It saddened me when I saw him. His once vibrant athletic frame was now a shadow of its former self, racked by the crude chemotherapy of the day. I remember most how terribly thin and pale he looked, and how much hair he had lost. But he grinned when he saw me and asked, "Did you play much ball this summer, Leonard?" "Yep," I said. "Every chance I got."
He was Nick Ioveno, my high school baseball coach. Legend had it that he once played professional baseball and made it all the way to the New York Mets. In his first game someone hit him a groundball that went right between his legs. So much for his career in The Show.
What I knew about him was crude at best: he was the toughest son of a gun I ever knew. We began baseball practice in the dead of winter doing heavy workouts in the gymnasium, running until our lungs ached, calisthenics until our legs quivered, wind sprints until we collapsed on the gym floor and maybe even tossing our cookies.
But Coach Ioveno especially liked the indoor practices because he could smash groundballs at us across the gym floor with a fungo bat. Coach Ioveno was expert at having the ball short-hop us in the knees – or maybe a little higher. If he hit someone a little higher (ringing the bell, he called it), he whooped in a victory shout while the poor guy tried to regain both his breath and his composure.
I hated this guy.
But there was something about the great game of baseball that kept drawing me back, and there was no way I was going to let that man beat me. Coach told us that our team was going to win games because no other team in the league was out there as early as we were, working as hard as we were, and going through the fire as we were. I think he was telling us that we had more to lose than they did. We worked harder, hurt more, sweat more, and bled more, so it should stand to reason that we should want to win more.
When the season started, the discipline, conditioning, and the drilling of the fundamentals all worked for our benefit. For some reason we just kept winning. Maybe it had as much to do with the fear of losing. We nearly lost one game early on, and Coach laid it on us with all the power of his lungs during the long bus ride home. "Man," I thought, "we won the game. What will happen if we lose?" Later in the season we did just that and the outburst was intolerably worse.
I hated this guy!
We did eventually win the league championship, but came within an inning of letting it slip. We were down 6-1 going into the last inning of the last game. We had worked too hard to let it get away, and we rallied to win 7-6. Coach was the happiest fellow around. "You’re a real winner, boys, if you can come from behind like that!" When we got back to the locker room, we grabbed him clothes and all and threw him into the shower and laughed and joked along with him. This was our last chance to soak him, as most of us would be going on to the varsity team the next year.
Still, I hated this guy.
It was that summer that we learned of his particularly virulent form of Hodgkin’s Disease. So when I saw him at the start of school in the fall, I was as uncomfortable as a clumsy youth could be when staring the look of death in the face. "Did you play much ball this summer, Leonard?" "Yep. Every chance I got."
As the year drew on, Coach became thinner and thinner, weaker and weaker. Some days he couldn’t even stand in front of his class to teach. I remember walking by his classroom one day and peaking in. He was sitting at his desk, his head hanging limp and forward, his gray, gaunt face drawn and suffering. The class was deathly silent.
When the dead of winter came and baseball practice started, Coach Ioveno was there as usual, barking, joking, teasing, and hitting fungos at guy’s knees and other parts of the anatomy. Some days were better than others, but he was there most of the time. As the season drew on, he relied more and more on his cane for support, and in a sense it was as painful for us as it was for him. Near the end of the season he was unable to be with his team in the dugout. In order to coach, he stayed in his car in the parking lot and sent his instructions by messenger.
Before our final game of the year, the varsity coach convened a team meeting in the locker room. "Coach Ioveno has gone into the hospital again, and this time we don’t think he’s coming out." Coach then walked out the door and toward the ball field. Someone yelled, "Let’s win this one for Coach Ioveno", whereupon we ran onto the field and proceeded to trounce the opposition and win the league championship.
A couple of weeks later I was sitting at a desk in the gym with hundreds of other students taking my final exams. I looked up and saw a thin, frail, bearded man walking by. It was Coach Ioveno, the man who never quit. He had defied the doctor’s prognosis and come back to LaSalle Senior High School where he had dedicated his life. "How does he do it?" I wondered. It was then I realized that I loved this guy.
That was the last time I saw Coach Ioveno. In the summer of 1970, 29 year-old Nick Ioveno died.
A while back, someone asked me about my Last Great Day story. How would I envision that wonderful resurrection when all will have a chance to know God? Whom would I seek out and what would I say? As for me, I will seek out Nick Ioveno. I’ll find a fungo bat and have him hit me some grounders. And I’ll also want to thank him for teaching me lessons that have stayed with me even until now.
Lessons such as perseverance in the face of adversity. Never give up. Push yourself beyond what you think your limits are. Work harder than the other guy and eventually you’ll be on top. Strive for excellence. Stay focused on the ball and stay focused on your goals. Think about what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Master the fundamentals and leave the flashy stuff to Hollywood. The team is more important than your personal batting average. Don’t read what the newspaper says about you. Expect every play to come your way, and anticipate what you’ll do with the ball. Enthusiasm. Hustle. Win or lose, shake hands with the other team. Most of all, fight until your last breath for what you believe in and what you love.
Thank you, Coach Ioveno, for teaching me the lessons of life.