Colin was already thinking about the lineup for the Little League Regional Title Game as he drove to the ball field. In his three years as Willie Webb’s assistant coach, this was the first year that their team, the Lions, had won the divisional title. His mentor had never excelled at baseball himself, but found he loved coaching, and had made a career of coaching the Lions. Willie was full of energy as he spurred his charges on, summer after summer. After 12 years of coaching the Lions, Willie was known throughout Northern California for being a great coach and a good role model for the kids. He not only taught them baseball, but he introduced the youngsters to concepts that many of them had never heard before. “Hard work and diligence will be rewarded,” he would say; or, “If you’re going to get that angry, there’s no sense in you being here trying to play baseball.” He spent his time constantly honing the skills of his players, encouraging them, and teaching them that they can be successful in life too. Willie’s one bad habit – and it was not really a bad habit – was that he would smoke a Tiparillo after each win, and in the past year Willie had smoked one after every game. He was sure he would be smoking another Tiparillo the following weekend after winning the regional playoff game. Colin tried to emulate Willie’s coaching style, and hoped that someday he would be as good as Willie, both as a coach and as a man.
Colin retrieved the worn canvas bag from the trunk of his car, and watched Willie guide the team through practice. Willie effortlessly batted hard grounders at the boys playing infield, and then popped fly balls to all the outfielders, all the while shouting encouragement. “That’s it! Good hustle!”
Colin dropped the equipment at the dugout and approached Willie. “You want me to take the outfielders and run some drills?”
Willie’s face was sweaty and pale. “Right now, Colin, I’d like for you to take over team practice. There’s something I need to do now that you’re here.”
“Yeah, sure, coach. Anything you need done, you know I’ll take care of it. Do you want me to continue infield practice, or start batting practice or base running?”
“We just started this drill, so just hit some balls to the kids for a while, and then go into batting practice; you know the drill. I won’t be gone long anyway.”
Colin worked out the young team on infield practice, and made it a point to hit balls to each of the outfielders as well. After Willie had been gone for nearly an hour, Colin started the team on batting practice. Ronnie, the team’s ace pitcher (and also Willie’s son), went to the pitcher’s mound, and the rest of the team took their positions. This gave all of the players some batting practice, and just as importantly, gave Ronnie the opportunity to work out his throwing arm, since he would need to be in top form for the playoff game.
Willie finally returned to the ball field and parked outside the chain-link fence, but when he got out of the car and walked onto the field, his stumbling gait and ashen face suggested there was something seriously wrong with him.
“You okay, Willie?” Colin asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Willie took his usual position for infield practice, and stood between home and first base. He was showing the catcher how to pick off a base runner when he suddenly stumbled, then fell face first into the red dirt. Colin hustled over to Willie and lifted him to a sitting position. Willie looked up at Colin and squeezed his hand solidly.
As Colin held him, he could see Willie’s eyes rolling in an unnatural way, and then felt his grip weaken. “Willie! Look at me!” He pleaded. Colin tried to revive Willie, but he was too far gone, and died in Colin’s arms in the red sod between home and first base.
The little leaguers were devastated and didn’t know what to do, and neither did Colin for that matter, but eventually the ambulance came and took Willie away, leaving Colin and the whole team in shock and disbelief. Colin tried to remain strong for his young team, but tears streamed down his cheeks as he gathered the boys around him and told them to go home and tell their parents that the coach was dead.
Colin attended Willie’s funeral the following week, and found the entire team and their parents among the many attendees, all of whom were insistent upon sending their boys to the playoff game in honor of their coach’s death. Colin acquiesced, and the following weekend found himself in a hotel with an entire team of little leaguers ready to play baseball.
The night before the game, Colin was nearly asleep in his hotel room when he heard a soft knock on the door. He went to the door and found Willie’s son, Ronnie, standing in the hall. Colin invited him in. “What’s up Ronnie, can’t you sleep?”
