It’s easy for me to lose touch with home sometimes, living in Texas and being engrossed in our soccer season. But I was jolted back tonight when I checked the Daily Record high school sports section and saw that Harry Shatel passed away on Saturday. (Daily Record article; Jane Havsy blog)
What a loss. A staggering loss. I know that whatever words I choose will ring hollow and fail to capture the magnetism and vibrancy of this great man. I know I would need weeks to research and write any sort of appropriate tribute. But I also feel a need to honor his memory and his leadership, and the best way I know how to do that is to write.
I grew up a Morristown baseball junkie. I played Morristown American Little League, I went to the Mott-Leeney baseball camp every summer, I watched Morris Majors games at Lidgerwood Park, and I dreamed of playing for Morristown High School. At Mott-Leeney, I met coach after coach from Morris County – older coaches and recent college players – who lived and breathed the game and loved teaching it to kids. I can’t help but feel that every one had been influenced significantly by Harry Shatel, just as every camper was.
I remember going to Morris County Tournament games as a kid, watching Harry give signs from deep in the dugout, seemingly in a corner so dark the opposition couldn’t see him, and I imagined myself playing for him. I always pulled hard for Morristown to come out on top and was devastated if they didn’t.
When I went to Delbarton in seventh grade, one of my biggest objections was that I wouldn’t be able to play for Coach Shatel. Of course, Delbarton provided the next best thing by installing Brian Fleury as head coach, but I couldn’t hold up my end of the bargain and ended up missing out on him too.
Nevertheless, I still maintain that the two best coaches I’ve ever had – and this is no indictment of the many great coaches I did have at Delbarton – were two I never played for: Brian Fleury and Harry Shatel. It often felt like those two men taught me more in an afternoon or over the course of a single game than I could learn anywhere else in a whole season. I cried when Coach Fleury died three and a half years ago, and I have felt the tears welling up again tonight.
After going to Delbarton, I came to know Harry Shatel not on the baseball field, but at the hockey rink. He served as an interim coach for Morristown in my first year covering Morris County hockey, and remarkably he seemed to remember me from baseball camp. When he started working as a scorekeeper and public address announcer, I had an excuse to spend long afternoons and evenings standing in the booth talking hockey, baseball, and life. To all the parents of goaltenders out there, if Harry missed a few shots here and there, it was only because he was telling a story about one of his kids or one of his former players or listening closely to a story from a visitor.
He knew every referee by name, and if he didn’t recognize them when they stepped on the ice, he made sure he knew their name by the time they had circled the ice once. He knew coaches, kids, administrators, and this was in his second sport! I know he was even more deeply connected to the fabric of baseball in Morris County and New Jersey.
While off in college and living outside New Jersey most of the time since, I have always looked forward to coming home for a few weeks in the winter and making time to go to Mennen Arena, hoping to catch up with Harry and other friends there. He would invariably greet me with a deep, friendly, comforting, growled, “Jon Yardley!” and give me a hearty handshake and pat on the back. He asked after my parents and my grades and my work, even my personal life, almost always addressing me directly by name while asking the question. He talked about his family, his trips to Florida, and of course baseball. He would always work in a question about a Rice player, to bring the conversation back to me, but the specifics really didn’t matter – we could connect talking about baseball, hockey, football, or whatever. More than anything else, he made you want to be a father and a coach, because he so reveled in the shared experiences with and accomplishments of his charges.
Those chats taught me so much. About coaching, about responsibility, about adulthood, about life. It’s corny, I know, but it’s true. I was moved by the warmth, kindness, and laughter he displayed not just once, but constantly, year after year. I feel I learned the most from using him as an example and taking implied advice from his stories. But one direct piece of advice sticks out in my memory: When I was looking for broadcasting jobs, I remember Harry telling me, “Don’t be in such a hurry to get to the top.” He was warning me that it’s easy to get caught up in the destination rather than enjoying the journey.
If anybody has enjoyed his journey, it is Harry Shatel. I and thousands of others in Morris County, New Jersey, and throughout the country are devastated by the news of his passing. But we should take comfort in the knowledge that his journey touched each of ours, and we will always be thankful for his presence in our lives.
Thoughts and prayers go out to Kitty, Bruce, and the entire family tonight. I never played for Harry Shatel, but I consider him a coach, mentor, and friend, and I miss him already.