Posts Tagged ‘baseball’

RTFRB: The Obstruction Rule Should Not Have Ended Game 3

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

I am posting this even as I hope it will be of little interest after tonight’s Game 6 of the World Series, since I’m pulling for the Red Sox to win and make the unfortunate end of Game 3 just an oddity with no lasting effect on the outcome of the Series.

Still, I want to counter the prevailing idea that, while it was a shame to have such an important game decided in such an unusual and unsatisfying way, the decision of third base umpire Jim Joyce to call obstruction on Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and thus award the winning run to the Cardinals in the bottom of the ninth inning, was the correct call and really a clearcut enforcement of the rule on obstruction, which made no allowance for any consideration of the fielder’s intent.

The widespread feeling that something was nonetheless wrong about having the game end this way has led to talk that “Major League Baseball” might want to revisit the rule to make it more flexible, so, that in the future, the umpire would have more discretion in deciding whether true obstruction (with intent, as opposed to unavoidably) had taken place. Here’s a link about that. The writer of that article, Ken Rosenthal, argues against making such a change, for the simple fact that it will probably never come up again, and, moreover, that explicitly including “intent” in the rule would only make things worse. According to my argument below, a careful reading of the rule shows that likely (not provable) intent is already in the rule implicitly, so that what is needed is not a change to the rule but a more reasonable enforcement of it.

I did not know the rule on obstruction of a runner by a fielder by heart before this event. However, I was able to read it, as anyone else can, online. What I see in the rule is not at all a vindication of the umpire’s call.

The rule, without consideration of its accompanying Comment, might seem clearcut: “OBSTRUCTION is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.”

But the Comment cites as an example the case where a fielder has dived for a ball and remained lying on the field in the path of the runner. There is room for reasoned judgment in making the call in such a case. Here’s what the Comment on the rule says about a case very similar to what happened (ground ball instead of thrown ball the only difference): “For example: an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.”

I want to call attention to a couple of phrases in that sentence. First, it says “and he continues to lie on the ground.” I think the reasonable reading of this is that the fielder does not promptly get up off the ground, with the strong implication that he is deliberately staying on the ground to be in the runner’s way. This implication of intent is strengthened by the ending “he very likely has obstructed the runner.” Very likely! Now he clearly has obstructed the runner in the strictest sense of the word if he has impeded the progress of the runner, so the “very likely” can only point to the fielder’s likely intent. Intent cannot be proven, of course, so the obstruction rule can be invoked when it seems likely that deliberate obstruction was involved, or that what has happened is essentially indistinguishable from deliberate obstruction.

Now if the fielder is trying to get up, but is prevented from that by the runner being on top of him, how can the fielder be blamed for not getting up? How long must the fielder stay on the ground to say he “continues to lie on the ground”? It is clearly a judgment call about whether the fielder has probably impeded the runner on purpose, without, of course, requiring the umpire to be a mind reader. There is no automatic call based on the mere fact of contact with a runner having been made by a fielder lying on the ground.

The common sense call would have been that the impeding of the runner’s progress was inadvertent, since the play happened so fast with both players in the same small area from the start. Contact occurred almost immediately after the ball got past the fielder. It was not the case of a shortstop continuing to lie in the base path to slow down a runner rounding second after the ball had gotten through the infield.

A judgment call based on the probable intent of the fielder, which should have been made, would have left the runner free to advance at his own risk (to be tagged out at home in the case in question). Instead, what should have been an extra-inning World Series game with uncertain outcome became another game made memorable by Jim Joyce, who seems to have a knack for spoiling games of great interest with bad calls.

Of course, I don’t know any more than anyone else whether Middlebrooks was trying to impede Craig. I also don’t know if Craig’s decision to go over Middlebrooks instead of around him was based on the hope of getting an obstruction call. But based on the wording of the rule, including its significant appended Comment, the play should have been allowed to continue without umpire interference. It may be that umpires are taught to enforce the rule the way Joyce did, despite its wording. If so, that needs to be changed, but it doesn’t take a rule change for that to happen, for the rule is reasonable as it stands.

Coming Soon to the Big Screen—OnScreen Pitch Count for iPad!

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

I am happy to announce that OnScreen Pitch Count, my app for recording, calculating, and reviewing pitch results and stats of baseball and softball games will be available in a new version for the iPad on the iTunes App Store very soon. Barring the last minute discovery of a bug, which I don’t expect at this point, I’ll be submitting it for review in the next couple of days. For news and more information about OnScreen Pitch Count and other apps from OnScreen Science, Inc., see the web site or follow me (@onscrn) on Twitter.

I think I’ll just show one screen shot from the new app now, since I’ll probably want to make another short blog post when it’s really on sale, and I can show more then. The one below was taken from a game I was recording to test the app. Cliff Lee of the Philadelphia Phillies had just had his no hitter broken up by the leadoff batter in the sixth inning, as you’ll be able to see if you look closely at the stats. Well, they may be too small to see there, but you’ll have no problem reading them full-size on the iPad. The hit is about to be registered. The general layout of the screen is described in some detail below.

ipad pitch count

As a further preview, here is the description of the app as it will appear on the App Store (subject to modification):

OnScreen Pitch Count, the most highly regarded pitch stat app for the iPhone, has come to the big screen! Designed by a baseball/softball coach who knows what coaches and fans need to know about pitch results, OnScreen Pitch Count stands out among pitch count apps.

