17 Inches

Twenty four years ago, in Nashville , Tennessee , during the first week of January, 1996, more than 4,000 baseball coaches descended upon the Opryland Hotel for the 52nd annual ABCA’s convention.

While I waited in line to register with the hotel staff, I heard other more veteran coaches rumbling about the lineup of speakers scheduled to present during the weekend. One name, in particular, kept resurfacing, always with the same sentiment — “John Scolinos is here? Oh, man, worth every penny of my airfare.”

Who is John Scolinos, I wondered. No matter; I was just happy to be there.

In 1996, Coach Scolinos was 78 years old and five years retired from a college coaching career that began in 1948 He shuffled to the stage to an impressive standing ovation, wearing dark polyester pants, a light blue shirt, and a string around his neck from which home plate hung — a full-sized, stark-white home plate.

Seriously, I wondered, who is this guy?

After speaking for twenty-five minutes, not once mentioning the prop hanging around his neck, Coach Scolinos appeared to notice the snickering among some of the coaches. Even those who knew Coach Scolinos had to wonder exactly where he was going with this, or if he had simply forgotten about home plate since he’d gotten on stage. Then, finally …

“You’re probably all wondering why I’m wearing home plate around my neck,” he said, his voice growing irascible. I laughed along with the others, acknowledging the possibility. “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.”

Several hands went up when Scolinos asked how many Little League coaches were in the room. “Do you know how wide home plate is in Little League?”

After a pause, someone offered, “Seventeen inches?”, more of a question than answer.

“That’s right,” he said. “How about in Babe Ruth’s day? Any Babe Ruth coaches in the house?” Another long pause.

“Seventeen inches?” 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, as the pattern began to appear. “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!” we said, in unison.

“Any Minor League coaches here? How wide is home plate in pro ball?”…“Seventeen inches!”

“RIGHT! And in the Major Leagues, how wide home plate is in the Major Leagues?

“Seventeen inches!”

“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?” Pause. “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. If 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.’”

Pause “Coaches… what do we do when your best player shows up late to practice? or 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 chuckles gradually faded as four thousand coaches grew quiet, the fog lifting as the old coach’s message began to unfold. He turned the plate toward himself and, using a Sharpie, began to draw something. 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 just widen the plate!”

Pause. Then, 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?”

Silence. He replaced the flag with a Cross. “And this is the problem in the Church, where powerful people in positions of authority have taken advantage of young children, only to have such an atrocity swept under the rug for years. Our church leaders are widening home plate for themselves! And we allow it.”

“And the same is true with our government. Our so called representatives make rules for us that don’t apply to themselves. They take bribes from lobbyists and foreign countries. They no longer serve us. And we allow them to widen home plate! We see our country falling into a dark abyss while we just watch.”

I was amazed. At a baseball convention where I expected to learn something about curve balls and bunting and how to run better practices, I had learned something far more valuable.

From an old man with home plate strung around his neck, I had learned something about life, about myself, about my own weaknesses and about my responsibilities as a leader. I had to hold myself and others accountable to that which I knew to be right, lest our families, our faith, and our society continue down an undesirable path.

“If I’m lucky,” Coach Scolinos concluded, “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 & churches & our government fail to hold themselves accountable to those they serve, there is but one thing to look forward to …”

With that, he held home plate in front of his chest, turned it around, and revealed its dark black backside, “…We have dark days ahead!.”

Note: Coach Scolinos died in 2009 at the age of 91, but not before touching the lives of hundreds of players and coaches,including mine. Meeting him at my first ABCA convention kept me returning year after year, looking for similar wisdom and inspiration from other coaches. He is the best clinic speaker the ABCA has ever known because he was so much more than a baseball coach. His message was clear: “Coaches, keep your players—no matter how good they are—your own children, your churches, your government, and most of all, keep yourself at seventeen inches.

And this my friends is what our country has become and what is wrong with it today, and now go out there and fix it!

“Don’t widen the plate.”

