A Comeback to Remember

Youth baseball teaches kids about winning and losing. One team, and one special season, taught a coach about something else: the importance of staying in the game.

It was a beautiful day for baseball. On a late afternoon last spring at Friendship Park in South Ogden, Utah, the red infield clay crunched with each step, and the sun sparkled off the nearby Wasatch Mountains. 

But despite the ideal weather, coach Curtis Breitweiser felt nervous—“half scared to death”—as he waited for the South Ogden A’s to arrive for their first practice. He hadn’t coached in more than a decade, and with no direct connection to any of the 9- and 10-year-old players, he wondered whether they would like him or respond to his teaching. 

Around town, the former insurance salesman, then 57, was known for his endearing smile and ever-ready nuggets of advice, but the past year had been the hardest of his life. In April 2017, his only son, J.D., took his own life at the age of 23. 

Breitweiser, his wife, Caron, and the couple’s three daughters tried to rally together, but the only time he felt any solace was when he was alone on his Harley-Davidson, or climbing majestic Ben Lomond Peak. When he decided to retire early, Caron suggested he take up a hobby. 

“Why don’t you coach kids or something?” she asked. Breitweiser liked the idea. He had managed J.D.’s youth baseball team years earlier and hoped he could recreate happier times. 

As practice got underway, some kids were wearing basketball shoes. Others wore soccer shorts. One was using a plastic toy glove. At one point, Breitweiser told the team to meet at home plate. Confused, a few players sprinted to the dugout. In one drill, the boys formed two lines, 5 feet away from a partner, for some toss and catch, but even that was an adventure. 

“It was horrible,” Breitweiser says. “They just had no concept.” 

The week before, the team had essentially been picked at random by Breitweiser at a league-wide draft. Few of the players knew one another, and no one knew him. 

Breitweiser ended practice early and gathered the team in a circle. “Listen, all I want is for you to have fun and hustle. Do we know what hustle means?” he asked. There was a smatter of yeses and an “I think so.” “Hustle means do your best.” The kids put their hands together in the middle of the circle. One … two … three … “Play hard and hustle!” they screamed. 

Of course, no one knew it then—not the parents, not the players, and certainly not Breitweiser—but they were about to embark on something special. For now, however, they were just a band of baseball misfits in need of some structure, and a lost middle-aged man in need of some direction.

Before the first game, against the team from South Weber, Breitweiser lined up the players to stretch in unison. They were decked out in matching gray pants and green South Ogden A’s tops. While other teams in the league were happy for their players to have one weekly practice, the A’s had gone through an intensive baseball boot camp, practicing every other day for three weeks. 

Luke, an undersized left fielder who wore glasses that were slightly too large for his face, learned not to sprint in the opposite direction of the ball. Corbin, the first baseman, stopped ducking every time a pitch was thrown. Gradually, the A’s worked up to the basics. 

For help, Breitweiser had taken on two parents as assistant coaches—Jordan Coffey, tall and spindly, with a quiet demeanor, and his best friend, Jason Muchmore, stout, fast-talking, and covered in tattoos. The pair met when a teacher placed them side by side in junior high, and they’d been inseparable ever since. They now worked as electricians in the same office at Hill Air Force Base. The season before, Coffey and Muchmore had coached a team that included their sons, but, Coffey says, “It didn’t go well. We don’t know anything about baseball.”

Over time, the team improved significantly. On the last day of boot camp, Breitweiser lined up the players in the same formation as the first practice—two rows of kids facing one another—and had them toss the ball back-and-forth. No one dropped it. Breitweiser saw a glimmer of hope. 

Against South Weber, he chose his shortest player, Brandon, as his starting pitcher. Painfully quiet, he had the best arm on the team, but Breit­weiser had also noticed that he threw a bit like his own son. That seemed like a good omen. After three batters, though, Brandon had walked the bases loaded.  

“Time!” Breitweiser yelled to the umpire and walked to the mound. “Are you OK?” he asked his pitcher. 

Brandon looked at his father, Jorge Bocaranda, who—along with his wife, Yamileth—was sitting in a lawn chair down the right field foul line, far away from the rest of the parents. Bocaranda had grown up around the game in Venezuela and perhaps knew more about baseball than anyone else at the field that day, but he didn’t like to be near adults he didn’t know. 

Twenty-five years earlier, he immigrated to Utah after coming for a short visit. He was so struck by the state’s beauty that he never left. Then, a few years later, while out one evening in Salt Lake City, he was assaulted. The experience scarred him. He moved his family to South Ogden, an economically diverse area, but in their part of town, they were the only Latino household. As Brandon grew, he inherited his father’s love of baseball, but also his resilience. 

