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Covering home: In coronavirus quarantine, MLB parents taking swings as teachers

Tim Brown
·MLB columnist
·14 min read
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Gianna Shelton, a 10-year-old fourth grader in Florida, has been assigned to learn about force and energy and inertia.

“You know,” her dad, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton, says, “how that works.”

And, see, how that works exactly …

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he says.

But he is catching up.

“I know we have to do an egg drop soon,” he says.

Greta Levine, an 11-year-old sixth grader in Minnesota, has a quick question for her dad, Minnesota Twins general manager Thad Levine, and that is how one calculates the area of a rhombus.

Dad gives that a thought and replies, “How about a cupcake?”

In the time it requires Greta to return from the kitchen, having located and devoured a cupcake, dad has the answer. According to the internet. It’s written on his palm.

“Then I proudly share it with her,” he says.

Lincoln Daniels, a 13-year-old seventh grader in Texas, hears the phone ring and watches his dad, Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, reach for it. Dad doesn’t answer. Instead, he texts a response.

“Can I try you later or tomorrow?”

He receives a blithe response: “I assume you’re in the middle of an Econ 202 class.”

He taps out one more text.

“Madden. Lincoln going to graduate with honors.”

A Sunday afternoon during the coronavirus pandemic continues apace.

Lilly Jones, a 7-year-old first grader in Kentucky, is adding and subtracting double-digit numbers and purring along just fine when her dad, Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Nate Jones, steps in to offer guidance and this is when Lilly raises her big eyes and says evenly, “Well, this isn’t how Miss Steele teaches us.”

Well, dad has been adding and subtracting double-digit numbers for quite a while now, him being 34 years old and all, and nobody’s ever complained before, and then again there is no better way to mess with a man’s self confidence than through a 7-year-old’s talk-to-the-hand earnestness.

Dad excuses himself to go find Lacy, his wife and Lilly’s mom, who has a PhD and surely can clear this up.

“Hey,” Nate asks innocently, “are we not going by the state’s formula or something?”

The world goes quiet for a moment, retreats to the safety of closed doors and manageable environments and Grubhub, and also to the solitude of something like prairie education, which is where the action is.

(Yahoo illustration/Albert Corona)
(Yahoo illustration/Albert Corona)

Coaching and teaching

The COVID-19 crisis has forced into homeschooling about a billion children worldwide, nearly 60 million of those in the United States, and not a single one of them will sit up straight at the dining room table. They are smart and adorable, of course, and now more than ever the job is to love, protect and educate them, and also to cut their hair with the highest quality kitchen shears.

Baseball people would seem as adept at the love, protect and educate directive as anyone.

First, they know coaching. If they are not coaches themselves, they often are the sons and daughters of coaches. In fact, their whole lives they have been coached or done the coaching or, perhaps, vetted and hired and assessed the coaches. Coaching is teaching with spittle.

Second, they play a sport of daily failure. Infinite failure. Scrape-a-rake-across-your-self-worth failure. Does a misplaced semicolon bother these men so much? An un-carried four? Teaching is patience. You’ve seen baseball games. No one is in a hurry. They’ll get there when they get there.

Third, they are for the moment a non-essential entity in the workforce. Which means, basically, they are home, not playing baseball, unless you were to count Derek Shelton’s games of catch with his son, Jackson, in the backyard. Or, perhaps, Nate Jones’ bullpen sessions off a mound that his dad, Bill, helped him build in the barn, which works great as long as the barn door is open, as the mound is indoors and home plate is not.

If a coach can coax a 32-year-old millionaire into, say, hitting a ball the other way once in a while, how hard could it be to get Jimmy through pre-algebra and into seventh grade? Just coach’m up a little, is all.

The lives they lead today look a lot like the lives of their neighbors. There are no crowds. No road trips. No pitch counts. No oh-fers. The wins and losses are counted at the dinner table, before the Levines settle in for a family reading of The Land of Stories, before the Sheltons set up another game of Monopoly, before the Joneses read a Bible story.

The lesson plans arrive in emails. Or through apps. Teachers are Zoom-ed or Skyped back to life. The rest is floppy sighs and the flimsy detente sewn between a persuasive essay on the origins of Holden Caulfield’s existential angst and an unpersuasive fit over who last took out the trash.

So, how’s it going out there?

Dad: Derek Shelton, Pirates manager

Mom: Alison

Children: Jackson, 19; Isabella, 16; Gianna, 10.

