On Being a Mentor

Keith Sones

Nov 20, 2019

By Keith Sones

In that moment, I was convinced that my first official swing of a baseball bat would be my last.

It was the early 1970s and baseball was all the rage in my small town. With a population of 11,000 and 10 Little League teams coupled with a bustling farm team feeder system, you were no one if you didn’t play. Still in the single digits of age, I had visions of standing atop the mound, eyeing the pitch signals from the catcher before going into my signature wind up, and fanning the batter with a record breaking fastball. But first things first. I had to find a team to play on.

Getting access to a farm team was pretty straightforward. During tryouts at the beginning of the season, you merely showed up on the first day and were assigned to a team. The volunteer coaches would then assess your skills, or lack thereof, and determine where on the team you fit. Outfielder, first base, shortstop, catcher, pitcher and primary benchwarmer were all up for grabs. Out on the field in late spring, bats were swinging and balls looping through the air, generating a buzz of excitement as we all set out to impress. Bearing in mind that we were a bunch of ragtag kids as opposed to polished professionals, the sound of summer was punctuated with gleeful yells, jeers, calls of “Hey, over here, throw it to me!” and squeals of pain as a hard covered ball came into violent contact with something other than bat or glove.

The dust settled (quite literally) with a loud whistle from the head coach. “Everyone in,” he bellowed, and we scrambled from the field, surrounding him right beside where the third base dugout would have been were it a real baseball field. One by one, names were called out. “Leo, first base.” “Todd, centre field.” And so on. The group quickly formed into two — those who had been called and those of us waiting to hear our name. And as quickly as it started, the pronouncements came to an end, with two of us left forlornly in the now very small “name not called” crowd.

With the other kids heading back out on the field to lay claim to their individual plots of dirt and grass, the other boy and I waited. While we endured, seemingly forever, the glances of pity from our friends who had been lucky and skilled enough to be handed the newly minted team t-shirts, the coach wandered over to us and ever so gently told us that while the team was full, we could still play baseball. He offered to talk to the t-ball coach about having us play.

T-ball. If you were to find a time machine and travel back to 1972, then find a thesaurus and look up that word, I have no doubt the synonyms would be calamity, mortified, catastrophe, humiliation and failure. It was, in the minds of my chums and myself, the sanctuary of those just not good enough to play real baseball, toddlers just out of diapers, bookworms whose parents insisted on exercise for their children, and the offspring of people in witness protection, since no one would ever pay attention to kids in T-ball. Society has advanced since then and the sport is now viewed as a legitimate way to train budding ballplayers, but not so almost 50 years ago. Feeling like every one of the descriptors above, I wiped my tears and decided then and there that my baseball career was over, and started to focus on where I would relocate as I would obviously have to leave town in shame.
Interrupting my thoughts, the coach, who I hadn’t met until that day, said something that startled me. In my reverie, I hadn’t realized he was still standing beside me, and so was abruptly dragged back to reality when he calmly uttered, “So I’ll see you at T-ball on Tuesday.” Now I was thoroughly confused. Why on earth would this man, who was in my eyes a demigod for his ability to determine the fates of aspiring ball players, come to T-ball of all things? He would likely come in disguise so as to not be shunned by the other rulers of baseball, but in that moment I decided to show up on Tuesday. As young as I was and while I certainly couldn’t define the feeling, he had exemplified the start of something that I would carry to this present day.

Tuesday. Given the age of most of the youngsters, which made me feel like Methuselah, the process for learning T-ball was quite orderly. We were ushered into a line and waited our turn to take a swing at a baseball perched atop a short rubber stem mounted to a round metal base, which formed the (upside down) “T” part of the sport. Most of the kids were awkward and some had a hard time lifting the bat, but each more or less enthusiastically brought bat into contact with ball.

As my turn arrived, I noticed something behind the backstop that put a bit more spring in my step. The farm team coach was leaning against the steel mesh, fingers entwined and with a rather intense look on his face. Encouraged, I wrapped my hands around the handle of the bat firmly, took up a batting position and arced the bat through the air.

