What I Learned About Cops From Baseball

New York Times
October 6, 2017
By Doug Glanville

Spending time with police officers as a kid gave me an opportunity to see them as people.
Almost exactly 15 years ago and 1,000 miles from where I was playing in the final game of my major league season, my father passed away in New Jersey. A week later, we honored his life in a poetic ceremony in my hometown, Teaneck. A procession of people lined up — people of many faiths, many cultures. It reflected the magnetism of the man, and it also framed my parents’ decision, many years earlier, to join a community committed to diversity. On display was an authentic subset of the United Nations.
Among them were members of the Teaneck Police Department, in full uniform. My mother taught math for decades in the school system, and many officers had been her students. And my father, a psychiatrist, had counseled police officers to help them cope with the stress of their duty.
Those officers were also my teammates.
In Teaneck, I played for years in the Little League system as my older brother climbed the ranks of elite summer ball and high school teams. One of those summer league teams was the Teaneck Lancers. They were draped in yellow, green and white, perhaps a tribute to the dominance of the Oakland A’s in the early ’70s. Leaning against the fence, I was in awe of the level of play and the crispness of the action.
When I came of age, and my game was good enough, I became a Lancer. They were run by a group of volunteers who were police officers, led by our coach, Gene O’Reilly, a detective who ended up serving 25 years in the Teaneck Police Department. Coach O’Reilly’s son, Glenn, who became a third-generation police officer and is now chief of police in Teaneck, was on my team. Between my brother’s team and mine, several players ended up having long careers in law enforcement.
Because I have coached Little League over the past few years, I now understand the commitment those volunteers made, not to mention their families, who helped in so many other ways. Driving all over creation, raking fields, keeping stats, carrying heavy equipment, packing lunches, throwing batting practice. And in baseball, those games keep on coming. (Thank you Dean Kazinci, Jimmy DeAnni, Mark Fisco, Bobby Mehnert, Glenn O’Reilly, Tim O’Reilly and Coach O’Reilly for your teamwork, friendship and service — all past or current officers. Thank you, coaches and volunteers — Ralph Tunick, Jim McManus and Joe Del Grande, and countless others.)
Spending extensive time with them gave me a rare and early opportunity to see the police as people. Their uniforms, instead of being a symbol of intimidation, became familiar and mirrored some of baseball’s traditions — attention to detail, honor, pride. It underscored that being a good team, as our state champion Lancers became, required a synchronized heartbeat, and those players came together as representatives of our town’s diversity, a beautiful intersection that shows what I believe to be America at its best.
When I went away for my major league career, the officers who had been my Lancers teammates looked out for my family. All along, they reminded me that I was one of their own and my success had made them proud. They also knew that I missed a lot of important moments in my parents’ lives because of my 162-game schedule. So they popped in to see my mom, and when my father became ill in the middle of my career, they provided backup. I would play baseball as an amateur and professional for two decades after the Lancers. On and off the field, my former teammates were there every step of the way.
Because I started my relationship with law enforcement through baseball, certain experiences since then have been colored by that connection. It allowed me to see a solution when, nearly four years ago, an officer from an adjoining town, who was searching for someone else, stopped me in my driveway in Connecticut while I was clearing it of snow. Without introduction or explanation, he presumptuously asked me if I was shoveling the snow to make money.
At its worst, the episode had all the raw elements of race in America, the African-American homeowner in the “elite” neighborhood being challenged by a young white police officer about his place in society.
But in the aftermath, instead of feeling only anger and dismay, I also felt a sense of opportunity. My past experience with police officers — when I’d seen them at their best, as my brothers — informed how I approached the situation and how it was resolved. An essay I wrote about it led to extensive dialogue locally, which in turn led to a clarification of Connecticut law about the limits on police crossing town lines to enforce municipal ordinances. Later, I was honored to accept an appointment by the governor to the Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council to add input on policy and training.
When we have the opportunity to share a passion with people we’d normally have little or no contact with, it can be a gift. And having that intimacy through a love of sports is a powerful way to see beyond the boxes we put one another in. If you are fighting together every day with a common goal, it resets what is important. Your teammate’s skin color becomes less important than how hard he hustles, his religion is secondary to how good his curveball is, her gender matters less than her work ethic.
Throughout my big-league career, I learned that baseball and law enforcement have a unique bond. Both made progress through labor, sometimes through strikes, lockouts and work stoppages, and in the courts. It was never easy. We respect that about each other.
On the basic level, the police were the protectors of our privacy and safety. But they were also great fans. One of my favorite fan clubs formed when I played for the Phillies. The “Wolf Pack” was a group of brothers and cousins, some of whom were Philadelphia police officers. They came to games dressed as werewolves to cheer on my teammate Randy Wolf with howls, chants and dances. These officers and many others were community supporters and they crossed paths with players for many good causes in our city.
I understand that in my adult years, being a professional athlete was a luxury that shaped my positive outlook on community and policing, especially when peering through the lens of race. Yet my optimism had been seriously tested and sustained long before. After I’d started college, I saw my idyllic hometown community nearly implode when a white officer in pursuit on foot shot and killed a 16-year-old African-American teenager after responding to a call that the teen was at a park with a gun. Over time, disputes over the sequence of events, the use of deadly force and eyewitness accounts raged as the town saw fractures in its ideal. It brought to light the fact that even diverse and harmonious environments are not immune to racial dynamics that can spiral out of control. The weary town eventually emerged with deep scars, but still committed to the strength of diversity. The town was shaken, but not broken — the way I felt, too. It is worth noting that the Teaneck police, as a department, have not fired a gun since that day 27 years ago.
I realize that few black men, without having served, have this longstanding history with law enforcement. It is not necessarily because that history is all bad, but because having the kind of intimacy that I have had is rare. When the only contact occurs under duress or stress, it is hard to imagine a counterexample to bias, never mind anyone ending up being a lifelong friend and honoring your civilian father 20 years later.
After my father’s service, it became time to drive to the burial site. I helped get the coffin into the hearse, and rode with my mother and my brother to the cemetery. The Teaneck police waited and provided a full escort for the procession. I still get choked up thinking about it. I am not sure I remember what was said at the interment, but I remember that police escort like it was yesterday.
Nearly three years after my father was buried, I retired in 2005 after a lifetime of baseball. At times, I had to live the polarities of sport. Win and loss, hit or out, strike or ball. A binary world. Yet teamwork and life are not so absolute. People deserve the room to be more than the stereotypical labels we tend to place on them. We are always more than a color, a knee, a shield, a flag.
I am black in America and fully understand that there are people who look like me who have consistently negative or even fatal interactions with law enforcement. But I also know that if we take the best of what we can learn from being teammates and allow it to grow off the field, we can find family in one another. The best of our humanity cannot be reduced to assumptions about black or white — or blue.
Republished from The New York Times
Photo: From left, Glenn O’ Reilly, now Teaneck’s chief of police; the author; and Sgt. Bobby Mehnert, in an undated photo outside the Teaneck Police Department.



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