17 inches

Well, the answer to that is, when it’s 17 inches. Today, let’s explore my answer by reading a famous speech etched in baseball history. 

Tim Mead, the then-incoming Baseball Hall of Fame president, and his friend Chris Sperry recall coach John Scolinos’ speech at the American Baseball Coaches Association Convention in Nashville in 1996.

Here is Sperry’s recollection, edited a bit by me. 

In 1996, Scolinos was 78 years old, and five years retired from a college coaching career that began in 1948. He shuffled to the stage to an impressive standing ovation, wearing dark polyester pants, a light blue shirt and a string around his neck from which hung a full-sized, stark-white home plate.

After speaking for 20 minutes, he said, “You’re probably all wondering why I’m wearing a home plate around my neck. Or maybe you think I escaped from Camarillo State Hospital.” I laughed along with the others, acknowledging that possibility.

“No,” he continued. “I may be old, but I’m not crazy. The reason I stand before you today is to share with you baseball people what I’ve learned in my life and what I’ve learned about home plate in my 78 years.”

Several hands went up when Scolinos asked how many Little League coaches were in the room. “Do you know how wide home plate is in Little League?” After a pause, someone hesitantly shouted, “Seventeen inches?” “That’s right,” he said. “How about in Babe Ruth? Any Babe Ruth coaches in the house?” Another long pause. “Seventeen inches?” another reluctant coach asked.

“That’s right,” Scolinos said. “Now, how many high school coaches do we have in the room?” Hundreds of hands shot up. “How wide is home plate in high school baseball?” “Seventeen inches!” they said, sounding more confident. “You’re right!” Scolinos barked. “You college coaches, how wide is home plate in college?” “Seventeen inches!” the coaches said in unison.

“Any Minor League coaches here? How wide is home plate in pro ball?” “Seventeen inches!” “Right! And in the Major Leagues, how wide home plate is in the Major Leagues?” “Seventeen inches!” “SEV-EN-TEEN INCHES!” he confirmed, his voice bellowing off the walls. “And what do they do with a big-league pitcher who can’t throw the ball over those 17 inches?” Pause. “They send him to Pocatello!” he hollered about the small Idaho city.

“What they don’t do is this: They don’t say, ‘Ah, that’s OK, Jimmy. Can’t you hit a 17-inch target? We’ll make it 18 inches or 19 inches. We’ll make it 20 inches so you have a better chance of hitting it. If you can’t hit that, let us know so we can make it wider still, say 25 inches.’”

There was silence. “Coaches, what do we do when our best player shows up late to practice? What if he gets caught drinking? Do we hold him accountable? Or do we change the rules to fit him and widen home plate?”

The chuckles gradually faded as 4,000 coaches grew quiet, the fog lifting as the old coach’s message began to unfold. Finally, he turned the plate toward himself and, using a Sharpie, began to draw something. When he turned it toward the crowd, the plate pointing up revealed a house, complete with a freshly drawn door and two windows.

“This is the problem in homes today, and with marriages, and with the way we parent our kids. We don’t teach discipline and accountability to our kids, and there is no consequence for failing to meet standards. Instead, we widen the plate!”

Pause. Then, he drew a small American flag on the top of the house. “This is the problem in our schools today. The quality of our education is going downhill fast. Teachers have been stripped of the tools they need to educate and correct our young people successfully. And we’ve allowed others to widen home plate. Where has this got us?”

Silence. He replaced the flag with a cross. “And this is the problem in the church, where powerful people in positions of authority have taken advantage of young children, only to have such atrocities swept under the rug for years. These church leaders are widening their home plate for themselves. And we allow it.

“And the same is true with our government. Our so-called representatives make rules for us that don’t apply to themselves. They take bribes from lobbyists and foreign countries. They no longer serve us. And we allow them to widen home plate. We see our country falling into a dark abyss while we watch.” 

From an old baseball coach with a home plate strung around his neck, I had learned something about life. I learned about myself, my weaknesses, and my responsibilities as a leader. I had to hold myself and others accountable to what I knew to be right, lest our families, faith, government and society continue down an undesirable path.

“If I am lucky, you will remember one thing from this old coach today,” Scolinos said. “It is this: ‘If we fail to hold ourselves to a higher standard, a standard of what we know to be right; if we fail to hold our spouses and our children to the same standards, and if our schools, our churches, and our government fail to hold themselves accountable to those they serve, there is but one thing to look forward to …’”

With that, he held the home plate in front of his chest, turned it around, and revealed its dark black backside. “We have dark days ahead.”

Scolinos concluded his speech with this exhortation: “Coaches, keep your players — no matter how good they are — your children, your churches, your government and, most of all, keep yourself at 17 inches.”

Scolinos made this speech back in 1996. It’s even more true today. A wise person once said, “Lukewarmness is measured, not by what you oppose but by what you tolerate.” Spending today complaining about yesterday’s news won’t make tomorrow any better. Be the right change. Don’t find fault. Find a remedy.