Funny how, the moment I turn off my recorder, the conversation gets good.
It's baseball season, so I finally crossed (back) over to sports and chatted with longtime Rock Falls baseball skipper Donnie Chappell. As soon as I hit the stop button, he made a very interesting comparison between his labor of love and my old one.
"You can't make everybody happy," said Chappell, who is in his 15th season at the helm of the perennial powerhouse program.
So true, Mr. Chappell. But he also pointed out that he's had only one heated phone call from a parent during his tenure. And if there's anything that I've learned since moving to the Sauk Valley, it's that Rock Falls folks will let you know what they think, whether it be good, bad or ugly.
So, Chappell's gotta be doing a lot of things right.
While the post-recording portion of our conversation was fascinating to me, the stuff my microphone grabbed was pretty doggone good, too. Hear it in the latest People's Voice podcast.
Much like Chappell, who reflexively deflects credit to his players for titles of many shapes and sizes, our chat was so stinking good because of the interviewee, not the interviewer.
I got to know Chappell and his boy, Brett, pretty well during the 2012 season. The SVM sports writers aren't assigned beats, but I'm pretty sure I covered a Rockets baseball game every week.
That 2012 team was a fun one, and its ability to enjoy the game came from the top. See, even though Donnie is very good at keeping his fingertips off buttons that don't need pushing, he brings one Fenway-sized thing to the table: his love for the game.
He and his fellow coaches don't beat their players over the head with 3-hour practices.
“I always tell them, ‘If you were at practice, and you weren’t laughing and having fun, you shouldn’t have been here,’” Chappell said. “It’s high school sports.”
He can sense when his team needs a mental break, and then backs off on the practice or, perhaps better yet, builds things into the routine – like batting practice, of course – that get his guys feeling good about themselves.
Something pretty neat happened at the outset of the season. The season had already been delayed by winter's tenacious grip, and then the Rockets began practice a week late – with tear-logged hearts – in the wake of the fatal shooting of Rock Falls freshman Matthew Anderson. In fact, the first practice was the night before the visitation.
Chappell's guys played catch for about half an hour before grabbing a bucket to sit on and enjoying each other's company. He says he saw a weight slowly lift off his players' shoulders.
"It was good to see them laugh, and they got their mind off it," Chappell said. "No one should ever have to deal with that – kids, parents, or anybody."
But it warms my heart that a simple game like baseball is a vehicle for such healing. It's no wonder Chappell loves the game as much as he does.
For those wondering how long he'll coach, he didn't give me a definitive answer. But it sounds like, barring the unforeseen, he'll be the guy in the dugout until his youngest, 11-year-old Chase, graduates from high school.
That's a good thing. A very good thing. As Annie Savoy, the muse of the Bulls in one of my favorite films, "Bull Durham," coined: "I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. And the only church that truly feeds the soul, day-in day-out, is the Church of Baseball."
Church. Chappell. Coincidence? Sure. But it sure is a fun one.