This is a tale of baseball, I think, and of a kid who could hit them over the moon. It's about life, too, and adversity and confidence and doubt. It's a story without an ending. Yet.
When John was 12, he had what you'd call a growth spurt. He was 5 feet tall and weighed 150 pounds, and 18 months later he was 6 feet tall and weighed 175. He ate like a Clydesdale. I know that because John is my son, and my wife and I bought the hay.
His older brother, Nick, who played a couple years of college ball in Kansas, taught him to hit. Nick is a lefty and taught his brother from that side, even though John is right-handed. We built a massive batting cage in our backyard, complete with a pitching machine.
By the time John got to Air Academy High School he was a monster, 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds with a smooth and powerful swing. As a senior he batted .448 with eight home runs and 35 runs batted in, numbers that put him in the top handful of prep hitters in all of Colorado. A Gazette sports writer covering a game wrote this: "The first time John Tosches came to the plate Wednesday, the speakers blared the song, 'Big Bad John.' After watching him hit two mammoth home runs, I know why."
John ended up at Regis University in Denver, a terrific NCAA Division II school where he'd played in a summer camp years earlier. He liked the place and the coach. Susie and I dropped him off. We hoped they had plenty of food.
For the first half of his freshman season he sat. Midway through the season he got his chance. He hit a triple in his first college game. He had four hits in a game the next week and finished his first season with a .365 average, just six points from being the team's batting leader. He went back the next fall eager and confident.
And he sat. The coach told him he didn't have a spot for him.
John was puzzled. He got to pinch hit once in a while, but the occasional trips to the plate became confounding. He struck out six times in a row. The kid with the killer swing became hesitant, swinging easy or not at all, often taking a called third strike without the bat even twitching. He was lost.
"I could hit because I was confident," he said the other day. "When I lost that, I lost it all. I could hit the ball hard because I knew I would. When all you're doing is striking out, you lose that confidence. And then it just keeps getting worse."
His dad was a lot of help, panicking and sending weird text messages about hanging in there and keeping your chin up. I even sent inspirational sayings I found on the Internet, the ones on posters of majestic mountains telling us: "The greatest discovery one can make is that nothing is impossible."
Except, apparently, hitting a baseball. John's batting average fell to .135. Worst on the team. Two weeks ago he got a rare start and struck out all three times he batted. After the game, his coach, Dan McDermott, called him to the office. Cut? Losing his scholarship?
"Coach told me, 'I think you're one of the best hitters on the team. Now it's time for you to think of yourself that way,'" John said. "He told me I was as good as ever."
Three days later, last Friday, he got another chance. In the first inning, with the bases loaded, John crushed a fastball. It traveled some 430 feet. Home run. Grand slam. Twenty minutes later, in his next at-bat, he got another fastball and hit it even harder, driving it 450 feet to center for his second home run of the day. He added two singles. The next day he went 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles.
I asked him for some thoughts, some deep meaning to all of this. He's 19 and sharing thoughts doesn't come easily. But then he said this: "Modesty is great, but I think you have to believe that whatever you're doing, you can do it better than anyone else. When I stopped believing that, I wasn't very good."
I think the little guy is growing up.
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