Damn the rule about impartial journalism.
I want more than anything for Bonanza High’s baseball team to win a state championship this week.
Not because of any prejudice toward Bishop Gorman or Coronado or Reno, all fine and worthy representatives in the Division I tournament. Not because of some bizarre fashion preference for yellow pants. Not because Bonanza has lost nearly as many games this season (14) as the other three finalists combined (18) and this is just its second appearance at state since 1993. Not because I lose sleep at night fretting over an underdog’s pursuit.
I want the Bengals to win because one day last month, sitting in his car before school, coach Derek Stafford wept before putting words to paper about what his players mean to him.
I want them to win because in a time when so many promote the mantra that winning is everything, it’s not to a man who understands the mission of a high school coach and educator more than most who choose to make it their profession.
“I’ve been preaching to players for 10 years to just go play the game and have fun,” Stafford said. “Unfortunately, in this day and age, people overanalyze it more and more. It’s baseball. It’s a game. It’s a great game that will break your heart quicker than anything. Winning state would be great. You get a ring and a trophy. But I’d rather have a text from a former player down the road saying, ‘Coach, I’m getting married,’ or ‘I just graduated top of my class.’ That’s what it’s about.
“I love the game. I love the kids more.”
Stafford’s team didn’t just lose to Desert Oasis on April 23. It lost after leading 3-0. In the bottom of the seventh inning. With two outs. And two strikes on the batter. A killer loss. A potentially devastating one.
He didn’t scream afterward, and he didn’t point fingers, and he didn’t talk about their mistakes. He didn’t crush what already were fragile spirits.
He instead wrote a letter.
It came from thoughts that poured through his head as tears streamed down his face the following morning as he sat in his car alongside the baseball field, a message he was too emotional to read as the team gathered in center field later that afternoon for practice.
So one of his 14 seniors did.
It was about how he didn’t know what to say following that crushing defeat 24 hours earlier, how other than his wife and 2-year-old daughter and family, he loves no one like his players, how much he respects their hard work and dedication, how he would do anything for them today, tomorrow, forever, how he considers all 24 of them his children, how strongly he believes in each and every one of them.
How he cried because of how deeply he cares.
Bonanza has gone 6-1 since that moment and opens the state tournament against Reno on Thursday at College of Southern Nevada, a spot the Bengals earned by beating Bishop Gorman 8-5 in the Sunset Region championship, rallying from down 5-0 against a program that has won seven consecutive state titles.
Coming back against the monster that has been Gaels baseball.
It’s like anything with the lightning rod of emotion that Bishop Gorman extracts from most, that the idea of winning state is wonderful, but the idea of winning it by beating the Gaels is, well, almost unfathomable.
Stafford sees things in a different, healthier manner.
“I’m not a Gorman hater,” he said. “I have so many other things in my life to worry about other than whether or not we beat Gorman. The first person to call and congratulate me when I was still on the bus after we beat them for the (regional title) was (Bishop Gorman coach) Nick Day. He told me that more than any team they played all season, ours never gave up, never quit, that how we won was incredible, that it was a reflection of our staff. Nick is a class guy. It was a great game. It wasn’t public versus private. It was just a great baseball game.”
It was before that regional final that Stafford showed his team the final 10 minutes of the 1983 NCAA basketball tournament championship between North Carolina State and Houston, knowing none would have little reference point to Clyde Drexler or Hakeem Olajuwon or Jim Valvano.
But he wanted them to watch, to believe, to understand that anything is possible for those who work hard enough. He wanted them to visualize such a celebration should they conquer Bishop Gorman. He wanted them to know, more than anything, how much he believed in them.
The celebration came, and Stafford more than anyone was running around looking for someone to hug.
“I received so many calls and texts from friends and past players after the game, my wife said I won’t be able to afford all of them,” Stafford said. “I’m not going to die a millionaire. I’m not going to become wealthy doing this. But to watch our kids win a regional championship, I felt like a very rich person. It was awesome. I told them that they might not really appreciate and enjoy all this now, but at 20, 25, 30 years old, they’ll look back and love every second of it. I told them to just go play the games this week and not the opponents. To just go have fun.
“I read a book recently by (University of Texas coach) Augie Garrido, how in 39 years, he has won five national championships but lost a season’s final game 34 times. I keep coming back to that, to what is really important, to the life lessons we as coaches are here to teach far beyond winning. I get to hang out after school with kids every day and play baseball.
“I’m the fortunate one.”
Damn the rules book.
I hope Bonanza gets it done this week.
Coaches, educators, men like Derek Stafford deserve to run around more than once in a lifetime looking for someone to hug.