St. Pete Beach, Florida

Four-and-a-half months ago, the Pirates hired Derek, then the bench coach for the Minnesota Twins, to be their manager. He is at home, from where he maintains daily contact with the front office and his players. During one recent telephone conversation he was mid-way through a sentence when he stopped and exclaimed, “Oh, a dolphin just swam by.”

Derek’s and Alison’s parents were teachers. Derek’s father, Ron, was his high school baseball coach and a principal. His mother, Kathy, taught special education. Alison’s father, Ed Pucci, was an elementary school science teacher — “That’s gold in our house,” Derek says — and her mom, Pam, taught high school health.

BRADENTON, FL- FEBRUARY 22: Manager Rocco Baldelli #5 of the Minnesota Twins talks with manager Derek Shelton #17 of the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to a spring training game on February 21, 2020 at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
New Pirates manager Derek Shelton (right) was set to begin his first season at the helm before the coronavirus pandemic delayed Major League Baseball's season. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

Easy-going, funny and thoughtful, Derek admits, “Coaching your kid is the hardest thing. Ali tells me, ‘You have no patience with Gianna.’ I don’t. I do have patience with my players, though. My dad, he had no patience with me. But my mom did.”

So Derek picks his spots. For one, in math, anything with compound fractions is his wheelhouse.

“Evidently I’m smart enough to understand that,” he says.

The rest he leaves to mom.

“Ali is definitely smarter than I am,” he says.

The Sheltons have rediscovered family evening meals, the ones Derek recalls growing up with, when every night meant being home by 5:30, washing up and sitting at the table, the ones lost in the tumult of five schedules, one of which being a major league baseball team’s.

“Before,” Derek says, “there was always somewhere to go or get home from. So this has been cool, nice, to sit and talk about their friends, maybe some baseball, a little about the world.”

Dad: Thad Levine, Twins GM

Mom: Claudette

Children: Greta, 11; Quinn, 10; Tess, 8.

Edina, Minnesota

Claudette, says Thad, Minnesota’s GM for 3 ½ years now, “Has been an absolute saint. She’s taken the lead in being both teacher and principal.”

A basketball and tennis player at Haverford College, where they met, Claudette has set the quarantine tone.

“For her, there’s no such thing as a hardship,” Thad says. “She’s a problem solver. She’s optimistic. She’s positive.”

Together, they wade into the Haiku-writing, Native American-appreciating, solving for X-spiraling, word problem head-scratching, essay red-lining, Duolingo-memorizing days.

Then Thad retires to read “Can’t Hurt Me” and “Ego is the Enemy.”

What mom and dad learn along the way, beyond all the new methods to solve for X, is that Greta is self-sufficient, that Quinn is the kid in the front row, locked in, benefiting from affirmation, that Tess is confident, stuff they sort of knew, stuff they are sure of now.

“I feel as if in normal life, you may not recognize that sand is slipping through the hourglass,” Thad says. “At the end, whenever the end is, the one thing you’d ask for is, ‘I wish I had more time.’ So the silver lining to this is the gift of time. It’s come in the terrible wrapping paper that is COVID-19. But, it’s still a gift.”

Mom: Raquel Ferreira, Red Sox executive VP and assistant GM

Dad: Erik Stamps

Child: Gabriella, 12.

Stoneham, Massachusetts

Raquel, executive vice president and assistant GM of the Red Sox, and her family mark the missed milestones through happy conversations that end in laughter and daydreams.

There was the Thursday near the end of March when the Red Sox were supposed to start their season in Toronto. Then, a week later, another Thursday, the day the ballclub would have opened at Fenway Park. Gabby would put her finger on the schedule and look at the clock and ask what they would have been doing now.

Mom tells her she’d be on her way to work or watching the baseball game or in her office, and at the end of the story Gabby smiles and says, “I know! But you’re here!”

“We are here,” mom says. “So what are we going to do about this?”

BOSTON - SEPTEMBER 30: Boston Red Sox Senior Vice President, Major and Minor League Operations Raquel Ferreira speaks with reporters during an end-of-season press conference at Fenway Park in Boston on Sep. 30, 2019. (Photo by Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Red Sox executive Raquel Ferreira said she would usually be entering the stage of the season where she feels 'mom guilt,' but is instead home with her daughter. (Photo by Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Gabby is a sixth grader. Her school suggests a routine starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 2:30 p.m., the hours divided into classroom time. Mom, dad and Gabby aren’t too rigid on that, except for first period.

“Her first class is gym or music,” Raquel says with a laugh. “So she and Erik go into the backyard and shoot hoops.”

Most years, a couple weeks into the baseball season, “The mom guilt is setting in by now,” Raquel says.

