When I was a kid, like a lot of sports-inclined kids, I played little league baseball. I was not very good; I could field well enough to avoid embarrassment, but I could not hit to save my life. I played for the Phillies of the Chapel Hill Parks & Recreation league, and my dad was the coach. There were other kids on the team who were really good ball players, even at that young age, and at least one went on to play ball past high school (shoutout to Eric, a wily southpaw pitcher who’s an accomplished poet now). I have tons of great memories practicing and playing on the public fields all around Chapel Hill, throwing and fielding and taking (mostly-useless) batting practice until the sun went down. Those fields are burnt into my memory; the clumpy infield dirt, the ankle-slapping weeds in the outfield, the singing of a chain link fence when a baseball rolled up against it. Those fields were great, and the foundation of a lot of fantastic childhood memories. There is one field, though, that always stuck out in my mind.
Each season, the teams of the Chapel Hill Parks & Recreation little league would be invited to a clinic with the Tar Heels and coach Mike Fox. The Carolina players would take gaggles of children and disperse throughout Boshamer Stadium, cruising across the perfectly-manicured grass and beautifully raked infield dirt and looking like so many mother geese leading strings of second-base goslings to do infield drills. Boshamer was different for a lot of reasons, and I could write a whole separate post that’s just a love letter to that stadium, but to actually be on the field carrying out baseball-related activities instead of sitting in the stands and watching was pretty heavy for a kid like me. As the players spread out across the park with their designated group of kids and began to teach, the coach did the same to the parents/other volunteers who were typically in charge of those kids. Coach Mike Fox, already a winning Division 1 coach and only a couple of years away from a string of then-unprecedented success, took his own group of local little league coaches around the stadium, answering questions about new drills or sharing ways to run a more productive practice.
One year, after the day was over and my father and I had both been released from our respective lessons, we caught up with Coach Fox as other kids and adults filtered out of the stadium, off to an early dinner or whatever the next activity was going to be. Out in front of the third-base dugout, Coach Fox stood with a father and his little league son, answering questions and talking about baseball long after his obligation to us had been fulfilled, for no other discernible reason than that he loved the game as much as we did. He took us and showed us the dugout and the locker room, the batting cages and the pitching shed—all of which was an incredible behind-the-scenes look for a kid who had grown up (and was still growing up) playing on the hill down the first-base line in the old Boshamer. It was all very impressive, and Coach Fox had no reason to impress either of us; like I said before, it was clear that the game would pass me by after little league, and we were just local folks, not even tied to the University of North Carolina in any way more tangible than singing along to ‘Hark the Sound’ from the nosebleeds in the Dean Dome.
Sometimes it feels like college sports is all about the bottom line. The fact that not all conferences have yet canceled the fall football season sends a pretty clear message that supports that feeling. It’s easy to see big-time college coaches as the unapproachable type, the CEO who only has time for the important folks. Coach Fox, despite being one of the biggest-time college baseball coaches, is not that kind of person, and he was not that kind of coach. His love of the game was evident in the way he coached his teams to win, sure, but perhaps even more so in the way he gave back. Coach Fox spent time he didn’t have to talking baseball with and giving a tour to a couple of townies, simply because he cared. Even at that age, I was cognizant that the coach was likely a very busy man, and was in awe that he was willing to stay around and shoot the breeze with my dad and I. We were all supremely lucky to pull for a team led by Coach Fox, and if the wishes of a former eleven-year-old mediocre second baseman are worth anything, I wish Coach Fox all the best in the future. I know I’ll miss seeing him behind third base.
Thanks for all the memories, Coach—from the field and from the stands.