Michael Lewis on Character Building and 'Coach'

Writer Michael Lewis remembers his high-school baseball mentor in Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life. The book explores issues of character development through sports and education, and the nature of self-esteem.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The word `coach' when uttered as a form of address still has the power to move people, to inspire or discomfit them. Michael Lewis has written a short book that begins with one such memory from the spring of 1975 when he was a teen-age pitcher for the Isadore Newman School in New Orleans, a school that's produced a great many famous athletes, almost all of them named Manning. Michael Lewis joins us in our studios to talk about his new book, "Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life." Thanks for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL LEWIS (Author, "Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life"): Well, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: And let me get you to recapture that moment. Having--I sense from the book you don't mind recapturing that moment. But you were pitching because the immortal Shawn Tuey(ph) couldn't.

Mr. LEWIS: We were playing summer ball. And we were in the league championship. And I was an unlikely athletic hero. I had been good for nothing for several years, but had always had a passion for playing baseball. And we were winning 2-to-1. In the bottom of the seventh inning, the coach who's the subject of this book, Billy Fitzgerald, made the mistake of going to the mound once too often. And he was forced to pull the pitcher from the game.

SIMON: Yeah. There's a rule about that...

Mr. LEWIS: There's a rule.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEWIS: There's a rule. And so Shawn had to come out of the game. And he told me to warm up. I remember--I can remember distinctly--just how terrifying it all was because there were several hundred people in the stands, and the other team was sure they were going to win. They had a runner on first and third base, there was only one out. And they took one look at me, and they thought it was over. You know? And Coach Fitz was 6'4", 220 pounds, a former first-round draft pick of the Oakland A's. And I can remember thinking that of all the things in this ballpark, the most frightening is Coach Fitz. The first thing he says is, `There's no one I'd rather have in this position than you.' Now the amazing thing is that I believed him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEWIS: And he handed me the ball, and he said, `Pick him off.' He meant the runner on third base. And I picked him off. And I struck out the next batter. And this is where Coach Fitz's real genius, I think, kicked in. And he did this with kids over and over. He would create these very dramatic moments on the ball field and make them feel so important. And when they worked out well, he would seize on them as the sort of defining moment of your character.

After the game, he handed me the ball, and told the whole team that I was this person--and this was a completely implausible description of me--that I was this person who was good in the clutch, and that in pressure situations, that's who he wanted to have the ball. And this is sheer invention.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEWIS: But I tried to become that person. And from then on, my behavior changed in every way. I started to take the classroom seriously. The headmaster of the school called me into his office when school resumed to discuss this moment over the summer with Coach Fitz. And I later found out that Coach Fitz had gone to his office and said, `This is a moment in this kid's life. We can build on it. Bring him in.' And the headmaster said, `We're expecting more of you, you know, Billy Fitzgerald speaks well of you,' and that was a big thing. You don't think of such trivial moments being turning points in lives, but I actually regard that moment as a turning point, and that that man orchestrated it.

SIMON: You were moved to write the book, I gather, because--and we will see if there's a last-chapter report on this--but Coach Fitz had some reason to fear for his continued employment.

Mr. LEWIS: Well, this is what happened. The book started as a cover story for The New York Times Magazine. What I was trying to explain was something quite simple, was: `How is it that a 40-year-old man is still hearing the voice of this coach that he last encountered when he was 18 whenever he's in pressure situations, and that that voice sort of gets him through things?'

So I went down to see him. And I found this very curious thing. Several hundred of his former players were, at that point, raising the money to redo the gym and name it for him. And at the same time, the parents of his current players were trying to get him fired because they thought he was too tough on their kids. And when I wrote The New York Times Magazine piece, I really still thought it was a story that was peculiar to this school in New Orleans. And when you grow up in New Orleans, you tend to think whatever happens in New Orleans has no connection whatsoever...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEWIS: ...to the rest of the country. It's just a different place. But in this case, what was happening in that school was a microcosm of something that's happening all over the country, where tough teachers and tough coaches are finding that in their attempts to hold kids to higher standards, they're encountering resistance from a new kind of resistance from the parents.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, let me get you to talk about that because these are parents who think that it's important to instill self-esteem in youngsters. And, for example, Coach Fitz was accused of calling a youngster fat, which he didn't quite.

Mr. LEWIS: Yeah.

SIMON: He said you were supposed to lose 10 pounds or 15 pounds over the summer, and you gained 10.

Mr. LEWIS: What he said to me afterwards was, one of the things that has changed in the world is the notion of self-esteem. He said, `I have always thought of it,' he said, `as something that was earned. You started with zero, and it was through your acts in the world that led to the acquisition of self-esteem.' And what he faces now is a notion that's very much alive in the world and in these children that they're born with a fixed quantity of self-esteem, and when a coach yells at him or a teacher gives him a C or whenever anything bad happens to them, it damages, it reduced the fixed quantity. And so the person who's responsible for lessening the self-esteem gets all kinds of grief. So what he's trying to do is build the self-esteem. The parents see him as trying to take it away.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEWIS: About half the parents gathered together and went to the headmaster. And then the coach is called on the headmaster's carpet and told that he can't do this kind of thing. And this was just talk. He was in trouble for basically dressing down his team.

Two things, I think, wouldn't have happened until relatively recently. One, the parents wouldn't have felt as comfortable marching into the headmaster's office. Two, the previous headmasters, I know, when parents had marched into their office to complain about a teacher or a coach, had said, `Well, if you want your money back, take your money back, because our job is to do our job. And we think this guy is great.' But the most recent headmaster felt that, as he put it, these parents are our customers and they pay a lot of money to come here.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEWIS: And what had happened...

SIMON: Isadore Newman is...

Mr. LEWIS: It's a private school, and like a lot of private schools in the country, its tuition has gone through the roof. And it's more and more about money.

SIMON: Does he still have a job? Is he still the coach at Isadore Newman?

Mr. LEWIS: He is still the coach at Isadore Newman. And it's an interesting story why he is still the coach at Isadore Newman. When he appeared on the cover of The Times Magazine last year, the piece I wrote about him, he got an advanced copy. The thing came out on Sunday--he saw it on Friday. And he apparently turned to his wife and said, `I'm fired.' By Wednesday of the following week, he was appointed to the search committee to find a new headmaster.

SIMON: Michael Lewis, the author of "Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life," speaking with us in New York.

Mr. Lewis, thanks very much.

Mr. LEWIS: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And this year the Newman Greenies finish their varsity baseball season with a 17-and-5 record.

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