Yesterday, James "Pops" Mitchell, California's Mr. Baseball in 1984 and my assistant baseball coach for a season in high school, died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 44. He was one of the greatest athletes to ever play at El Cerrito High School, my alma mater, and was a fantastic mentor to young athletes. Hearing of his death caused me to reflect on how coaches have shaped me as an athlete and as a person, and our responsibility as sports enthusiasts to teach the next generations of fans and athletes about tradition, integrity, and applying the values we learn in sport to the rest of our lives.
Pops wasn't a militant coach, but he was someone who valued acceptance for our actions. In addition to coaching both baseball and football, he worked as a site supervisor on campus. While we knew he wasn't going to turn us in to the principal if he caught us skipping class, you better believe we were going to do some extra work at practice that day, and at the very least pick him up some food while we were out. He was diabetic, but never used that as an excuse to miss practice. He'd just scarf a candy bar or chug some orange juice and get back to hitting fly balls. He taught me that sports were as much about having fun and gaining life experience as winning games. And that's something to be valued in this hyper-competitive sports world we live in, where coaches like Greg Wise, whose Yates HS basketball team consistently beats teams by 100 points or more and continues to play his starters and press well into the second half of blowouts, is heralded for his high-ranking teams.
Team sports build many important life skills, not the least of which is trust. A wide receiver can't go across the middle if he doesn't trust his quarterback to throw a good pass. That same quarterback can't feel comfortable in the pocket if he doesn't trust his left tackle to protect his blind side. A pitcher won't be effective if he can't rely on his defense to make plays behind him. Going hand in hand with trust is humility. Being able to put the team before your own goals and making sacrifices to achieve success applies to every aspect of life: family, business, friendships. Sports also taught me the value of hard work, concentration, and the ability to accept failure. And I wouldn't be who I am without my coaches and teachers as role models.
I'd like everyone to take today and at least think about the coaches and teachers who have shaped your life, and thank them for the gifts they have given you. To those of you out there coaching and teaching right now, I applaud your efforts and implore you to not lose sight of the idea that you are changing lives, and what you are doing is of paramount importance. As Duck fans, we can see firsthand the value of a good coach who has his priorities straight. And let's not forget that Ernie Kent is a coach who upholds all of the values I previously mentioned. He is a tremendous role model, and his inconsistency in the box score shouldn't devalue what he has instilled in his thirteen years as head coach.