MORE THAN A GAME For coach, baseball teaches lessons for life


Mr. Lessner's coaching style has earned players' respect. Sometimes, he says, lessons learned on the field can be applied to life. "You'll win some, you'll lose some and some will be rained out."

If there's one thing Denny Lessner wants the boys he has been coaching this year to remember, it's this:

"The bad throws'll kill ya."

And if there's a more universal message to be learned from a season of recreational league baseball, he suggests:

"You're not going to win every game. It's a lesson to be applied to life. You'll win some, you'll lose some and some will be rained out."

Mr. Lessner, 45, is manager of the Lutherville-Timonium Braves. He has been involved with the recreation council's baseball program for six years, ever since his son Andrew, now 12, started playing in the clinic for younger children.

As a father of one of the players, he is like "99 percent of our managers," according to Vernon Strawhand, president of the Lutherville-Timonium Baseball Association. Occasionally, a younger person without a son will want to manage a team, Mr. Strawhand said. But mostly it's parents who want to be involved -- and these have been all dads, no moms, in recent years.

Unlike most youth baseball coaches, however, the Braves coach never played in a league himself. However, "I've always had an interest in baseball," said Mr. Lessner.

It's not as if he has to search for things to fill his spare time: He works full-time as a supervisor at Social Security, manages a bar in Canton owned by his mother-in-law and serves as president of the Shawan Valley Community Association.

He also makes it to most of his 9-year-old daughter Emily's softball games and is commissioner of the recreation council's baseball clinic, overseeing three programs.

With such a busy schedule, Mr. Lessner might be forgiven the impulse to plop down on the living room sofa at 6 o'clock every Monday and Thursday evening, instead of managing a team of 11- and 12-year-olds through most of April, all of May and half of June.

But he's there at every game, leaning against the chain-link backstop, his posture more tense than relaxed.

"Be a hitter," he'll call encouragingly to the batter. Or sometimes, more critically, to a daydreaming outfielder, "C'mon now, get in the game."

Mr. Lessner first described his motivation for signing up as manager as a selfish one: "It gives me an opportunity to spend some time with Andrew."

When he dug a little deeper, he came up with somewhat ambivalent feelings.

"I guess I get some enjoyment out of it," he mused. "I feel a lot of the same emotions the boys do. If they're down, I get a little discouraged. I think, 'If I had better training at this, maybe I could help them do better.' "

Which brings us back, sort of, to those bad throws.

It was the bottom of the second in a game last week against the Blue Jays. The Braves were "playing sensible ball, watching their throws," Mr. Lessner summarized, approvingly, as he watched Andrew single to center, then steal second.

But 2 1/2 innings later, with the Braves in the field, it was a different story. With the score tied and two outs, a Blue Jay stretched a single into a triple on throwing errors. A double scored the go-ahead run and Mr. Lessner decided to have a conference with his players.

"Bad throws will kill you every time, guys," he told the infielders assembled on the pitcher's mound. "Now brush it off, get back in the game."

But the next batter singled, driving in another run, and making it to third on bad throws. He scored on a single, as Mr. Lessner bellowed to an inattentive outfielder, "Get it in, get it in, don't stand there with it."

And then it was single after single after single, with Mr. Lessner counseling, "C'mon guys, settle down, settle down. It's a new batter."

The half-inning ended with the Jays leading 7-3, and Mr. Lessner gathered the Braves on the bench before they went to bat.

"OK, that was a bad inning," he told the boys. "And it was not TTC just one guy, it was everyone. We've got to make up for it, we've got to get some hits, we've got to get some runs. Now let's get in there and get them back!"

The team responded to the pep talk by slapping hands and shouting, "Go, Braves!" But the game ended in another Braves' loss. Their record went to four wins, five losses and one tie. (Since then, they've won another and lost another, making their season record 5-6-1.)

"Actually we're not having a bad year, even though we don't have a winning record," Mr. Lessner said later. "This year the league is balanced, the games have been close, we've been in every game and then maybe we'll blow it on one bad inning. I see a lot of talent on the team this year. I've never had this many good pitchers."

He doesn't see himself as a surrogate father for the boys on the team, he said. He keeps a certain distance -- most of the boys call him "Mr. Lessner," for example. It's a management style that has earned him points with the boys.

"I think he's a really good coach," said Travis Mulkay. "He's nice to us, he doesn't get mad at us when we make bad plays, he helps us to play better by making us do things over and over again until we get it right."

"He's good, he's real nice," agreed Ben Rhodes. "He likes to move people around and see how they do as a player in different positions. I think I've improved this year because of him."

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