Anyone who has been through Isidore Newman School during the past several decades needs no introduction to Billy Fitzgerald, an immovable institution known for his relentless baseball practices and other coaching endeavors. As former Newman student and native New Orleanian Michael Lewis demonstrates in his slim memoir Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life (W.W. Norton), you don't have to know Fitzgerald in order to know Fitzgerald. Everybody -- everybody with a little luck, anyway -- can summon a memory from their formative years of a demanding adult such as Coach Fitz, a coach or teacher or boss who demanded supreme effort and dedication and, in so doing, elicited performances above expectations and limitations.
For Lewis, the moment came in high school, when he played baseball at Newman. The future author of Moneyball and Liar's Poker wasn't much of an athlete and found himself parked on the bench in reverie during a close game. Newman's star pitcher remained in the game as the opponent took its last bat, trailing 2-1 with runners at first and third.
Fitzgerald went to the mound to soothe his pitcher but had already visited earlier in the inning. A rival watching from the stands whipped out a rulebook citing the offense: Two trips to the mound in the same inning by a coach requires a change of pitchers. Fitzgerald erupted in fury, and then summoned Lewis.
And? Lewis, petrified, warmed up and entered the game. Players in the opposing dugout whooped and hollered with glee, so unimpressive were Lewis' warm-up tosses. Fitzgerald didn't bat an eye. Instead, he told Lewis to shove it in their faces (or perhaps another anatomy part) and win the game. The awkward benchwarmer, for one brief moment, turned into Dennis Eckersley, picking off the runner at third for the second out of the inning and then sealing the win with a strikeout.
'In the three years before I met Coach Fitz, the only task for which I exhibited any enthusiasm was sneaking out of the house at two in the morning to rip hood ornaments off cars -- you needed a hacksaw and two full nights to cut the winged medallion off a Bentley,' Lewis writes. 'Now this fantastically persuasive man was insisting, however improbably, that I might be some other kind of person. A hero.'
The perfect twist to Lewis' tale of perseverance and discipline: Fitzgerald, asked about the episode 30 years hence, doesn't even remember it. When you work miracles with kids year after year, season after season, it all gets a bit murky.
Close followers of Lewis or the Newman school will recall a slightly shorter version of this story running in The New York Times Magazine a year ago. For Lewis, what began as a narcissistic endeavor -- writing a story about a coach who lingered in his memory well into adulthood -- became a cause celebre. Lewis returned to Newman to gather some color on Coach Fitz for his recollection and instead discovered a long-time coach in turmoil. At the same time Lewis and former players were working to name a renovated Newman gym after Fitzgerald, parents of the coach's current baseball crop were calling for his ouster. Fitz was too tough, too demanding, too belligerent. (The coach is still at Newman despite his critics.)
'My first reaction was, I don't believe this,' says Lewis during a recent telephone interview from his northern California home. 'On the one hand, they're trying to name the gym after him and, on the other, they're trying to get rid of him. What was surprising is that he's mellowed. And even the mellowed version of Coach Fitz is unacceptable to these parents. It showed me that, clearly, something has changed with parents and how they view things.'
Indeed, once one gets past the hokey title and dreaded sports-as-life-lesson scenario, Coach resonates because it demonstrates, in powerful fashion, how ordinary people can make a difference in the lives of many people. (Lewis discovers many former teammates share his long memory of Fitz, not to mention younger alums such as Peyton Manning.) Coach also illustrates the enervating social jockeying that contemporary parents engage in on behalf of their kids.
Simply put, Lewis reveals, too many parents don't want their children to face failure. They want to win all the time. That a coach would demand that his players confront failure and losing and learn to grow from those setbacks seems incongruous to many modern-day parents.
'It showed me how front-loaded life has become for kids,' Lewis says. 'There is a sense that if you aren't in the right preschool you won't get into the right kindergarten and then you won't get the high SATs and you won't get into Harvard. The fear that parents have that their children won't succeed and the pressure they bring to bear on their children to succeed is ferocious.'
Michael Lewis will read from Coach at 4:30 p.m. Friday, May 20, at The Maple Street Book Shop (7523 Maple St., 866-4916).
To read Erik Spanberg's reviews of Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August, William Price Fox's Satchel Paige's America and Frank Deford's The Old Ball Game, visit www.bestofneworleans.com.
- Coach resonates because it demonstrates how ordinary people can make a difference in the lives of many people.