By Philip Graham
The man that everyone knows as Rico sits in the shade, looking through a chain-link fence at a girls’ softball team practicing on the field. Rico is their coach.
Relaxed and clear-sighted, he’s a big man who fits comfortably in his foldable blue beach chair. His Living Clean cap worn backwards, he almost always wears a half-smile on his face, ready to call out advice to the young women on the field.
“Life,” he says, “is like a playing field, and the girls have to practice at it.” He has to practice at it, Rico adds, “Practice never ends.”
Rico walks to the field. He shows the girls how to run the bases, how to approach first base while looking at the outfield to see where the ball is, to see who has it before deciding whether to run to second base or stay put on first. “You go, or you don’t.”
Rico returns to the shaded sideline and mentions that when he was a young man he received a five-year scholarship to play baseball anywhere in the country, as a pitcher. Baseball scouts came to his house, ready to recruit him.
Unfortunately, he gave up those possibilities for alcohol and drugs. He would drink up to a half gallon of vodka a day, he’d do heroin, all of it leading to failed relationships, lost jobs and lost housing.
He spent years sleeping on the streets, or behind markets, or under bridges. He often cried, unable to see how to break out of the trouble in his life. He also wept for the loss of his three children that his ex-wife took with her when she moved to South Carolina.
He sees an upside to this loss—his children never saw him at his worst. And as the years passed, his nearby sister-in-law helped reintroduce his children to him whenever they visited her.
Now Rico watches with pride as his 23 year-old-son, Briston, swings the bat at home plate, sending grounder after grounder to the team. Some they scoop up, others they bobble. While Rico keeps up a steady patter of encouragement and advice, the pride he feels for his son is obvious. Briston serves as a medic in the army and is currently stationed locally, so he often drops by to help his father with softball practice.
Rico sighs, and continues. “The pain finally got great enough for me to be willing to change. I got tired of my excuses. I had to find me. I was ready, and when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
In 2011 Rico received a “hand-up” (not a “hand-out,” he adds) from a sponsor who introduced him to the Narcotics Anonymous program. At the same time, Rico “truly reunited with the god of my understanding. He led me back to me, helped me to cut the umbilical cord of the old thinking.” Rico has been free from drugs and alcohol ever since.
Part of the Narcotics Anonymous program involves giving members individual responsibilities, and Rico first started as a greeter for the weekly meetings. For six months he learned, he now says, how to hug. “Hugging is where the spirit makes the connection to another.” Then he moved up to other positions, eventually becoming the group’s secretary.
In the beginning of his recovery, Rico stayed in a shelter, went to work every day, and started school again, at CCRI. “When I did drugs,” Rico says, ‘my pupils narrowed to a pinpoint. That’s how much of the world I wanted to see, and how much of me I wanted the world to see.” When finally drug-free, he says, “I saw a bigger, wider picture.”
Today Rico works as an advocate for disabled children and adults. He is by law a mandatory reporter of any type of abuse he might discover. For the organization Easter Seals Rhode Island, five days a week he serves as a guide and companion for a man in a wheelchair, as well as two other people with disabilities.
One goal is to enable his charges to work a four-hour shift at least once a week, for various participating businesses in the Providence area. As if this isn’t enough in his life, Rico is also helping organize the Sober in the Sun campout coming up this Labor Day week, and the Narcotics Anonymous convention to be held in Rhode Island in 2020. And still, he manages to find time to plan fundraisers for the Angels, this young women’ softball team that he coaches.
Once again Rico pauses, this time to encourage the team’s two captains to increase their patter, to use it to give a lift to their teammates. Sure enough, in a few minutes the captains’ words are clearly giving the Angels a little extra pep as they run the bases.
Rico observes this with satisfaction, and says, “I was very good at baseball. But I didn’t like to practice. I just showed up for the game. Now I get a second chance, to show up here to practice. That’s in life too, not just on the field. This is the field of life.”
Days later, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Angels are preparing to play a game against a rival team, Boriquer. They practice throwing softballs to each other, and then Rico gathers them into a circle. He tells them that coaching this team has been like adopting another family.
Though he needs to go to an extended family reunion (which will include children from his two marriages) in Brockton later this afternoon, he’s okay with arriving a little late, because right now, he is coaching this game.
The Boriquer teammates head for their positions in the baseball field, the Angels work out their batting order. Families sit together to watch young children run back and forth while some infectious bass-driven music plays from a speaker. What could be more authentically American than a baseball game on a Saturday afternoon? Rico, a man of Italian descent, coaches girls with a Latin background. “Diversity,” he murmurs, looking at the scene before him, “is our country’s real strength.”
First up, the Angels bat their way to a two-run lead. Though the Boriquers slowly chip away at that lead and then surpass it, the Angels can boast moments of glory—especially when their pitcher easily snags a sharply hit ball speeding straight at her, thereby closing out the inning. It’s a moment of perfection that exhilarates her teammates and gives them pause: so this is what all that practicing can lead to.
As the game continues, Rico praises a forced out at second, or the tagging out of a runner sliding into third base. “Better!” He calls out to the girls, “that’s what we’re after. Better.”
The game over, the young women pack up their gear, and head for the parking lot with family or boyfriends. Rico watches them before leaving for his reunion. “I show up to grow up,” he says, “and now I’m growing in a way I never thought possible. Lost dreams are reawakened.”
Rico has mentioned a personal inventory that he writes at the end of each day. Once done, he then rips it up. He sees this as an accounting, a way to move forward. “Every day is a new day. If I dwell on the past I stay in the past.” He pauses, and then adds, “Growing up, I was a child without a voice; today I am a child with a voice.”
Rico coaching his softball team.
Photo by Philip Graham