Coach Leon Bagwell waved hundreds of players down to first base during his thirty-year tenure as Assistant Coach of the Buchanan High School Softball program. I’m not sure there has ever been a better-suited person to grace that chalk-lined zone. His gruff voice was the first one you’d hear as you entered the batter’s box. He’d call out, “Come on good hitter!” as you dug in your cleats and readied your grip. Verbal courage from your biggest fan. And after you executed the bunt or smacked a line drive over the shortstop’s head, there was no one more proud of your accomplishment than him.
I remember the look on his face the day that I hit my first (and only) homerun. I raced down to first base as fast as I could, pumped up by adrenaline and intoxicated by the feel of the bat on the best hit of my life. As I approached first, he greeted me with a fatherly smile and these words – “Slow down Dot—enjoy this one.” There are only two times in my life that I’ve been given this advice (to slow down and recognize the importance of the moment and enjoy it for all it’s worth) – the first was when Coach Bagwell gave me permission to take a victory lap that day and the second was when my Dad walked me down the aisle. I can’t get through either memory with dry eyes.
Coach Bagwell had a certain charm to him. You wanted to be in his presence because he made you feel safe and loved and confident. But you also wanted to be close to him in the chance that he might utter one of his famous one-liners. My all time favorite was “Lord love a duck!” This expression was reserved for moments of exasperation—a frequent occurrence when coaching teenage girls. It would come on the heels of a missed call or a base running error. It wasn’t a put down and it wasn’t necessarily directed at any specific player. It was just a way of recognizing the mistake and then moving on. It always reminded me of that famous scene in A League of Their Own when a shaking coach Jimmy Dugan, played by Tom Hanks, tries to reprimand an outfielder for missing the cut-off man (again) without yelling at her. Only the best coaches can alert you to your mistakes without crushing your spirit or bruising your ego. Only Coach Bagwell could do it while making you laugh at the same time.
Another coach in the same program, Rachel Carlson, recently recounted her favorite Coach Bagwell story to me. She said that after a 2005 loss to Lawrence at the Bronson tournament, Coach Bagwell was so distraught that he didn’t stop commenting about the loss for weeks. After the Buchanan Bucks won Districts and Regionals, the team took a long trip to Grand Rapids to play Galesburg-Augusta in the state quarterfinal game. Galesburg was heavily favored and the Bucks beat them in a thrilling 2-1 final. The team celebrated the entire bus ride home and, as they entered into town following a police escort, Coach Bagwell stood up on the bus and said to the cheering girls, “Aren’t you glad Lawrence wasn’t here today!”
One of his recent players, Brittany Schmidt, recalled her favorite story of her favorite coach. She said that the team was driving to a tournament and had to split up into two school vans. Everyone wanted to ride with Coach Bagwell because he actually drove the speed limit and let the girls listen to the radio. She was in Coach Bagwell's van and he merged on the highway using his turn signal. For the next eight miles he got progressively more perturbed as the van kept making a "dinging noise" that he couldn't figure out how to turn off. He kept telling the girls that there was something wrong with the van and that it was driving him crazy. Then they get a phone call from the other van, informing them that their turn signal had been on for the last eight miles. Brittany said that he laughed the remainder of the ride about it. That was Coach--always the first to laugh, even at his own expense.
There are countless other Coach Bagwell stories told by hundreds of girls who’ve worn the pinstriped uniform of the Lady Bucks. Most of them involve humor, but all of them recall his pride for his team and his love for his girls. We felt like his daughters because that is how he treated us. And he had quite a bit of practice in doing so, given that he coached his own two daughters, Robyn and Sarah, as well. His fatherly presence on the ball field was enhanced by his wife’s motherly presence in the stands. Sandy Bagwell continued to support her husband and “her girls” long after her own daughters graduated and left the team. As he cheered you on from first, she cheered you on from the bleachers…a station she continues to occupy.
I was thinking of Coach Bagwell lately as I exchanged comments with his daughter Sarah (a classmate, teammate, and childhood friend of mine) on Facebook. I was thinking about how he spent his entire life parenting and coaching girls. He and Sandy were blessed with two wonderful daughters and then further blessed with three beautiful granddaughters (Kendra, Kaitlyn, and Hannah). In the coming months, a grandson will be added to the Bagwell roster. Sarah and her husband Jesse are expecting a boy soon, and I bet Coach Bagwell picked them out a good hitter up there. He’s probably rocking Noah in Heaven right now, feeding him one-liners and teaching him the steal sign. I bet he’s already hit him a few buckets of fungo. He's assuredly placed his worn U of M hat on his little head, ensuring that his love for the maize and blue continues in his bloodline. And when Noah arrives, he might have the faintest smell of coffee on his newborn skin...a sign that Papa Bagwell held him close and then sent him home.