In 1996, Coach Scolinos was 78 years old and five years retired from a college coaching career that began in 1948.
At the American Baseball Coaches Association convention in 1996, Scolinos shuffled onto the stage amidst an impressive standing ovation, wearing dark polyester pants, a light blue shirt, and a string around his neck from which hung a baseball home plate.
A full-sized, stark-white, home plate.
The crowd wondered, “Who in the hell is this guy?”
After speaking for twenty-five minutes, not once mentioning the prop hanging around his neck, Coach Scolinos finally addressed his attire.
“You’re probably all wondering why I’m wearing home plate around my neck. Or maybe you think I escaped from Camarillo State Hospital,” he said, his voice growing gruff.
“No,” he continued, “I may be old, but I’m not crazy. The reason I stand before you today is to share with you baseball people what I’ve learned in my life, what I’ve learned about home plate in my 78 years.”
Scolinos asked how many Little League coaches were in the room, and several hands went up. “Do you know how wide home plate is in Little League?”
After a pause, someone offered, “Seventeen inches?”
“That’s right,” he said. “How about in Babe Ruth baseball? Any Babe Ruth coaches in the house? How wide is the plate?”
“Seventeen inches?” came a guess from another reluctant coach.
“That’s right,” said Scolinos. “Now, how many high school coaches do we have in the room?” Hundreds of hands shot up. “How wide is home plate in high school baseball?”
“Seventeen inches,” they said, sounding more confident.
“You’re right!” Scolinos barked. “And you college coaches, how wide is home plate in college?”
“Seventeen inches!” the crowd replied in unison.
“Any Minor League coaches here? How wide is home plate in pro ball?”
“RIGHT! And in the Major Leagues, how wide home plate is in the Major Leagues?”
“SEV-EN-TEEN INCHES!” he confirmed, his voice bellowing off the walls.
“And what do they do with a Big League pitcher who can’t throw the ball over seventeen inches? They send him to Pocatello!” he hollered, drawing raucous laughter.
“What they don’t do is this: they don’t say, ‘Ah, that’s okay, Jimmy. You can’t hit a seventeen-inch target? We’ll make it eighteen inches, or nineteen inches. We’ll make it twenty inches so you have a better chance of hitting it. If you can’t hit that, let us know so we can make it wider still, say twenty-five inches.'”
The audience chuckled at this ridiculous notion.
”What do we do when our best player shows up late to practice? When our team rules forbid facial hair and a guy shows up unshaven? What if he gets caught drinking? Do we hold him accountable? Or do we change the rules to fit him, do we widen home plate?”
The laughter gradually faded as four thousand coaches grew quiet.
He turned the plate toward himself and began to draw.
When he turned it toward the crowd, point up, a house was revealed, complete with a freshly drawn door and two windows.
“This is the problem in our homes today. With our marriages, with the way we parent our kids. With our discipline. We don’t teach accountability to our kids, and there is no consequence for failing to meet standards. We widen the plate!”
To the point at the top of the house, he added a small American flag.
“This is the problem in our schools today. The quality of our education is going downhill fast and teachers have been stripped of the tools they need to be successful, and to educate and discipline our young people. We are allowing others to widen home plate! Where is that getting us?”
He replaced the flag with a Cross.
“And this is the problem in the Church, where powerful people in positions of authority have changed the rules and Word of God for years to include that which was not included by God. Our church leaders are widening home plate!”
At a baseball convention, where attendees expected about curveballs and bunting and how to run better practices, we have learned something far more valuable. From an old man with home plate strung around his neck, we learn about life, about ourselves, about our weaknesses, and about our responsibilities as leaders, managers, and parents.
We must hold ourselves accountable to that which we know to be right, lest our families, our faith, and our society continue down an undesirable path.
Coach Scolinos concluded.
“If I am lucky, you will remember one thing from this old coach today. It is this: if we fail to hold ourselves to a higher standard, a standard of what we know to be right; if we fail to hold our spouses and our children to the same standards, if we are unwilling or unable to provide a consequence when they do not meet the standard; and if our schools and churches and our government fail to hold themselves accountable to those they serve, there is but one thing to look forward to.”
He held home plate in front of his chest, turned it around, and revealed its dark, black, back side.
“Dark days ahead.”
Coach Scolinos died in 2009 at the age of 91, but not before touching the lives of hundreds of players and coaches. He was the best clinic speaker the ABCA has ever known, because he was so much more than a baseball coach.
We live in a time where we are challenged every day to widen our plate. We are encouraged to move our fence to include people who should not be on our property. We are told that setting standards high enough to demand excellence is exclusionary, discriminatory, and hurtful.
At some point, “how our standards make other people feel” became our personal responsibility, and we are supposed to widen our plate to make room for the emotional wellbeing of others.
No, we’re not.
C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, ““Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Loss of virtue starts not with a loud bang, but a gentle slope.
Compromise is not hard. Giving in to temptation and removing your expectations is not hard.
Living a life of uncompromising exactness is hard, and we are called to do it every day. Every great man or woman who has ever lived understood this necessary demand, and they lived up to it. That’s what made them great.
Coach Scolinos understood that, and left us with this challenge…
“Keep your players, your own children, and most of all yourself at seventeen inches. Don’t widen the plate.”
This is an altered excerpt from a blog of Chris Sperry, former head baseball coach at University of Portland.