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Writers on Writers: Jennifer Kahn asks Michael Lewis, "What the hell?"

Jennifer Kahn watches Michael Lewis lead softball practice.

“What amazes me about Lewis—what has mystified and obsessed me since I met him a decade ago—is his confidence. This is subtler than it seems.”

Though it’s not very well known, Lewis has actually written a slim book that includes an origin-of-confidence story of sorts. Called Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life, the book details the inspirational, borderline-abusive practices of his high school baseball coach, Billy Fitzgerald. While Fitz was known to vent his temper by occasionally smashing a water cooler with a baseball bat, or, sour from a lackluster loss, conduct bloody base-sliding drills in a bare, rocky lot, Lewis’s coach also taught him something rare and elusive: toughness in the wake of disappointment.

Much as a child who survives smallpox acquires immunity to the disease, Lewis, through the efforts of Fitz, developed a kind of inoculation against self-doubt. He recalls a time when the team, 0 and 12, and wearing uniforms that hadn’t been washed since before the base-sliding drill (a Coach Fitz penance), reached a strange kind of apotheosis. Grubby and winless, Lewis writes, free from vanity and with nothing left to lose, “we ceased, at least for a moment, to fear failure.”

Dixie drills in a change-up.

Lewis: “Ho! There you go! A little low, but it was a pretty strike.”

Val: “Go hard with your legs. Don’t let me read it.”

Lewis: “Strike two! That one had some spin on it. Remember, if you don’t like what I give you, shake me off. You have to take ownership. It’s your job to say, ‘This is my pitch.’”

This could almost be Lewis’s motto: Shake it off. Own the pitch. As though confidence can be created by sheer force of will. And who knows? Maybe it can.

“I do think that if you don’t feel it, you fake it,” Lewis says as Val calls the last pitch. “When I coach, my strategy is to persuade the team that they’re good, even before they are good.” He shrugs. “And then they get good.”

Fastball.

Lewis: “Boom! Strike three. Outta there! We’re done!”

Jennifer Kahn teaches journalism at UC Berkeley and writes for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. She lives in Rockridge.

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Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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