guarantee dark days ahead.
The old coach's words of wisdom are equally appropriate in 2020. Perhaps even more so. Absolutely there are positives to celebrate, countless examples worldwide of integrity, heroism, love and care. Yet, this year and beyond project to be wildly uncertain and shifting times.
We must deal with the twin perils of climate change and a global pandemic. Must properly confront racism, extremism, famine, political polarization and chicanery. Must account for gross health, social and economic inequalities. We will need to overcome many obstacles, be fully accountable, take decisive ownership of those areas in our lives we can control, set clear boundaries and not compromise standards. And do it together. We cannot stand idly by while the world falls into the abyss.
John Scolinos is no longer with us. But he leaves us much to ponder.
After all, seventeen inches is seventeen inches. Don't widen the plate!