Breitweiser kicked the dirt off the rubber, and Brandon retook the mound. Then he fired a strike, and then another, and another. He struck out three straight batters.

In the bottom half of the inning, the A’s knocked the ball all over the field and eventually won, 7–3. The players did a victory lap around the bases, culminating with a team slide at home plate. 

The next game, the A’s won a thriller, 7–6, followed by a 9–0 shutout. By the fourth game, cousins and grandparents of the players were in the bleachers, Coffey says. Breitweiser’s sisters and parents, too. Breitweiser estimates the A’s would have as many as 50 people coming to games. 

“Winning was so awesome,” he says.

The assistant coaches became more involved. Bocaranda inched closer and closer to the dugout until Breitweiser handed him a jersey and made him an unofficial third assistant coach. 

At work, Muchmore and Coffey couldn’t stop talking about baseball. They’d debate the team’s ideal pitching matchups, or who should bat leadoff. If they were confused about any aspects of the game, like how to hit a cut-off man, they’d pull up how-to baseball videos at their desk. Their favorite pastime, however, was guessing the backstory of Breitweiser, a man who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. By now, they trusted him, but they were still curious about their initial meeting. Breitweiser told them he decided to coach because he had some free time and then cryptically said he would “explain the rest later.” 

“Think he won the lottery?” Muchmore asked Coffey. “Is that why he has so much time to coach?”

As the season progressed, the A’s remained undefeated. After each victory, Breitweiser would drive to the cemetery where his son was buried. He’d sit next to J.D.’s tombstone and relive the team’s highlights. Brandon was turning into the best pitcher in the league; Luke had taken a ball to the face in the outfield, leaving him with a shiner, but he wasn’t running away. 

Breitweiser and J.D. had always been close. One summer before J.D. (short for James Don) started high school, Breitweiser took him on a road trip from Utah to Florida and back. Breitweiser was working on visiting every ballpark in the major leagues, and they went to seven stadiums during the trip. They stayed in dusty motels, and J.D. confided to his father that he dreamed of being a sports agent one day. The last ballpark they visited was Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and the two were randomly selected as “the fans of the game.” Their picture was put up on the scoreboard, and they were taken down to the VIP boxes where they were treated like celebrities. “It was so cool,” Breitweiser recalls. “J.D. was like my best friend.” 

When J.D. died, Breitweiser’s life went into a cosmic tailspin, but coaching the A’s had given him some semblance of order. He built a routine around preparing for games, drilling the players, and texting the parents recaps after every practice. For a while, this fragility held. Then, one evening, he got an unexpected text from Coffey. 

In large part, Coffey had taken a coaching role to be more involved in his son’s life in a way he wished his own dad had been. Coffey’s father had recently been treated for colon cancer, and the two had been working on their relationship. Halfway through the season, Coffey’s father died of a heart attack. 

In the text to Breitweiser, Coffey briefly mentioned what happened and said he wouldn’t be at practice. A few days later, Breit­weiser surprised Coffey by attending the viewing. Without mentioning his own son, Breitweiser put his arm around Coffey and told him, “I know what you’re going through.” 

“He helped me get through it,” Coffey says. “He was the person that needed to be there.”

Shortly after the funeral, the A’s played the team from Washington Terrace. It was a wild game. The A’s were up a run in the final inning when Washington Terrace’s second baseman overthrew first base. Corbin sprinted halfway to home plate, and then stopped when the opposing team’s manager ran onto the field, screaming at the umpire that the runner shouldn’t be allowed to advance. Breitweiser, usually mild-mannered, argued his case, but Corbin wasn’t allowed to score. The game eventually ended in a 9–9 tie. 

Before, every victory had felt to Breitweiser like a sign from above, a reconnection with J.D. But a tie felt empty, and all he could think about was the burden of his own secret. “I needed to tell the team and the parents why I was there.” 

The final game of the season was against the Riverdale Bees, the only other undefeated team in the league. The A’s would have to win to finish in first place. Before that game, Breit­weiser organized a team celebration at a local park for families and friends. He grilled hot dogs, and near the end of the afternoon, he handed out awards and thanked the families and the kids for their dedication throughout the season. “The first practice, your kids couldn’t hit, couldn’t run. And look at them now,” Breitweiser said jokingly. Then he took a long pause. 

He wanted to tell them everything about J.D.—a sports aficionado who worked at Foot Locker and collected LeBron James signature sneakers, a senior at Weber State University studying economics, a loving son with a girlfriend he adored. But it was all too painful. Perhaps there was even a part of him that wanted to tell them the things he couldn’t bear to think about: A week before J.D. was to graduate college, he killed himself in the Breitweisers’ home. There was no note. Maybe the only clue, which Breitweiser later discovered, was that J.D. was short a few credits to graduate. Whether or not this explained something, the family didn’t know. But the hardest part, Breitweiser says, is that J.D. never told him what was really going on. “In the end, I realized I was just his dad.”

