Coaching a sports team is always a challenge. It requires an intellectual and ideological mastery of the sport, expert coordination and concentration, an acute attention to detail, an endless supply of patience and, in Coach Greg Hanlon’s case, a serious sense of humor.
It was a perfect day for a ballgame. The sun was out, the air was brisk and cool, the grass was green and the players were focused in their crisp yellow uniforms—well, sort of.
“One of our consistent challenges out here is keeping the outfielders from wandering,” said Greg Hanlon, coach of the Seneca Club team as he watched one especially tiny and bleary-eyed left fielder wander onto the dirt, flinging her arms and twirling in circles. “We have to try and keep them on the grass. And these bathroom requests? They just keep coming.”
So it goes at the modest field tucked quietly at the end of Division Avenue at Vandervoort Street in Greenpoint, which serves as the home fields of the Greenpoint Little League, which includes Coach Hanlon’s Seneca Club team (though if you ask any of the players, they’ll tell you their team name is the Warriors). The players are between the ages of six and eight, and protocol is hardly that of the big leagues—but to Coach Hanlon, baseball is baseball…with a few minor adjustments.
“Originally I expected to be an assistant coach and get my feet wet and just help out. I envisioned working with older kids, but they gave me my own team with the little kids,” Hanlon said. “At first, it was overwhelming. They’re really little! But they are so awesome. I thoroughly enjoy all my time with them, although my vision of having the military-style jumping jacks and a team that lines up in formation—that went out the window pretty quickly…maybe within the first couple of minutes of the first practice. But it’s so much fun.”
Hanlon has been head coach of the Seneca Club team in the T-Shirt Divison of the Greenpoint Little League—the second-youngest team in the league—since mid-March, but his deep fascination, love and respect for sports dates back to his own little league days. Hanlon’s sports experience is extensive and involved, to say the least. He played serious baseball for two years in college, and participated briefly in an adult league after graduation, which ultimately blossomed into an interest in coaching.
“In college I kind of got as far in my baseball career as I could without being blessed with, you know, any real athletic talent,” Hanlon said with a laugh. “I was a utilitarian fielder: a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.” But Hanlon’s passion for baseball and sports transcends physical ability and athletic prowess. “I think there’s this stereotypical image of the American male who turns on the TV and parks himself in front of a sporting event, basically deadening himself to the world and retreating from it. With me, sports has always had the opposite effect. It energizes me and gets me excited about things.”
Off the field Hanlon is hard at work on his first book, about the 1986 New York Giants, and writing a bi-weekly sports column at the Huffington Post. “Sports is one of those rare things in my life that never gets old—the more I put into it, the more I get out of it. I can completely immerse myself, it’s always had that power over me,” Hanlon said.
As a coach, Hanlon tries to impart that excitement and enthusiasm onto even the littlest and least experienced players on the team, and he seems to be succeeding: At the end of each inning Hanlon was greeted with a flurry of high-fives and high-pitched squeals as his players took to the dugout.
But make no mistake: coaching little ones presents a unique set of challenges—and, of course, an equally unique host of benefits.
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t a below-average athlete but I wasn’t great. But I loved the game and I worked on my skills and built myself up. I played ever since I was six and it was always a highlight of my week,” Hanlon said. “If there’s one thing I want these kids to take out of this is to be enthusiastic. I think that’s infectious, and it’s a good message. Being an adult doesn’t have to mean you’re cynical. There are things in this life you can retain enthusiasm for from your childhood. For me it’s sports.”
As the innings rounded themselves out, it became clearer and clearer: the Seneca Club team was going to win the game. They had already scored several runs, and there were only two innings left. And though, as Hanlon can attest, there’s much more to little league than winning, Hanlon can’t help but be invested in his kids.
“I’m an intense die-hard Mets fan. I’m an intense die-hard Giants fan. Now I’m an intense die-hard Seneca Club fan,” Hanlon said. “It’s not so much about me being competitive; I’m just really pulling for these kids.”
“They’ve surpassed Jose Reyes and David Wright as my favorite ball players,” he continued, half-jokingly. “They’ve still got a ways to go to catch up with Daryl Strawberry though.”