“Coach,” Ronnie said with tears in his eyes, “I want to pitch tomorrow.”
“Are you sure you’re going to be up to it?”
“I think dad would have wanted me to.”
Colin couldn’t turn the boy down. “Okay, son. You go back to your room and get some sleep, and I’ll put you in the game tomorrow.”
“Thanks coach,” Ronnie said as he turned and slumped down the hallway.
Colin couldn’t go to sleep after that, so he flipped on the light near the table and set Willie’s briefcase on top, just as he had seen Willie do before every game. When he opened it, Colin discovered a yellow lined notepad. Willie’s hand-written note said, “Colin, please honor my lineup.” It was signed simply “Willie”. Near the notepad was a brand new Tiparillo, still in its package. Colin contemplated the note and the Tiparillos. His face flushed, and tears ran down his cheeks at the realization that Willie somehow knew of his impending death that day at the ballpark. Colin got little sleep that night.
The regional playoff game was played under sunny skies, the grandstands packed with people, and all the little leaguers playing their best baseball. The lions were the first to take the field, and they played well despite their heavy hearts. Ronnie tried his hardest, and with every windup, he would look up toward the sky, and then deliver the ball hard and fast. He pitched five innings before the balls began coming in high and outside, a sign that a pitcher has lost control. The team played valiantly, but the other team was ahead two to one in the bottom of the ninth, and the lions were up, with two outs.
Colin brought in a pinch-hitter; a 12-year-old named Buck, and told him to swing away. The first pitch was a strike. “You can do it,” Colin shouted. Buck drove the second pitched toward the left-field line and Colin watched the ball arc left and deflect foul off the pole.
The next pitch was a curveball, and Buck popped it up, an easy out. Game over.
The Lions trudged out of the dugout with sad faces, and Colin followed the last boy out, with tears in his eyes. He gathered up his mostly-twelve-year-olds and reminded them of one of the things that coach Willie used to say. “No matter whether you win or lose, you always play with dignity. Hold your heads high, boys, and go out and greet that team that just beat you. Look them right in the eye and say, good game!”
The Lions and the hometown crowd went home saddened by the loss, but proud that they had played that game for Coach Willie.

Colin sat at his usual table, coffee cup in hand; the pages of my story splayed out upon the table in front of him. As I sat across the table from him, I knew by the look in his eyes that he was greatly disturbed. He had wanted the story to be a lasting memory of Willie, the coaching legend. “Your story is good, Rick, but it’s not all of it, not by a long shot,” Colin said to me matter-of-factly. I had missed the mark.
My head fell slightly, and at that moment I felt like a failure as a writer. I felt inept, unable. It was then that I realized that was exactly how Colin must’ve felt when he lost the playoff game … Him unable to pull off the win that day for Willie, and me unable to write the story with the depth of passion that Colin had desired for Willie’s posterity.
I never knew the man and only got the story secondhand, but Willie must have been a great coach, a great individual, and I can only aspire to achieve greatness like that. Even though I failed, I can still be consoled in the fact that Willie’s legacy lives on in the hearts of those children who are adult men now, and of course, his memory will be preserved as long as Colin lives.
But looking back upon Colin’s story, and remembering the tears in his eyes and his trembling voice as he told it, I feel that I can relate to the story in a real and true way. Willie, without ever meeting me, has inspired me to become a better writer, to somehow transcend the years, and let you, the reader, get a glimpse of the greatness that Willie personified; and the sense of loss we all felt when coach Willie Webb left us.
Greatness? The term greatness is often bandied about by pundits, whose only goal is to make the listener think that they really dwell in the rarefied air of greatness. Passing off corrupt politicians as great, passing off military men as great; in an attempt to play upon our imaginations. Those are nothing but cheap imitations.
So what is greatness? I think greatness can mean a man selflessly dedicated to helping kids develop skills and feel better about themselves. I think that might be the purest form of greatness.
Like the coach used to say (or would have said), “Just get out there and do your best.”