Earlier this month, Bob Sardilli passed away. He coached Little League baseball in Forestville in the '70s.
Without knowing it at the time, he had a profound effect on my life toward the end of that decade. It was after my Little League career had ended and I was the scorekeeper for the opposing team.
I captured the story many years later as an assignment for a college writing course. While the years in between may have very well blurred some of the specifics, the lessons learned are crystal clear.
So in honor of Coach Sardilli, here is The Last At Bat, as written 25 years ago:
I can still remember the first time I saw him step to the plate. He walked as though a thousand seasons had taken their toll on his fragile body.
His swing was weak, more like a swat, and when the bat and ball met, the sound was barely audible. He tried to beat out the ground ball but could not. As he walked back to the dugout, there were tears in many of the fan’s eyes.
As I wondered what the standing ovation was about, I overheard a woman mention that this would be his last at bat.
I could see a smile come to the player’s narrow face from my spot in the opposing dugout. I put down my score pad and began to clap.
This is about a baseball player and a coach. They never made it to the Hall of Fame or earned a million dollars a year. They didn’t make it to the big leagues.
That was the last time Craig came to bat in Little League or any other league. You see, Craig was dying of cancer. Dirty, rotten, filthy cancer. And his eleven-year-old body was being taken from him — slowly and painfully.
His coach didn’t care about winning that game. It was the furthest thing from his mind. He only wanted to let a kid be a kid for the last time. I knew I had just witnessed something beyond special.
It was later that summer that I saw Craig again. I had broken my arm and was at the hospital recovering from surgery. I noticed a very thin boy, almost bald, walking very slowly with his father. Later, I saw him again playing checkers and laughing with his doctor.
A few months later he would be dead. I remember seeing it in the paper because I recall noting his birthday, December 31, the same as mine.
That was about eight or nine years ago. And although I never spoke to him face-to-face, I feel as though I knew him.
I will always remember that last at bat. I’ll remember the boy who fought cancer with a smile as big as the outfield.
And I’ll remember the coach who knew that fulfilling a boy’s need to be a ball player for just one more day was more important than winning a baseball game.
Often our everyday lives get in the way of reaching out to someone and thanking them for the wonderful, lasting impression that they left on us. And we wait until it’s too late.
Well as luck, or fate, would have it, I saw Mr. Sardilli again about 12 years ago. There was a gathering at the Forestville Little League Complex to celebrate the ’76 All-Stars, a team that one of his sons played on and that he had helped coach to a sixth-place finish in the LL World Series.
I’d arrived late and he was about to leave when I went up and introduced myself. He remembered me as he did my dad, whom he’d coached against.
I told him how long I had wanted to tell him the story of that last at bat and how it had helped to shape my thoughts regarding life and youth sports.
I could tell how much he appreciated it as we hugged and both had tears in our eyes. We shook hands and both left. I didn’t need to see anyone else.
I hope if there are baseball teams in Heaven, Mr. Sardilli will get to coach Craig again. This time maybe Craig rips a home run to deep left, circles third, and leaps into the arms of his old coach waiting for him at home plate.
I also hope that somehow they both know the impact that they had on one man’s life. I hope I can do enough to make them both proud.