Veteran Coach Sees
Life Lessons on Softball Diamond
Lifelong baseball fan and girls little league softball coach, John O’Neil can honestly say that his favorite team is the Mets – as in the group of 16 young ladies he trains every spring. No offense to the New York Mets, but the choice between the hardened major league team and his budding talents is a virtual no-brainer.
When you’ve spent as many weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings calling plays and building team spirit as Coach O’Neil, there is no question where your loyalties lie. A head coach in Mosholu Montefiore Community Center’s (MMCC) girls’ softball division, O’Neil, 62, has happily reported for duty for the past 15 years.
“I prefer to coach the girls softball division,” admits O’Neil, who first trained his son’s baseball team before making the gender switch 14 years ago at his daughter’s insistence. He’s been a softball mainstay ever since.
With his adult children long-since graduated from the MMCC league, O’Neil stays on, driven by his passion for baseball and a genuine commitment to girls’ softball.
“Sometimes [girls] don’t start playing as early as the boys do, but they catch up,” says O’Neil, who takes pride in the softball prodigies he has coached over the years – many of whom go on to play for junior high and high school teams.
A recycling office employee in the city’s Department of Sanitation, O’Neil lives in the northwest Bronx’s Amalgamated Houses with his wife of 34 years, Janitzia.
Though he could not think of one downside to coaching, at times, the coach said, it was difficult to practice after work. He looks forward to retirement next year when he will have more time for baseball.
“I think this is a great way to get people to become fans of baseball, especially those who have never played before,” says O’Neil, who values MMCC’s emphasis on team participation over cutthroat competition.
In this baseball league, unlike other more competitive ones like the national Little League program, “everybody has to play and everybody has to bat,” the coach says. This nurturing and supportive environment makes O’Neil’s role in teaching players the fundamentals even more satisfying.
Typically the three girls’ softball teams – the Mets, the Yankees, and the A’s (short for the Athletics) – have afternoon practices at least once a week for two hours. Over the ten-game, two playoff season, girls between the ages of 9 and 15 learn to work and play together as a team.
Beyond field technique, O’Neil teaches a culture of respect, good sportsmanship and self-assuredness.
“If they have confidence in baseball, which they’ve never played before, then they’ll have confidence in their school and home lives,” O’Neil says.
On Saturday, April 7, he marched with the Mets at the head of MMCC’s annual baseball league parade down Jerome Avenue to Harris Field. O’Neil said he enjoyed the day, taking in the festivities and excitement of young players in pristine uniforms yet unsoiled by dust and slides into home plate.
“He’s a good coach and runs the Mets perfectly,” said Maritza Martinez during the parade. Her daughter, Sepulveda, 11, will be starting her third season on the Mets.
The fanfare also heightened the Mets’ morale going into their first game this season after winning the championship a year ago. They defeated the A’s, 10-5, at Shandler field last weekend.
For Coach O’Neil, baseball has been one of life’s constants, and a great vehicle for youth development. Plus, he says, to aspiring coaches out there, “It’s just a lot of fun. If you’re a baseball fan, you can give it a try.”
David Greene contributed to this article.
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