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Column: Coaches Can Provide Balance Amidst Uncertainty

Lately I’ve been thinking about Mr. Miyagi’s famous quotes from The Karate Kid.

Pearls of wisdom like, “It’s okay to lose to an opponent, it’s never okay to lose to fear” or “If the root is strong, the tree will survive” seem more poignant nowadays.

Of all the beautiful advice written by Robert Mark Kaman and delivered by the late Pat Morita, I think what rings most true is, “If your whole life has balance, everything will be better.”

Balance, it seems, has been forced on us.

It’s somewhat disheartening to see a worldwide pandemic forcing humans to appreciate when truly matters in life, but that’s always the inevitable conclusion to a horrible situation. These are the days when nothing is taken for granted. These are the perspective adjusters.

I’m sure we’ve all seen too many people dismiss COVID-19 because their favorite sporting event isn’t proceeding as planned. We’ve also seen lemmings hoard toilet paper.

I think the correct response is somewhere in the middle. Sports don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, but they’ve become vitally important to the social fabric.

I know it’s silly for a sports writer to explain why sports are important right now, so I’m not going to do that. However, I do wholeheartedly believe that sports can be a place where leadership comes from.

Last week, the National Basketball Association suspending its season was one of the first big pieces of news that sent a serious message to this country. I mean, when billionaire team owners are choosing to sacrifice money for the greater good, you have to pay attention.

The decisions these leagues make are important, which makes athletes important, and a list of socially influential athletes who became beacons in dark times is very long. That’s because sports can create the loudest voices.

This month here in Long Beach, the loudest and most important sports voices have come from the high school and college coaches. They’ve dealt with a lot of unanswerable questions while trying to guide and protect their young student athletes.

“It’s not easy, so I gave them the facts,” Long Beach State Dirtbags coach Eric Valenzuela said. “That’s where you have to start.”

Everyone in the world is struggling one way or another, but it’s easy to understand the Dirtbags’ struggle right now. Obviously, this is a storied and proud college baseball program that was coming off the most forgettable season in program history. Valenzuela came in as outsider, but his energy and positive attitude quickly turned things around.

LBSU was ranked as high as No. 12 in the nation last week after a blistering start that included a sweep of No. 17 Wake Forest, and a series win over No. 6 Mississippi State at Bohl Diamond at Blair Field.

The Dirtbags were headed to New Orleans last Thursday to face another Top-25 opponent at Tulane in a weekend series. That never happened.

While on a red-eye flight to Louisiana, Valenzuela got the news via text that the Big West Conference had suspended its spring season. Nothing had been canceled when his team took off from LAX, but by the time they landed in the Big Easy, they were looking for return flights to California.

After a 20-hour travel day and an LBSU departmental meeting on Friday morning, Valenzuela called his 2020 Dirtbags team together one last time in the Bohl Diamond at Blair Field clubhouse. He said the room was somber because they’d already seen all of the bad news on their phones.

“It all happened so fast,” LBSU pitcher Matt Fields said. “Coach even said, ‘It probably hasn’t hit most of you yet that this season isn’t going to happen,’ and that was pretty true.”

Valenzuela delivered the bad news that the entire Big West baseball season, including the College World Series, had been cancelled. But he also had a parting message.

“I told them I’m proud of them,” Valenzuela said. “In a short amount of time, how they could just change this whole place. I thanked them for taking us in as new coaches. They kind of set the stage for the future of this program and the expectation. That’s the truth. It’s a great story of a bunch of comeback kids after what they went though.”

That story will be left unfinished, but Valenzuela reassured his team that they won’t ever be forgotten.

“They brought the Long Beach State Dirtbags community back,” he said. “I told them ‘You seniors who might never put this uniform on again, you’ve brought this community back together. Remember these crowds and the excitement. You guys did this’.”

“It was tough for him too because he’s put in such a bad situation,” LBSU senior Jacob Hughey said of his coach. “Having to say that stuff to us was rough. He’s a great leader, and great at keeping his composure. He’s been nothing but a good coach… There’s nothing he could have said to change the mood, but being all together with the guys helped. You can’t be selfish at that point.”

Valenzuela knew his words couldn’t heal any wounds, but he wanted them to at least dull the pain. He wanted to provide a sense of balance.

“It helped a lot actually,” Fields said of Valenzuela’s farewell to this season. “He specifically talked directly to the seniors, and that was one of the coolest things about the talk.”

“As much as you can be enlightened and positive, that’s kind of what it was,” Valenzuela said.

Valenzuela obviously isn’t the only coach forced to make a disappointing and unforgettable speech to a group of young student athletes, and Long Beach is lucky to have incredible coaches who can prepare their players for unforeseen challenges on and off the field.

As Mr. Miyagi said, “There’s no such thing as a bad student, only a bad teacher. The teacher says, the students do.”

JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.