HARWICH – In baseball, Steve Wilson encourages his players to take chances, especially if there's an opportunity for a suicide squeeze, his favorite play. But when it came to facing ongoing health concerns, Wilson wasn't taking any chances, which is why he recently opted to step down as head coach of the Monomoy baseball team, bringing to an end a storied career along the sidelines.
Wilson said his health issues began last May when he had an incident involving his heart during a game at Martha's Vineyard.
“I collapsed on the field,” he said. “I did not lose consciousness. The trainer for Martha's Vineyard looked at me and said we needed to call the EMTs.”
An electrocardiogram showed troubling results and Wilson ended up in the Intensive Care Unit for two days at Martha's Vineyard Hospital where he was evaluated.
“It was determined that I had an electrical problem with my heart,” Wilson said, explaining that there was a synchronization issue between the two chambers.
Upon his return to Cape Cod he saw specialists who decided to place an implantable loop recorder, a device that records heart rhythms. Since then, Wilson hasn't had another incident, but in his words, there's a catch.
“I can't promise the school that it might not happen again,” he said. “It happened a week before at a home game. You just chalk it up to being tired, dehydrated, whatever. Moving forward I felt this was the best thing to do because I can't promise it might not happen again.”
The good news is that the players, assistant coaches, and parents in attendance pulled together, leading the team to what Wilson dubbed a sort of a storybook ending with Monomoy winning the game.
“They learned how to come together under adversity and carry on,” Wilson said.
The tougher news is that Wilson deemed it best to step down, erring on the side of caution.
“I thought it would be selfish on my part to return to coaching under those conditions,” he said.
Wilson's coach career began in 1974 when he served as assistant coach for Fred Ebbett at Harwich High School. Four years later he became the junior varsity coach, working with Ebbett, Charlie Horan and Fred Thacher before becoming head coach of the varsity program in 2008.
Wilson said he cherishes to this day the strong bonds he fostered with each coach, noting that Ebbett and Thacher are both Harwich Hall of Famers.
“All three of those coaches were great clinicians and were great with the kids,” he said.
At the heart of Wilson's coaching career was a passion not just for the sport of baseball, but the chance to teach it to high school players.
“I think what I enjoy most is the opportunity to teach students, players, the game of baseball,” Wilson said. “They're big enough and they're strong enough that they can really start to enjoy the strategies at the high school level.”
Wilson is proud of the fact that the Harwich and Monomoy programs have been successful through the years, with Harwich making the playoffs regularly, winning state championships in 2006 and 2007 and the South Sectionals in 2012. After regionalization and the creation of Monomoy Regional High School, the newly minted Sharks reached the semifinals in 2013, and again in 2015, where they rallied back from a deficit to take a temporary lead against St. John Paul II before falling by one run.
“When you think about that year in particular, the South Shore League was the most competitive league in the state,” Wilson said. “I think the highlight that I think most about is that we've been a successful program. Eight out of the 11 years they've made the state tournament. That's so important, because that's one of the team goals. We play our best games, our most competitive games at the end of the season.”
Ever humble, Wilson ducks away from attributions of success as a result of his coaching, instead shining the spotlight on his players.
“I think that the strength has been that the kids recognize that if we practice properly and practice under pressure, we can execute under pressure,” Wilson said. “The most important thing is you getting better every day and does that translate in tournament time at the end of the season?”
Wilson doesn't shy away from his love of the squeeze play, or suicide squeeze. For those unfamiliar with baseball, the squeeze play is when the at-bat player hits a sacrifice bunt in order to allow the runner on third to score.
“The suicide squeeze is probably one of the most important drills that we run and one of the reasons we've been successful over the years,” said Wilson. “We might run three or four suicide squeezes in a row and put pressure on the other teams. That's something that every team I've coached has tried to do.”
Something else that Wilson put heavy emphasis on was sportsmanship.
“We try to play with class and with heart,” he said. “And what I mean by that is with every team I demand that we have sportsmanship and respect for the opponent, and recognize that we always have to maintain our composure under any and all circumstances.”
Sportsmanship was just one of what Wilson feels are many life lessons taught to players via the game of baseball.
“The value of sports is the life lessons that you learn,” he said. “I really believe that baseball teaches life lessons that can be applied to any job, any family. Those lessons help set you up for the future. The team is a family, and just like a job or a family you need to be a good teammate. I think that sports, baseball in particular, rewards teams that have good teammates. That's the goal – to be a good teammate.”
Wilson showed support for his players through lasting traditions, including making an appearance at the prom each spring for photos with tuxedo-clad players and putting together highlight books at the end of each season complete with photos and newspaper clippings.
What Wilson said he'll miss the most, beyond the sport and the adrenaline rush of a big win, is the relationships formed with everyone involved with the team, from players to fellow coaches, volunteers and parents.
“I enjoy the relationships with the high school players, and also with the parents and volunteers that work with the program,” he said. “The volunteers that we've had over the years have just been extraordinary. We've had fantastic support from the Harwich community, the Monomoy community as well. The Harwich Mariners have been supportive in terms of sharing equipment with the team since the 1990s, and each year Steve Englert helps the varsity by sharing the field. It's just been a tremendous cooperative effort.”
Among those Wilson expressed immense gratitude to, along with the aforementioned coaches, are Tom Clarke, a Harwich Police Resource Officer who coached at the JV level with Wilson and continued volunteering at the varsity level; Bob Warner, who served with Wilson for 20 years; Alan Darson, and former player-turned-assistant coach; and Dylan DeGroff, catcher for the 2006-2007 state championship teams at Harwich.
“They do it for the right reason,” Wilson said. “They volunteer because they want to share the game they love and want to teach young people how to play the game properly.”
Wilson's hope is that the 2018 players aren't let down by his decision.
“It's been a privilege to walk onto historic Whitehouse Field to represent Harwich and Monomoy,” he said. “I don't want to disappoint the kids this year, but with change comes opportunity. I think the search for the new coach will bring a new perspective to Monomoy baseball and an opportunity for the kids to learn from the new coach.”
Wilson, a former school psychologist for the Harwich schools as well as the former technology director (fun fact – he's the reason the district website ends in .edu), has served as treasurer of the Cape Cod Baseball League since 1986 and will continue on in that role. He's also planning on joining the fans at Monomoy home games this spring.
“I've been extremely proud of the teams that have played at Harwich and Monomoy, for their attitude, effort, and performance,” he said. “Monomoy always has played with and showed a lot of heart and class on the field. Players demonstrate empathy and compassion, leadership and helping each other as teammates.”
He hopes players will remember his Yogi Berra-esque piece of advice on baseball: “It's one-third effort, one-third attitude, one-third ability, and 90 percent mental. When you're confronted with challenges and adversity, how do you prepare?”
He also hopes they'll remember his advice on tricky spring weather.
“I say every year – the weather is my friend,” he said. “I talk about the teams that often come down here to the Cape. In the spring they look cold and miserable, and can't wait to get back on the bus. Dress properly and you'll always be prepared.”
Wilson is looking forward to the team's 2019 season.
“It's hard to walk away, but it isn't a tough decision because the timing is right,” he said. “I look forward to watching the team this spring.”