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Why I went back to sports

IT seems ironic that back in the spring of 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed, I went to my college baseball coach and quit the team. I had watched eruptions of anger and fear - as well as selfless efforts to honor Dr. King's legacy of nonviolence - in various cities such as the one where I went to college, Hartford, Conn. I suddenly felt that there could be little meaning in trying to hit the curveball, little point in going into the hole for a grounder, little value in continuing to play that little boy's game.

It seems ironic, for I now find myself coaching baseball in the spring, soccer in the fall, and working with a tennis-camp program. Today I gain much of my sense of meaning from the world of sports, a world that once seemed so vain and trivial - a ridiculously childish escape from life's often grim realities.

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I was in a daze much of the time that week in April of 1968. My freshman year at college had awakened me to a more dangerous, troubled world than my protected suburban childhood and walled-in boarding school years had imagined. Watching the Vietnam war on Walter Cronkite most nights that year had been shock enough.

My English professor designed his course around civil rights and antiwar literature. My French teacher harped on the superfluity and the stupidity of war in Giraudoux's ''La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu.'' My religion professor wore his Eugene McCarthy button on his lapel - and his political sentiments on his sleeve: His prince of peace was an activist, passionate about injustice, imploring His followers to heal the suffering in the world around them.

Classes and events rushed together, gathering force. But I did not expect anything would be able to shake my belief that there would be a time and place for baseball that spring - or any spring of any year.

Dr. King was assassinated on April 4. I went to practice the next day with a heavy heart, and the next, but the campus rallies and speeches that week urged us to see that we were running out of time, that our cities were on fire because of white hostility and indifference. So we were told. What was I doing, I had to wonder, by lacing up my cleats and grabbing my Mickey Mantle Rawlings glove and my Al Kaline Size 34 Louisville Slugger, and jogging on out - to play ball?

By the end of the week I had volunteered to work in the north end of Hartford several times a week. I promised to help for the rest of the spring. I had to go in to tell my baseball coach.

He couldn't understand my reasons. I can hardly blame him, for I could hardly find the words myself. My guilt, and my new convictions, were in my gut - not my head. I was sure, though, that exchanging the baseball diamond for the black inner city was a sign of a new maturity in me, a responsible step indicating a stronger social conscience - a demonstration that I had graduated from the innocent world of my youth - and of sports. None of this diminished the hurt I felt, however, when my coach threw me with these parting words, this final rebuke: ''So you're quitting baseball and you say you're not going to do soccer next fall; what do you think we accepted you for, anyway?''

The next three summers I helped run a camp for inner city kids. Sports there had meaning. All that I knew about games and baseball and swimming could be shared; I was able to give back some of the instruction, and much of the joy, that the world of sports had given to me. It felt very good. If we weren't changing the world, at least we were given an opportunity to contribute to the lives of those boys and girls.

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But now, far removed from the tensions of that time, the coaching I do has no pretensions of serving justice or saving the world. And I wonder what it is about the world of sports, which back then seemed so innocent and escapist and purposeless, that it should now be such an essential part of what gives my life its meaning.

What I keep coming back to, as I try to justify my work, as I reflect on the rather severe and self-righteous social conscience of the young man I was back in 1968 - what I rediscover is the simple fact that in sports I find myself most relaxed and most capable of caring about young people. There I am asked to understand them, to encourage them, to believe in them; it all seems most natural and satisfying.

The world clearly needs people doing more significant work than what I do if it is to become a safer and kinder planet - whose fate is not as frightening as it appears to be today. But any job where you are given the opportunity to care about young people seems to justify itself.

Those of us who coach take pride in the fact that our work involves dealing with some of life's fundamentals: using talents, striving for excellence, enjoying sports (or life), while also knowing that great rewards require dedication, discipline, and hard work. If involvement with sports does not change the world, it certainly allows a teacher/coach who wants to work with young people a golden opportunity to give and to listen and, in some small way, to benefit their lives.

Furthermore, we believe that sports allows our players a tremendous opportunity to discover much about themselves - about their character, their will, their spirit, and their commitment. Practices and games constantly renew their discovery of who they are: their values; their sense of sportsmanship; their capacity to learn and improve; their ability to concentrate when the pressure is on; their willingness to work with others; their pride - and humility.

In this context, with this perspective on sports, so different from the one that weighed upon me so heavily back in the spring of 1968, it is natural that I should feel deeply fortunate to be out on the diamond once again this spring - pitching batting practice, hitting fungoes, coaching ball. Dr. King might have wanted to see me do more, but I hope - and I believe - that even he would not be disappointed. Each of us ministers in his own way. Signaling for the suicide squeeze and patting the bunter on the back for his success, it seems, is one of mine.

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