I love getting FW:FW:FW:FW:FW e-mails from my father-in-law!

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I can’t facepalm hard enough. I was well into it before I realized it was another “YOUNG PEOPLE BAD” message. I should have known better.

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See, and Majerus has scarred me for life when it comes to measurements on sports message boards.

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Yep. I was “worried” this post was a porn site. I’m so relieved.

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Something something Congress, the Constitution and White House something something

I especially love this idea that there is one solution that fits for everyone, regardless of their situation, background, and experience. And if you dare deviate from that solution, question why it is, or look for ways to make it more inclusive, that apparently makes you un-American, un-Christian, unethical, and lazy.

GTFO with that nonsense.

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Do you really think that was his message?

Here’s the source. I’d never seen it before—I simply Googled “Coach Scolinos” and it came up. Many of the clearly heartfelt comments to the blog post are from people who knew or played for Scolinos, and include at least one from his family,

I can only guess that his message is something along the lines of “there are rules, and no one should ever change those for any reason”…which I think is a stupid message. Especially when said like this:

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 just widen the plate!”

To extend his sports analogy, we added a 3-point line in basketball because it made the game more exciting. We changed the kickoff rules in football to make the game more safe. We adjusted baseball rules around what equipment can be used because it was giving some people an advantage or making the game less safe.

Things sometimes change. How we discipline, how we communicate, how we parent, how we interact…and that’s just fine. I do agree with his premise that it can (obviously) be taken too far, but the idea that there is one solution that works for everyone is nonsense.

Just my opinion though. You’re free to take from it whatever message you’d like.

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I took “the plate“ as a metaphor for accepted standards of excellence. He is saying we shouldn’t lower those standards, and that we are not doing a favor to those whom we are responsible for teaching and training when we do. Seems pretty basic to me. But I can see how you’re reading it and if that’s what he meant, then I agree with you.

On ‘widening the plate’ an example of that, that I thought was a horrible lesson for a kid.

A number of years ago I was involved in Scouting and was a merit badge counselor for the Personal Finance merit badge. If you’re familiar with this merit badge, there is a 12 week period where you are supposed to track your finances - you can’t accelerate that part of the merit badge because it just takes time.

So there was a kid who needed to pass it off, and I hounded him for years to get that part done… and like teenagers he kept procrastinating until a few months before his 18th birthday when he decided he wanted his Eagle. So he comes to me with about 6 weeks until his birthday and wants to do his merit badge. And so, I widened the plate a bit for him and said if he did the 12 week part for the next 6 weeks and promised to complete the rest after I would sign him off. But he HAD to do the 6 week part. So three weeks later I check in and he hadn’t done it, and wanted me to let him do just two weeks. I said no.

A couple of weeks later it gets announced he had achieved his Eagle… someone else had signed off on his merit badge. When I asked the person about it, they said it would be a real tragedy if he didn’t get his Eagle over such a small thing. I asked if he really got his Eagle or not.

I wasn’t trying to be a hardliner, I really wasn’t, in fact as you see I widened the plate for the kid a bit for the folly of youth. Truth is, I had bugged him about doing it for years, he had plenty of opportunity to do it, and didn’t. So I wonder what lessons we taught him, by showing him he could slide by in life.

I don’t feel much different today, in fact, I wonder if the tragedy is not letting a kid learn a hard lesson on something relatively inconsequential like getting an Eagle. Life will go on just fine without it. It would also be a lesson learned with people who loved and cared about him and would prop him up in other ways. Or does he instead learn that lesson in the workplace where the boss fires him? Because he will learn that lesson - it just may be way more painful.

That’s the part of Scouting (or the Utah Mormon version of it) I didn’t like. We’d talk about building character and then complete their scouting requirements for them. In turn it made the accomplishment basically meaningless.

So I think I agree with @LAUte that we need to maintain standards of excellence - and that is the message I got from it (although I share the disdain for the schmarmy email forward type messages).