In front of the families, he turned his hat inside out and showed them the scrawled initials—J.D. “The real reason I did this was for the son that I lost,” he said, “to fill a void in my heart.” 

After Breitweiser spoke, the parents came up and hugged him, and the kids did what 9- and 10-year-olds do. They ran over and doused him with soda as if he’d won a championship. Even Bocaranda, so sensitive to contact, walked over to Breitweiser and gave him a hug. “He’s really special,” Bocaranda says. 

“Maybe it was just a kids’ game in a league that didn’t officially name a champion, but if you looked around the field that day, you would have seen pure elation.”

The entire team dedicated the final game, played back at Friendship Park, to J.D. However, when the game started, it was as if all of the team’s magic had evaporated. Brandon’s pitching was erratic, and the team struggled to make contact. Every game in the league had a one-hour time limit, and the A’s found themselves down two runs, with a half inning to bat before time expired.

After a strikeout and a hit-by-pitch, Brandon drew a walk. Another strikeout followed. With the A’s season down to its final out, Daniel, the team’s jokester but its best athlete, stepped to the plate.

During the A’s boot camp, he hit the ball farther and ran faster than his teammates. However, once the season began, Daniel struggled. He would try too hard at the plate and became increasingly frustrated.

Before the first pitch, Breit­­­weiser bent down to meet him at eye level. “I never ask my players for anything but to show up and try their best,” Breitweiser told him. “But, Daniel, I’m asking you to hit a home run.”

Daniel nodded. He swung hard and missed the first two pitches. The A’s were down to their last strike. The pitch was delivered … And, of course, you can guess what happened next. Daniel cracked the ball over the first baseman’s head, past the right fielder, and into the corner. The two base runners scored, and then Daniel crossed the plate. An inside-the-park home run. Final: A’s 7, Bees 6.

Maybe it was just a kids’ game in a league that didn’t officially name a champion, but if you looked around the field that day, you would have seen pure elation—parents jumped up and down; kids ran around the bases and slid into home together; Coffey and Bocaranda, who had found healing in the comforts of the team, joined the dogpile; and then there was Breitweiser. For 10 weeks, he had taken on 11 sons and an extended family he never knew he needed. He stood back against the dugout railing with a satisfied grin.

He then handed the players medals he’d had specially made, inscribed with the team’s name. The players put their hands together and, one last time, screamed, “Play hard and hustle!”

The kids ate their snacks and, one by one, headed to the parking lot with their parents. Breitweiser lingered. When the last car had finally pulled away, he soaked in the moment alone.

“And just like that,” he says, “it was over.”

The next day, the adults went to work and the kids went to school. The triumphs and disappointments of everyday life followed. Luke was more confident in class. Brandon tried out for the school play, and his dad was becoming more open. Bocaranda signed up to house two Venezuelan minor leaguers playing for the local Class A team, the Ogden Raptors. “I really liked it,” he says. 

For others, the season left a void. Coffey and Muchmore had no more games to distract them, and Coffey says, “I kind of went into a funk.” The kids felt it, too. One day, Daniel, the home run hero, heard that Breitweiser might be visiting a home nearby. Hoping to catch a glimpse of him, Daniel grabbed his bike and snuck outside, but he never saw his coach.

“He’s my family,” Daniel says. “I wanted to see him.”

Breitweiser, meanwhile, looked for more ways to connect with others. He signed up to chair a committee at his alma mater, and he agreed to serve on the board of a nonprofit, MECKA, that aims to help kids overcome struggles that can lead to suicide. He and his wife even bought tickets to go to Europe. At times, he thought about emailing the parents and checking in, but then he’d get cold feet. “What was I going to say?” he says. 

It wasn’t until he ran into the Bocarandas at a Raptors game that he realized how much he missed the team. The memories and the feelings flooded back. This spring, when the new season rolled around, Breitweiser called Coffey, Muchmore, and Bocaranda, and they signed up to coach together in the 11- and 12-year-old division. Because of league rules, they wouldn’t have the same team, but that was OK. For Breitweiser, the magical season had given him a life he thought he’d never have again. 

“I’ve tried not to let J.D.’s death define me,” he says. “That team could never replace him, but they taught me it’s OK to smile. It’s OK to be happy.”

Flinder Boyd is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Email him at flinder.boyd@gmail.com.

Illustration by The Brave Union

Originally Published May 2019