There’s an old baseball saying that resonates – and stings – for many former players who set a goal of making their mark in the game: “The game is always taken from you before you are ready.”
West Essex Regional High School baseball coach Scott Illiano knows that feeling. But, as he relates in his recently published book, “Our Time: A High School Baseball Coach’s Journey,” it’s possible to find new avenues to explore in baseball with hard work, good luck and an unwavering commitment to the courage of one’s convictions.
It is because of his commitment, good fortune and love of the game that Illiano ends up as a 25-year-old head coach of the West Essex varsity baseball team back in the mid-1990s. His book relates the story of how he went from an unsuccessful tryout with the Florida Marlins to being named Northeast Region Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
But the real story, and the soul of the book, is the journey through today’s world of high school sports, where thorny issues, hands-on parents and the rights of passage for teenagers often get in the way of the game on the field. Many coaches – as well as the parents and players – are not prepared to address these challenges, he notes in the book published byiUniverse.com and available at Amazon.com.
‘Into The Dugout’
“There are probably certain things that happen in [coaching] that you are probably not aware of if you are not in the field,” Illiano said. “I try to offer the lessons and thoughts that I think are essential in coaching that sometimes go beyond just the winning and the losing. That’s what I wanted the reader to think about.”
One of the objectives in writing this book, he said, was to take the reader “inside the locker room, onto the practice field and into the dugout during the games.” His stories about past teams and players illustrate how coaches can effectively motivate a team when the team itself has self doubts and is struggling with establishing its confidence.
At its core, the book is a story about the unheralded 2006 baseball team at West Essex that put together an incredible run to capture the prestigious Greater Newark Tournament. Along the way, this inspired team knocked off several higher-seeded teams and ultimately defeated a talented Seton Hall Prep squad in the championship game. It’s a David and Goliath-type theme for the team, of course, and the story demonstrates how motivation and positive thinking can help players and coaches overcome the daily battle between players’ fears and their confidence.
“The whole David and Goliath theme is that they (Seton Hall Prep) had eight scholarship players and we didn’t have any,” Illiano recalled. “And we were the 15th seed and they were the one seed, they were ranked in the nation and we were not even ranked in New Jersey. So it painted that whole David and Goliath tale, which is a theme that I think is so important.”
A special education history teacher at West Essex with a master’s degree in educational administration (from Montclair State University), Illiano demonstrates how the 2006 West Essex team comes to understand that it is not the best team that wins, but the team that plays the best that day.
But Illiano clearly wanted this book, his first, to be more than just a story of one team’s success. More important, perhaps, the book addresses the topic of what makes a coach a coach, and when does a coach become a true coach. To raise these ideas in the reader’s mind, Illiano offers a summary of his earlier seasons as an assistant and subsequently the head baseball coach at West Essex.
For example, he noted, coaches have to make objective decisions on behalf of the entire team. These decisions are not always the way parents, who have subjective beliefs about their own children, are able to align with, he explained.
“Therein lays the intrigue,” he said. “There are a lot of issues that a modern day coach is going to have to take on, and college doesn’t prepare you for those issues.”
These “modern day issues” can arise unexpectedly – as happened at Wayne Hills High School last fall after an alleged altercation led to a run-in between members of the football team and the police, and school administrators were faced with difficult decisions on eligibility.
“I did this in a sense of trying to awaken consciousness about what some of those issues might be,” Illiano said. “In the end, it is my hope that not only can some of those issues be thought-provoking but perhaps even change-provoking. Maybe a parent, a coach, a player, a spectator or even a news reporter can pick up my book and read it and think about what these issues are. Maybe it will change them in some way in how they view high school athletics moving forward,” he said.
He began writing the book in late 2009 and finished the process in March 2010 right before the start of the high school baseball season. (He later added a chapter to include the story of the 2010 baseball team’s state championship and to reinforce some of the themes addressed earlier in the book.)
Another part of the book raises questions about the profession of coaching and when it is that someone truly becomes a coach, and what factors go into evaluating whether a coach is successful.
“I want the reader to think about when a coach becomes a coach?” he asked. “Is it the moment the athletic director reaches across the desk and says, ‘Congratulations, you have the job? Is it when you earn your first win? It is when you earn that first championship or is it somewhere else along the way?”
He recalled an incident in the spring of 2006 when a number of his players left a party shortly before police arrived and arrested some of the attendees.
“I look at that and say that is something that won’t make the newspaper, but it is a much bigger victory,” he noted.
“I do think there is a perception that if you win, you are a great coach and if you lose you are a failure,” he said. “I am not completely sure how much reality there is to that cultural perception…. What then is the real essence of what a coach does?” he asks.
The essence of what a coach is – a third theme of the book – is left open, and Illiano said his goal is to force the reader to think about that issue.