I woke up this past Halloween morning to learn that President Bush had nominated my seventh grade little league coach to the Supreme Court. The man who once asked me between innings whether I would pitch or play right field could become the man who may soon tell all of America’s women whether or not they have the right to an abortion.
Within hours of his nomination, Samuel Alito had become a source of national controversy, sparking debates everywhere from Yale political science sections to Congress. A flashing Drudge Report headline even questioned whether my former coach would bring “Armageddon” upon the Senate.
One critic, David Corn of The Nation, may have best echoed the fears of Coach Sam’s growing opposition. In a scathing column, he wrote that we should start to judge nominees “on the basis of where these men and women may lead the nation.” And Alito, he warned, would lead America down a dangerously undesirable path.
Though the idea that my former baseball coach could soon serve on the Supreme Court was enticing, like Corn I could not ignore my own distaste for some of his rulings off the field. But on second thought, I found comfort in the metaphor set forth by our new Chief Justice, John Roberts. “My job is to call balls and strikes,” he told the Senate in September, “and not to pitch or bat.”
Corn, meanwhile, expressed a fear felt by many Americans: that Judge Alito would throw a pitch, step up to the plate, and bat our country into the foul zone. He would act as an aggressive leader by swinging that crucial vote to the right and overturning Roe v. Wade. He would lead America down a backwards path that we should all fear.
But then I realized that David Corn never had Samuel Alito as his little league coach.
As head coach, Alito was truly unusual. He rarely spoke with players but somehow understood everyone’s ideal role. He joined a league mired in nepotism, but refused to favor his son. He took on the role of head coach, but created his own unconventional style of little league leadership, marked by distance and restraint.
If Coach Sam said anything more than “Good game, boys” during the season, I have no recollection of it. He excused himself from most mid-inning huddles, pre-game pow-wows and motivational meetings. If he had an aggressive plan of attack, he never shared it; my father, one of the assistant coaches, and all the players, were left guessing. But at the end of the game, no one complained. After all, unlike my sixth-grade coach, he never stomped, shouted or swore. He adjusted positions between innings and batting orders between games with precision and care. We all respected his fairness.
And although Coach Sam’s son began the season as shortstop — he had considerable talent — his father regularly removed him from the game or sent him to the outfield after a poor performance. Coach Sam seemed to adhere to an “equal playing time” rule usually exclusive to the elementary baseball league in my hometown of Caldwell, N.J. There were no “benchwarmers” on Coach Sam’s team. He respected those who made frequent errors just as much as he did the team’s all-stars. We respected his neutrality.
Coach Sam’s behavior on the baseball diamond may tell us something about how he would act on the bench. Most of Coach Sam’s colleagues voiced loud opinions. They played favorites. But they effectively led their team in pursuit of defined goals. Meanwhile, when I sat on the bench for Coach Sam, I would stare at him through the metal fence and notice that, from his lonesome spot behind first base, he stared intently at his players, but did so without expression and without sharing his thoughts. Coach Sam’s restrained style entailed nothing more than quietly making judgments. He delivered them one inning and one game at a time.
Six years later, Coach Sam may become Supreme Court Justice Alito. Amidst all the hasty skepticism, positive reports finally emerged from his former classmates and colleagues over the past several weeks. Some speak of his extensive legal knowledge, his objective approach to cases and his reluctance to be influenced by political affiliation. When I look back, I recall similar traits: a passion for baseball, but that same detached calmness, the fairness and impartiality, and his refusal to participate in the politics of my hometown’s little league.
When I look forward, I foresee a judicial style that would be distinguished by the same sort of restraint. He would not impose his ideology on the nation; he would not be an outspoken intimidator like many of his colleagues. Besides, as Chief Justice Roberts pointed out, Judge Alito would not be straying too far from little league baseball if he were confirmed: he would likely limit himself to making fair and impartial calls without much other than the rules of the game in mind.
If anyone on the Supreme Court steps into the batter’s box in an attempt to lead America in a particular direction — whether in the “bad” direction that Corn fears or towards another ideological extreme — that justice will not be Coach Sam.
Andrew Mangino is a freshman in Branford College. He is a contributing reporter for the News.