The ball rocketed towards my head so fast that the only thing I could do was bend backwards Matrix-style to barely avoid being hit. I watched as the ball flew another 20 feet before landing in the netting of the batting cage. I then snapped my head back around to glare jokingly at Doc, whose face had turned from determination to utter satisfaction and enjoyment. He put on an almost devious smile, as if he had meant to send it back at my face, before resting the end of the bat on the ground and leaning on it.

“That’s all,” Doc said as he turned toward his bag to put his batting gloves away, “I’m content with that.”

He had been doing these workouts for a few years and I was just the most recent person to be called his “trainer.” Two days a week, we would be in the weight room using the machines – he even did some free weights when I first started helping him, but he soon gave that up when he realized that he no longer had the balance needed. The other two days, we were on the baseball field or in the gym, first playing catch before having batting practice. I would stand about ten feet away and underhand him the five or six tee balls he kept in his bag. He wouldn’t hit all of them but 75% contact was pretty common. Every so often, he would connect with one and it would sail right past me. I always had to be on my guard for those moments, because when he hit it hard enough that I couldn’t catch it, it would make him incredibly happy. My competitiveness tried to make sure that those occasions were few and far between.

So on this day, he should have been brimming with joy. Not only did he almost give me a black eye, but he hit quite a few more hard line drives and ground balls before that, while he swung and missed only a couple times. By all accounts, this was his best hitting performance in all the times I had worked with him.

After picking up the balls lying on the ground behind me, I walked over to Doc. “That’s definitely an A.” I said, feeling certain that he would grade this performance with the best he could have possibly done.

“Meh, more like a B. Maybe a B+,” said Doc reluctantly.

“How??” I asked incredulously, “You almost took my head off!”

Doc smirked but he didn’t budge. “I missed a couple that I should have hit. I can do better.”

This might not make sense to anyone who never met Doc or had a class with him, but there is one important detail you need to know about him: his memoir is titled Why Didn’t I Get an A? Of the many stories I’ve heard about him, either from himself or others, one thing that constantly comes up is how difficult a grader he was. He had his mind made up on what it would take for each person to get a certain grade and he would not budge. For Doc, an A wasn’t the expectation – it was the exceptional. As someone who got through four years at Judson without ever receiving a grade less than an A-, I’m so glad I never took one of Doc’s classes.

While college students might not find this grading style appealing, it’s something that always impressed me about him and caused his students to look back upon him fondly. Doc wouldn’t withhold A’s from students because he thought their work wasn’t good enough – he did it because he knew they had more to give. He held them to standards that they didn’t think they could reach because he believed they were talented enough to reach them. Most impressive of all is that he held his students to personalized standards, not general ones. The students he knew had more academic prowess he would grade harder to challenge them, and the one he knew was struggling to get by, he would make sure to take their effort and dedication into account. While it may not seem fair to give the same grade to two projects that were clearly on two different academic levels, Doc didn’t grade against some superfluous academic criteria, but he graded against the person. While it may have been frustrating in the moment to see a B, I know many of his students came to realize that a B from Doc meant that he saw a potential in them that they didn’t realize was there. To receive a B might have been the biggest compliment Doc could give.

On top of all of this, the person he graded the hardest was himself. In all my time with him, I don’t think he ever gave himself an A for anything; maybe an A- one time, but that was certainly with reservations. He would not force a grading system upon his students that he himself didn’t subscribe to. Whatever he made them do, he was doing the same thing and more.

He certainly deserved an A for his performance on the field that morning. He deserved an A for many other aspects of his life. But Doc refused to hold himself to the lesser standards that others set for him. He pushed to do better than his best effort – to give himself an A would have been to concede that he had reached his peak. And for Doc, there was always something new to learn, always another step he could take. An A would simply not be good enough.



One of the reasons that Doc and I got along so well is because we were cut from the same cloth. As I mentioned earlier, anything than an A was a disappointment to me, but not because of the grade itself, but because anything less would mean that I could have done better. While I don’t hold myself to the same ridiculous standards that Doc held himself to, I’m not satisfied with average. I want to do it right the first time and have the quality of my work be noticeable to all.

That mindset is what caused me to visit Doc at his apartment for the first time.

After he returned my mitt to my coach, I made sure that day to hop on my email and send him a quick thank you to let him know I got it back. He had mentioned that he lived right next to my dorm and said I could pick it up if I wanted, but he decided to just bring it back to the field the next day. It was a common courtesy that I didn’t think anything of when I did it, and I moved on from it not expecting to have any more conversations with Doc.

The next week, I arrived at practice and Coach Rich Benjamin gathered us around for our pre-practice meeting. “Fellas, I want bring to your attention something that happened last week, something that Shane O’Leary did.”

Oh no.

‘What is he talking about?’ My mind raced as the eyes of everyone on my team were suddenly fixed on me. ‘What did I do? How did I screw up?’

“O’Leary left his mitt at the field here last week…”

Yikes.

“… and Doc Ryder found it and picked it up. Now, don’t do what Shane did and leave your mitt here. However, Doc found it and contacted him and when Shane got his mitt back, he gave Doc a handwritten letter thanking him for returning him the glove.”

I’m sorry, what?

“Doc told me that he has returned things to players all the time, but not once has he received a thank you.” Benjamin looked me right in the eyes. “He said he was incredibly impressed with the gesture. So gentlemen, be more like Shane O’Leary.”

I was horrified. Not only did he just single me out, a tiny freshman on a field full of varsity giants, but he told them a lie. I wrote an email! I didn’t thank him with a handwritten letter – the email wasn’t even that special. It might have been two sentences long. Yet, because of what coach had said, now every player had a reason to look at me differently.

What if Benjamin found out that I didn’t actually write a letter, that he talked to Doc and Doc clarified what I did? Would he have even given that speech if he knew the truth? I was suddenly being held to a standard that I wasn’t prepared to reach. I didn’t want to write a letter; I was fine leaving it behind me.

I pondered the rest of the day what my next move would be, if I would let it go or cover my tracks. I went back to Doc’s emails and found his apartment number, realizing that it was in the building right next to Wilson Hall, my dorm. That evening, I made my decision. After I finished studying, I walked out of dorm and up to the steps of the apartment building.

I don’t know what compelled me to step out of my comfort zone that night and walk over. I was incredibly introverted and shy my first year at Judson, so I don’t understand what made me do it. I guess that my fear of falling short of someone else’s standards was bigger than my fear of meeting someone new. So I gathered up the courage to knock on the door of the mystery man who found my mitt. I had no idea what to expect.

Yet, the reality of what happened next was more incredible than any expectations I could have had.