When I was 13, my family moved from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to suburban Philadelphia. It was, suffice it to say, something of a culture shock. Most people who know me now are surprised to learn it, but as a child, I did have a southern accent, and in Pennsylvania, I was the only kid in school who said “y’all” and “fixin’ to.” Heads turned, as you can imagine. Like most young teens, I was extremely self-conscious, and my Mississippi mannerisms made me stand out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, my experience with Coach Merrill (see my last post) had turned me into a decent baseball player, and among adolescent males, athletic ability confers tremendous social benefits.
I didn’t realize it right away, but as it turned out, I had stepped into a fairly competitive environment, and my skills were in demand. Unlike in Mississippi, the Little League teams in Pennsylvania stayed together for multiple years, and so there were longer-term rivalries. In particular, the coaches of the Seminoles and the Comanche (all of the Senior League teams were named for Indian tribes) had become something like arch-nemeses, and there was a certain intensity around their games. Almost immediately after moving into the area, I began hearing stories. One of my friends, whose name was also Matt, played for the Seminoles, and he talked about the Comanche like Red Sox fans talk about the Yankees; they were the “Evil Empire.” As the spring season approached, Matt told me that his coach wanted me to tank the tryout so that he could be sure to pick me up. I looked forward to playing with Matt, and so I was on board with the plan, but when I mentioned this to my mother, she responded—not surprisingly—by telling me that under no circumstances was I to give any less than my very best effort.
Truth be told, I didn’t have a great tryout. I’d like to say that I listened to my mother, but the truth is that I probably split the difference. I didn’t deliberately blow it, but I certainly underwhelmed during the tryout, which was held in the school gym owing to some unseasonably cold weather. The draft was later that week, but I felt confident that I would soon be joining Matt on the Seminoles.
For some reason, my mom was late picking me up that day, and so as I stood outside the gym waiting for her to arrive, I worked on my swing—probably practicing Joe Brockhoff’s “Super 8” hitting system, pausing at each stage of the swing to check my mechanics. (Like I said, Coach Merrill had taught me that baseball was a craft to be perfected.) I was locked in, not paying much attention to my surroundings, so I was caught off guard when I heard someone call out from a car, “Hey, what’s your name again?” It took me a couple of seconds to realize that it was Eric Poppel, coach of the dreaded Comanche, leader of the Evil Empire. “Uhh,” I stammered. “I’m Matt Edmonds.” “Great,” he said. “I’m going to draft you. I’ll be in touch later this week.” And then he drove away.
Wait… what just happened? “Oh great,” I remember thinking.
Actually, it was. In fact, it was the best thing that could have happened. I ended up playing for “Poppel” (as all of his players called him) for two years, and though he turned out to be a very different kind of coach from Steve Merrill, he made a tremendous impact on my life, especially at that stage.
Poppel was fairly knowledgeable about the game, but looking back, I don’t think he was a tactical or strategic genius. Instead, his wizardry lay in motivation. After I got to know him, I would have run through a brick wall for him, and I think most of my teammates felt the same way. In fact, friends of mine who played on other teams (not the Seminoles, mind you) talked about how they wished they could play for Poppel and the Comanche. (Oh, and during my two years, I don’t think we ever lost to the Seminoles.)
I didn’t have a good read on how old Poppel was, but in my memory, he was probably in his late 20s, or early 30s—about 15-20 years older than us players. At that point, he was unmarried and had no kids of his own, and he could be crude, even inappropriate at times in his interactions with 14-15 year old boys. I remember him once showing up to a game clearly hungover. When someone bolder than me asked him why he looked so rough, he spoke openly about being out too late partying. I’m sure that my mom, had she known some of the topics of conversation, would not have approved. But to a teenage boy, that was the allure. Poppel was “cool,” and he treated us like equals. In so doing, he forged a bond with his players.
Poppel, without ever being direct about it, encouraged us to take ownership of and leadership in the team. I remember being called to the phone by my mother on several occasions. As I took the receiver, I would ask who was on the line. “It’s your baseball coach,” she said. (Eventually, this became common enough that my mother shortened the exchange: “Matt!” she would call out as she set the receiver down on the counter. “Poppel’s on the phone!”) If it was in-season, he would call to talk to get my thoughts about the lineup. In the off-season, he would solicit input on how we could get the team together for a practice. I recognize now that Poppel was probably calling a lot of the guys, and I honestly don’t remember how much he ever took my advice. But that’s beside the point; the point is that he asked. He was the first coach who ever did. He was the first adult who didn’t treat me like a kid.
It was just a Little League team, but Poppel tried to run it like a year-round program. He wanted players who were committed, and so in retrospect, it makes perfect sense why he drafted me. (In fact, in one of our first conversations, he told me as much: “Honestly, you didn’t look great in the tryout, but any kid who is willing to work on his swing the way you were is probably gonna be good. That’s why I picked you. Don’t let me down.”) Poppel was a master bullsh*tter, but he also didn’t sugarcoat things. He had a way of making you feel important, but he would also tell you straight up if you sucked that day.
Even when he was blunt, I never doubted that Poppel was behind me. His actions spoke as loudly as his words, as when he would meet me at the field to work on my speed or my catching skills one-on-one. (Just as with Coach Merrill, I still use some of the drills that Poppel taught me with my players today.) He wrote a workout for me to do on my own, and he would call me to make sure I was keeping up with it.
As a side gig, he organized sports card/memorabilia shows in Philadelphia, and he would often “hire” me to do all sorts of odd jobs on those days. It wasn’t exactly backbreaking labor, but the point was that I had to show up on time and be responsible for accomplishing my tasks. That was my first “job” aside from chores around the house, and I think it prepared me for holding a job throughout much of high school. I fear that many kids, especially those from upper income tiers, don’t get that kind of valuable experience today.
As I approached the age where I would no longer be eligible to play for the Comanche, our conversations began to change. Rather than baseball, Poppel began to talk to me more about the future: about school and college and career choices—the path ahead. He encouraged me to keep working hard in every area. He was working to get his own company off the ground at that point, and he told me that I’d have a job there after college if I wanted it. I believe he was sincere in that promise.
As an educator, I’ve come to realize that there is a time in a typical teenage boy’s life when his day-to-day connection with his parents wanes, and when he reaches that point, he needs a mentor to keep him moving in a positive direction. In many ways, Poppel was that person for me. He recognized potential in me, and he encouraged it. He taught me to believe in myself, preached the value of hard work, and made me believe that I could be a leader.
I’ve lost touch with Poppel over the years, but this Thanksgiving, I have reason to be grateful for many things. Not the least of those things is that, when I was 14 years old, Eric Poppel saw through a mediocre tryout and caught me honing my craft… even though I didn’t want him to. It’s funny how life works out sometimes.