As I spun around with what was likely excellent follow through, I came full circle and with horror realized the ball remained nestled on the rubber post. I had missed. Please now refer to the first sentence in this article.

The T-ball coach, who had almost certainly accepted the job because he had a child or two on the field, asked me in a rehearsed way to try again. I took up the stance again, this time embarrassed and angry about recent events. Channelling my inner Hulk, I cocked the bat as far back as I could and swung it like a cannonball blasting out of the cannon. Not even looking at the expectant baseball, I made solid contact and rocketed the ball off of the T, outdistancing the results of my fellow players by a factor of three or four. “Wow”, I thought, “that felt good.” The coach, who had probably been napping, asked me to hit another one, which I did. This time I was in far more control but the results were similar. Although I still knew I was in T-ball purgatory, I was beaming.

The session wrapped up and as I rounded the backstop to walk home, the farm team coach stopped me and said, “Keith, you did really well and I think you will make a good player. We have a game on Friday, why don’t you come and we can find you a spot on the team.”

So, this next part is important. This happened many years ago and I don’t even recall the coach’s name. I do, however, still remember how he made me feel, and not just through his words. I instinctively knew that he cared. To this day I don’t honestly know why he came to that practice session, why he stayed, and why he asked me to come back to the farm team. I was a little kid in a small town. Perhaps he thought that my gangly frame would be a benefit to his team. Maybe he lived close by. But I don’t think it was those things. I trust, for whatever reason, that he believed in me and wanted me to succeed, even when I didn’t think I could. He didn’t make it about anything other than me, and that recognition was unbelievably empowering.

I did go to that next game, and as it turned out I had a better arm than bat. I played in the field that day, and it may have been the fact that I could throw a ball from the outfield into home plate, but over the course of the next few games I graduated to pitcher and mid-season was transferred to a Little League major team, the Knights of Columbus Yankees. On a warm dry evening late in the season I pitched a no-hitter, and was rewarded with, among other things, a team dinner at the local steakhouse. No looks of pity that night, just camaraderie and happiness.

That coach, and his offering, has been better defined in my mind over the years. He enabled me to believe not just in my abilities but more importantly in myself. In the past decades, I’ve had others that have offered guidance and support, but I’m very happy that my first experience was at an early age. And the belief in oneself is critical. There have been plenty of times when it’s been required. I recall as a recent college graduate entering the field of utility safety, an engineer warning me that unless I went back to school for engineering I’d never move beyond the entry level position. Years later, as I was accepted as senior safety manager, I reflected on this conversation and realized how easy it would have been to accept his advice as the truth, thereby bypassing the belief in myself.

The generally accepted definition of mentor is along the lines of someone who gives a person help and advice over a period of time, especially related to their job. While I agree that this is often the case, I feel by sticking to that definition we miss out on so much. Yes, to be a good mentor one has to offer sage advice that has been accumulated through experience. No question. But you also have to care, and see something in the mentee that they might not see in themselves. My best mentor is far and away my wife Rosanne, because she cares, believes in me, and helps me see well past my often myopic internal views.

I have been asked by two colleagues in the past year to serve as a mentor and I take it very seriously. It is an honour to be asked and it is more than just offering business advice. They may well make decisions about their future based on something I say, so the conversations must be based on a deeper understanding of them as people, not merely suggesting a career path.

“Before they care how much you know, they want to know how much you care” is a saying amongst young athletes that rings very true, although most couldn’t articulate it, they just feel it. The same is true in business and in life. We are all in this together, so as your knowledge and insight grow over the course of your life, please share it with others in a way that is most meaningful to them. You don’t need a Masters degree or a billionaire’s bank account to be a mentor. Whether it’s a formal arrangement or giving ongoing encouragement to a dusty faced kid, you’ll make a big difference in their lives. Perhaps bigger than you can possibly imagine.

Keith Sones is Executive Vice President, Strategy and Business Development, The Valard Group of Companies.


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