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I remember being at a gymnastics meet where the flag bearers at the beginning were introduced as being Eagle Scouts and only being only 10 years old. What I recalled at that time is that you couldn’t even join scouts until you were 11.

Rocker, I think you 100% did the right thing. You DID widen the plate to help someone succeed. But you didn’t throw the plate out the window either. I’m 100% good with that. At the end of the day, they are kids, and we need to help them succeed, not fail. Life helps us fail often enough.

My issue with this speech, is that a lot of times “not lowering the standards for excellence” means “don’t let others/more people in”.

We have to be so careful with that. Are we lowering a standard of excellent by widening the plate? Or do we just not want certain people coming in? What about the player that shows up late? Is it because he is a lazy, entitled piece of ■■■■, or is it because his dad is gone and his mom works 12 hours a day and he has to help be a father, a student a friend, and an athlete from no help from anyone? How many lives do we ruin not “widening the plate” because we want to prove some stupid point about accountability?

Same with the facial hair rule. What a stupid ass rule. You will discipline a kid over facial hair. A kid whose responsibility shouldn’t be to work, earn money, buy a razor and shave gel…Come one.

Same with drinking. You have a kid who drinks. Lets suspend him and give him more free time. That will make things better and get him to stop drinking. SMH.

Let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard and instead of looking for all the reasons why we should hate each other, hold each other down, keep each other out, let’s widen that damn plate and find ways to pick each other up, bring others up to us, make everyone better. We are in this together. That is the the only way we will succeed. By widening that plate and making room for everyone.

I’ve found that those who argue that we are lowering the standard are just upset with the people who are trying to get in.

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I taught a law school class as an adjunct prof one semester. I got an exam book from a 3L in his last semester. He had a job and was planning to graduate. The only thing he wrote was “I don’t think I can pass this class.” There was nothing else to give partial credit, so I failed him. I found out the dean changed his grade to a C and he graduated.

If you don’t show up to court or you miss a filing, your client can lose and go to jail. I have watched the spouse of a defendant quietly crying in the gallery while a lawyer helps his client plead because he got bad advice. I still think the dean should not have passed that student.

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Thanks Swanton, that’s what I was getting at (and doing so badly :slight_smile:) and why I had issue with the “17 inches” metaphor.

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I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but I also don’t think that is what the original coach meant. He was obviously a respected mentor to many and probably did his share of lifting people up.

What I see far more prevalent in my bubble is lawnmower parents mowing everything down in the path of their little boy or girl to “succeed” and that does cause them real harm. I’ve employed young people who have had this real disservice happen to them.

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What’s so bad about Life Scout?
Back in the day in Massachusetts, getting an Eagle was kind of a rare thing. What’s the ratio of Eagle scouts in this state compared to national average?

When I was a baby lawyer, I had mentors who refused to let me get by without my best work, especially written work. I am that way now. Many young lawyers really don’t know how to write well and they need lots of coaching and mentoring, lots of one-on-one discussions, a lot of editing, and so forth. What’s very rewarding to me is that over time, they do get it and they are always grateful. (There are some who are not grateful, and who see editing of their work by senior attorneys as “just a matter of style.” Sadly, those folks usually don’t last.)

That’s what I took from the coach‘s talk. Rigorous standards result in growth and in high-quality performance. We aren’t doing anyone any favors by not holding them to an appropriate standard.

That’s different, of course, when someone has a disability. There are laws that help us deal with those situations. Rocker brought up Scouting. There also, allowances are made for people who simply don’t have the ability to perform at the same level as others. I had a scout in my troop when I was scoutmaster who was developmentally disabled, and he finally earned his Eagle by the age of 21 (not the standard cutoff age of 18). The BSA did not stand in our way at all, and it was a very rewarding experience for the other boys in the troop to help Keith along. He was a sweet young man and it was a great day for us all of when he received his Eagle. It was especially great for him. He was justifiably proud.

(I only made it to Life, by the way. I wish some people had pushed me harder than they did.)