Instead, she’s combing through workbooks she found on Amazon, grade-level guides in reading, math, science and social studies, quizzing Gabby and hoping Gabby does not discover the answers are in the back.

Instead, she’s reacquainting herself with Ichabod Crane, and learning about the human digestive system, and advising Gabby with a straight face how important all of this will be as she grows up.

And, instead, she’s cheering Gabby’s improving jumpshot.

“I do get about 15 eye-rolls a day,” Raquel says. “But she’s done great … She’s a lot tougher than I think I would have been at this age. She gets it.”

Dad: Nate Jones, Reds pitcher

Mom: Lacy

Children: Lilly, 7; Archer, 5; Emmie Lou, 2.

Butler, Kentucky

Years ago, between minor-league seasons, Nate Jones thought it would be a good idea to pick up extra money as a substitute teacher. After three days wrangling sixth- and eighth-graders, he had another thought: “All right, I don’t know if I’m cut out for this.”

He never went back. The experience did, however, fan his appreciation for those who teach. Especially those who teach and then show back up tomorrow. His mom, Debbie, was among them, an elementary school teacher’s aide who finished those days and then coached his youth league baseball teams.

It is in that spirit then that Nate does what he can and often makes room for the experts, in this case Lacy, who takes one kid at a time while Nate stands by with the scooters, the badminton racquets, the various toys and activities.

“That’s when our little conundrum occurs,” Nate says. “I wouldn’t call it a problem. I’d call it a conundrum. And that is, I don’t know if I’m not doing a good job of distracting the children or if I’m a part of the distraction.”

It is a fine line.

So, meantime, Archer draws his letters and numbers and Lilly does her fancy adding and subtracting and there was that moment when Lilly squared up on her dad and asked if he knew who was on Mt. Rushmore.

“I’d forgotten the president with the mustache,” Nate says. “And I never would have gotten Thomas Jefferson.”

They are reading a few pages a night of Harry Potter, the second book, having already finished the first. And when the children are weary at the end of another day, Nate and Lacy remind themselves of the good that can come from a world in crisis.

“The No. 1 benefit, I think, is the time we get to spend together,” Nate says. “Lacy said just the other night, ‘We don’t want to wish these days away for some kind of normal. We need to keep our eyes open to what our kids are like.’”

Dad: Jon Daniels, Rangers GM

Mom: Robyn

Children: Lincoln, 13; Harper, 11; Charlotte, 8.

Southlake, Texas

As Jon Daniels considers another sink filled with dishes, following another meal with a full dinner table, what comes along with the puckered fingers is gratitude.

“Most of the time, we get exposed to a lot of cool stuff that’s not real life,” he says. “The travel, the people we meet, the things we see. It’s all great. And now I’m scared about a lot of the stuff. My parents are in New York City. There’s a lot of things I worry about. But, the basic idea of being home with my family, it’s not just a silver lining. I’m truly enjoying it right now.

ARLINGTON, TX - MARCH 28:  Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels speaks with members of the media before the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on Thursday, March 28, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB via Getty Images)
Jon Daniels, longtime GM of the Texas Rangers, is working from home alongside his school-age children as the baseball season is on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB via Getty Images)

“Robyn and I have talked about this a lot. You know, from here, whatever happens, happens. I’m not worried about a college transcript right now. When we come out of this what will be important is the kids feeling good about themselves and us feeling good about our relationship.”

He works primarily from home for now, in what he’s pretty sure is the third-best area in the house for a home office. Robyn, his wife, has the best room, designed to be an actual office. The dog claimed the area off the kitchen with a desk in it. Jon’s in a bedroom with a view of …

“Oh, one of the kids is in the hot tub,” he says.

Lincoln and Harper, his eldest children, are fairly independent when it comes to schooling. Charlotte, poor Charlotte, gets lesson plans seven subjects long, second grade apparently preparing her for the Texas Bar exam.

He so enjoyed the days when he’d rise before the kids, fix them breakfast, quiz them for their tests, then drive them to school. This is that, sort of, except the day never changes venues. Except maybe to the hot tub.

“Robyn’s really good at this,” Jon says. “She’s really patient. She’s really a good listener.”

He chips in, especially on the math and history, and more than once has been asked to explain his work.

“I get it right,” he says, “but that’s not how they’re taught anymore.”

Harper reminds him, “You gotta do it this way.”

He replies, “But I can’t.”

And they laugh, because why not, because it’s a little scary out there, but mom and dad are home. They are loved and protected. Also, they are getting educated, which will turn out fine, as long as the children remain patient.

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