America

Baseball’s Legendary and Patriotic All American ’17 Inches’ Story

A wise old man spoke to the crowd of over 4,000 baseball coaches at the 52nd annual American Baseball Coaches Association convention.

It was the first week of January, 1996. at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. Although there were clinics, presentations and good comradery, many of the attendees flew in especially to hear the veteran coach speak.

The great conference hall was filled to capacity as Augie Garrido was introduced to deliver the traditional first presentation from the previous season’s College World Series winner. 

At 1 p.m., Coach John Scolinos, 78, and five years retired from Cal Poly Pomona (since 1948) 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 a home plate hung — a full-sized, stark-white home plate.

Coach John Scolinos

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. Or maybe you think I escaped from Camarillo State Hospital,” he said, his voice growing irascible.

“No,” he continued, “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,” as more of a question than an answer.

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

Another long pause.

“Seventeen inches?” came 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!” they yelled, 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 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. 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 …”

Pause.

” … what do we do when our best player shows up late to practice? 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 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!”

That moment during the baseball convention where coaches expected to learn something about curveballs and bunting and how to run better practices, they learned something far more valuable.

The lessons from the old man with home plate strung around his neck, should be shared and ingrained in the hearts and minds of Americans today: parents, teachers, coaches, NFL/MLB/NBA commissioners and owners, and especially players ages 5 through 55.

That was 1996 and should have been fair warning for us in 2020. This year we’ve learned much about life, about ourselves, about our own weaknesses and about responsibilities of leaders.

President Donald Trump hopefully came around before it was too late. For four years he has held government, politicans and other countries accountable to that which we knew to be right, lest our families, our faith, and our society continue down an undesirable path.

“If I am 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 and churches and 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.

“… dark days ahead.”

Coach Scolinos died in 2009 at the age of 91, but not before touching the lives of hundreds of players and coaches.

His message was clear: “Coaches, keep your players — no matter how good they are — your own children, and most of all, keep yourself at seventeen inches.”

Coach Scolinos used a 17 inch home plate for his message. Perhaps, it’s time we listen carefully to the messages from President Trump. Rather than a home plate, our 45th President uses a Bible in one hand and the United States Constitution for backup.

God Bless America.

Coach Scolinos.

A short list of his career highlights include:

  • 1,198 victories — the second most of any NCAA Division II coach in history
  • Guided the Broncos to three NCAA titles (1976, 1980 and 1983)
  • A three-time NCAA Division II Coach of the Year
  • Named Coach of the Decade for the 1970s by the College Baseball newspaper
  • Selected by former USC coach Rod Dedeaux as the pitching coach for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Baseball team
  • Coached Cal Poly Pomona to six CCAA crowns (1976, 1979, 1980, 1983, 1985 and 1988)
  • Named Diamond Baseball District 8 Coach of the Year in 1985
  • Five-time CCAA Coach of the Year
  • Inducted into the American Association of Collegiate Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1974
  • Honored by the American Baseball Coaches Association with the Lefty Gomez Award, for his “outstanding contributions and distinguished service to college baseball”
  • The 1976 Cal Poly Pomona Professor of the Year, chosen by students, faculty and staff
  • Cal Poly Pomona’s baseball field named in his honor

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