As the years begin to add up, I often wonder about what my legacy will be. How will those I leave behind remember me? Will people think of me fondly or otherwise? I know what I would like for people to say, but time will tell. I lost a mentor recently. Someone who left a legacy of extreme greatness…at least as far as I’m concerned. My little league coach, Pete Vargulich, Sr., passed away this month. Mr. Vargulich was more than a baseball coach to me. His legacy, at least as I see it, was a man who provided me with a lifetime worth of lessons in a span of about six weeks back in 1972. Those lessons have served me well for nearly 50 years.
There are certain people in the world who shall never be referred to by their first name. Mr. Vargulich was always referred to as “Mr.” when I was a boy. In adulthood, I still referred to him as “Mr.” but later we became slightly more casual and he became “Coach”. Never would I even consider calling him by his first name…ever.
As an adult, I would often be asked on job interviews what I consider my strengths to be. Over time, I narrowed the list of competencies to three; vision, leadership and coaching. Without getting into many specifics, those were the things that I felt (and still feel) that I bring to the workplace table. As my mind drifts back to the early ‘70s, it becomes clear where those strengths are founded. Those are the traits that made Coach Vargulich someone I looked up to with great admiration.
Coach Vargulich was a man of great vision. In 1968, while watching a group of eight-year-olds try out for a “pee wee” baseball league, Coach mentioned to some standers by that the group of boys on the field were stacked with talent and that he felt were capable of earning a trip to the Little League World Series in a span of five years. Call him a dreamer, and to make a very long story short, he was right. In 1972, a group of local boys who were hand-picked by Coach Vargulich from various teams in the local Hammond (IN) Edison Little League accomplished something pretty rare. Coach pulled the group together in mid-summer and by late August, our team was on national television. Nearly everyone involved was completely surprised…except for Coach. Although the team had considerable talent, so did many of the teams we played during that summer. The primary reason that our team advanced to the Series and others did not was due to Coach’s vision…end of story.
Coach personified the word “leadership”. He had some very simple sayings that, voiced in his deep and gravelly voice, not only rang true back in 1972, but today as well. Most everything important was said with a preamble of a gruff “hey”. Once the word “hey” was uttered, you knew something was coming. “Don’t play umpire” was what I heard when it looked like we might complain about a close call a first base or a borderline called third strike. “Don’t play umpire…play ball”, not screamed or shouted but simply stated matter-of-factly was all that was needed to quell the situation. “Never underestimate your opponent” were simple words, but impressed upon us that no matter what someone appears to be, they should be taken seriously. “Keep your mind in gear” were the words ever-so-sternly delivered when Coach felt that our concentration was lapsing. Nice little sayings for youngsters to hear and learn, but even more important as we grew into men with responsibilities, both at home and at work.
As a coach, Mr. Vargulich had the uncanny knack of making every member of the team feel like they were indispensable. Certainly, the level of talent on the team varied from player to player. In my case, I was a role player with a good glove and decent speed. My bad eyes were the reason I never made it to the major leagues (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). Regardless, my role was very clearly outlined as a defensive specialist at first base and as a pinch runner to provide some base path speed when the situation called for it. How indispensable I was as a player is up for debate, but in my mind and as impressed by Coach, the team would fail miserably if I did not fulfill my role. Every player on the team was made to feel the same way. In my business career that followed, which was that of a sales manager with a large pharmaceutical company, I tried to impart the same philosophy to those I worked with.
Coach left our team with some incredible life lessons in a span of six weeks in 1972. The things he would say to us are obviously rattling in my mind and have been for years. On the other hand, it isn’t so much the things that Coach would say, but the things he wouldn’t. Unlike many youth league coaches of today, where mid-inning instructions are screamed at nervous players from hundreds of feet away, I honestly can’t remember ever hearing Coach’s voice emanating from the dugout while we were on the field. Coach prepared us during practice sessions, would give us our pregame instructions and delivered a post-game analysis to be sure. But once the game began, he observed, provided some subtle insight to the players in a private and controlled setting in between innings, but at least as I can remember, never tried to orchestrate the game while it was taking place. Once the first pitch was thrown, he allowed us the opportunity to succeed or fail on our own. Such a great gift. Thanks, Coach.