Whether or not we want to admit it, we as parents have invisible fingers crossed somewhere in the back of our minds as our children grow. We project. We subtly try to mold. We can’t help it. You know what I’m talking about. For me, it was: “it would be great if my son turned out to love the Beatles, red heads, the steaks at Taylor’s, the Angels, and become a lockdown left-handed pitcher.” Of course, outwardly we say that we want them to find their own path, but we are all guilty of selective exposure. I guess that’s just being a parent.
When my son, Emmett, was born, I pushed a wee bit too hard. As soon as he could lift his head, I was putting things into his hand – his left hand. I’m a southpaw, and figured the odds were 50-50 that he could become a lefty, and maybe, if the stars aligned, a pitcher. Set for life. Then our pediatrician checked him out and scolded me for not letting him develop naturally.
So, of course, Emmett became a right-hander. He started playing little league baseball at Sherman Oaks at age 5. And he liked it okay. Baseball’s leisurely pace suited him more than soccer or basketball, both of which he played for several seasons. But his first three years of little league was little more than a way to hang with his friends. He hadn’t really developed a passion for the game.
That is, until he landed in the orbit of Keith Ayers. We knew Keith a little bit. His son, Kyle, and Emmett were teammates in 2010, on the Farm Diamondbacks. But I didn’t really begin to notice Keith’s magic until I helped him as Fall Ball coach that season. I don’t want to diminish the role that other parent/coaches play in terms of a child's development, because they all have an impact, but Keith was able to get through to the kids on his teams – from top to bottom – like no other coach I’d ever seen. On that team, the AA Fall A’s, even the scrawny kid who wore “silly bands” up and down his arms, a kid who’d clearly never thrown a baseball before, began to appreciate the game.
Then came year four, Spring 2011. Emmett was drafted by Keith to play on the AA Braves. That season is difficult to explain. The short version is that it was as perfect a little league season as a parent could hope. By many accounts, the team was stacked, but again, Keith had an otherworldly ability to inspire every child on that team. They all wanted to be better, not just for themselves but for each other.
My son started the season as just another random kid on the Braves, but Keith saw something, and he tapped into a reservoir of confidence that I had never seen before. He made Emmett a catcher – to keep his head in the game, and he began to hit the ball with consistency. My wife, Carrie, reminded me that Keith described Emmett as his “secret weapon.” I get that. Seemingly out of thin air, Keith had turned my kid into someone who loved baseball, who had a desire to get better, to excel at the game. As a parent, I felt blessed that my son was able to have had that experience with him.
Keith was different than other parent/coaches. Sure, he wanted to win, and was wise to the chaos that surrounded other teams, but he used that to his advantage. Sherman Oaks Little League was filled with big personalities. Keith was not one of them. He was quiet and cagy, calm and cool, the adult in the room, and I’m certain that gnawed at some of the other coaches. On the psychological warfare front, he won before his team took the field.
The Braves were amongst the top teams in their division, but more than that, I’d never witnessed a team so connected with one another, before or since – I mean, these are 8- and 9-year-old kids. They loved and supported one another, a perfect reflection of their manager, a man who loved baseball, loved the kids he worked with, and molded them into something whose mission went beyond wins and losses.
The kids on the Braves took on the personality of their manger. As did, surprisingly, the parents. It was a team, sure. But it also felt like a family. Let’s face it, Little League is a bizarro petri dish, one in which we experience the best and worst of humanity over the course of a few minutes. As parent, it can be an incredible experience watching your child on the diamond, but that can also involve gritting your teeth when surrounded by sometimes-boorish adults (of which I have been guilty on occasion).
But as a Braves parent, I felt – and still feel -- a bond with the parents of that team. It was pure harmony. Like only we were privy to the secret handshake. It was Keith. He brought us together. We were all rooting for each other. We knew we were watching something beautiful, this man had orchestrated a blissful environment for all of us with his kindness and his wisdom. It was remarkable and powerful and we all knew it.
Maybe it was magic. Most of the time, we can’t grasp that significance of those moments until they’re long past. The kids, the parents, the coaches… we all felt it as we were in the moment. Keith drove the magic bus and we went along for the ride. It was remarkable.
Keith was renowned for his inspiration, proselytizing emails. That season, we were all congregants of the Church of Keith. Michael Jones, a coach on the Braves, passed along this email, which Keith wrote after a one-run playoff loss, setting up a single-elimination championship game. This note says more about the man than anything I could say:
I find/found myself speechless, humbled, honored, amazed, moved, inspired, touched, motivated, privileged, changed, encouraged, driven, wowed, thrilled, chilled, and proud to be part of anything even remotely associated to this. What an amazing ride this unbelievable group of young men have taken us on. We witnessed tonight something special that should never be forgotten and a lesson we all need to learn from. The emotions that poured from these kids tonight was a true sign of months of giving it their all and a common gathered disappointment with tonight's results. It has made me even more motivated to give it my all to set these ball players up for success. Please let them hear from you over and over again what a great success they have been this year on the ball field. We will, as a team, tomorrow, go at our opponents with a drive and effort beyond what we were privileged to witness today. They now know collectively as a team what they want and what it takes to get there. Shall we all gather tomorrow evening at the ball field and truly experience this special moment of sharing something as great as the great game of baseball has to offer as we watch our precious kids grow before our very eyes.
Braves "feelin' it deep down in the heart" Pride!!!
The Braves won the championship. It had been a perfect season, but none of us wanted it to end because we knew it couldn’t happen again. And it didn’t.
Emmett played four more seasons at Sherman Oaks, and there were great moments in each of those seasons, as he blossomed as a player, driven by the confidence Keith had instilled in him. Each year I secretly wished for Keith to draft him. That never came to pass, and we watched mostly from afar as he bravely fought his cancer for so long. Luckily, Emmett had the opportunity to spend time with Keith again in 2015, when he was selected for the all-star team. Keith was sick, but was fighting, always fighting, and he was there, as always, for the kids. Emmett was grateful to have a little more time with his early mentor, and by now understood what this man had taught him about dignity, respect, and baseball.
Keith was taken too soon. I didn’t know him well, but he left a powerful mark. He will always be in our hearts. His impact as a teacher, as a person, will forever live through all of us who were fortunate enough to be touched by him.