Increase your enjoyment of ball games by giving more attention to the details in a way that’s not burdensome. OnScreen Pitch Count is just the right medium between barebones pitch counters and extremely detailed apps.

With the big screen of the iPad you can see lots of stats at the same time, even as you record pitch results. And you can transfer the results you’ve already recorded on the iPhone to the iPad just by emailing the app file as an attachment, as the files are compatible between the two versions.

OnScreen Pitch Count allows you to keep the running totals of

• kinds of strikes: foul, swinging, called, ball put in play
• third strikes: swinging, called
• balls
• total pitches
• first pitch strikes and balls
• strikes and balls in the last ten pitches
• batters faced
• outs recorded
• strikeouts
• base runners
• how many runners reached base by: walks, hits, errors, hit by pitch, other
• runs allowed
• wild pitches

just by tapping easily learned buttons on the screen.

If your interest is in one particular pitcher, you can just follow that one. If you want a complete record of pitch results for every pitcher in the game on both teams, you can track them. There is no limit to the number of pitchers you can record in a game, and OnScreen Pitch Count properly charges runs to pitchers who allow base runners but leave the game before the runners score.

As you record pitch results, you see the cumulative stats of the pitcher updated immediately on the screen. Display total numbers as well as percentages at the same time. Compare the current pitcher’s numbers with the opposing pitcher’s. The stats are on the screen to see. While recording a game you can see the stats for up to three pitchers at a time. When reviewing previously recorded games, you can see four at once. Or compare totals and percentages side by side.

As you record pitches you also see the count on the batter and the number of outs and baserunners, so you never lose track of what the situation is.

Did you tap the Ball button, only to hear the umpire call the pitch a strike? No problem. Tap the Undo button to take the ball away. Tap the Strike button to correct the count. The results of up to two consecutive pitches can be undone. In case you’ve somehow lost track through a distraction, you can edit the count on the batter, outs in the inning, or number of base runners, though the undo feature should be used when possible.

What if you record a strikeout for the third out, only to see the catcher drop the ball and the runner reach base safely? No need for the Undo button. Tap the button for batters reaching base by ways other than putting the ball in play; select the case for reaching base after a strikeout; and the out is then removed, while the strikeout remains tallied, and the number of base runners increases by one.

After you’ve finished with a game, which can be as soon as the pitcher you’re interested in has finished, the results are automatically stored on your iPad for later review, and you can email the results of a single pitcher or all those on the team. Email just a text summary of the results or attach a csv file that you can import to a spreadsheet. AND, if you know someone else with this app—either the iPad or the iPhone version—email them the actual file you’ve recorded for them to view with the app on their device. Or email the file to yourself as a backup.

OnScreen Pitch Count has been available for the iPhone and iPod Touch since August of 2009, and of course that version can be used on an iPad, but only in a sort of little iPhone window on the iPad screen or blown up with pixel doubling, which simply magnifies the iPhone image, while making it look worse. Running the iPhone version of OnScreen Pitch Count on an iPad does not free the app from the iPhone’s limitations, most notably its small screen. The iPhone’s small screen is just the price one pays for its great portability and convenience.

I was gratified and relieved to see that as spring and a new season for baseball and softball in the USA arrived earlier this year, sales of OnScreen Pitch Count ramped up nicely and were running well above the previous year’s level. This indicated that there was an ongoing need for the app and that a fair number of people were taking the trouble to actively search for pitch count apps and then to splurge on a $3.99 app based on the app description, screen shots, and high customer ratings they could see on the app store. It would be interesting to know how many of those who download OnScreen Pitch Count do so after disappointment with a cheaper competing app. My guess is quite a few, so that in a way the higher price of OnScreen Pitch Count compared to its competitors may actually be giving them more sales, as people decide to “risk” 99¢ first.

OnScreen Pitch Count, while not making enough money to brag about, has been a hit, in terms of user enthusiasm. This is evident in the user reviews, which abound in exclamation marks and high praise, and in the emails I’ve received. Some of the reviews are so glowing (“The best app I have ever bought!!!!”) that I worry that they’ll be seen as bogus, but they are 100% real reviews. Well, there was one negative review that I’m 99.99% certain was actually meant for a competing app, since the specifics of the comments clearly applied to the other app and not at all to OnScreen Pitch Count. That one hurt sales for a while and probably cost me a couple of hundred bucks. I plan to write about app developers’ susceptibility to harmful, uninformed reviews sometime. Anyway, despite having sold something less than 1,000 copies of the app, I feel very satisfied to know I’ve conceived and created an app that a good number of people have found very useful, even delightful. Would that there were a way to get the word out to the many other parents, coaches, and fans who might also love it if they only knew about it!

Sometime back in March I decided that my next app development project should be bringing OnScreeen Pitch Count to the iPad. I hoped that I could have the iPad version finished sometime in May so that it wouldn’t entirely miss the peak time for baseball and softball, which means Little League and high school seasons. That time constraint for peak sales potential was really the determining factor in my decision to work on this app next. I hadn’t thought through exactly how I would take advantage of the greater screen area of the iPad, but I knew it would be possible to eliminate a lot of switching from one view to another as compared with the iPhone version.

As is usually the case, the job took longer than I’d hoped. Back when I first started app development I had also originally meant to get OnScreen Pitch Count for the iPhone ready for a spring debut, and had barely gotten it on the App Store while it was still August, so there has been improvement!

I had already developed an iPad app (OnScreen DNA Model) but in that effort I had been able to avoid one complication that I’d have to deal with for OnScreen Pitch Count—the need to make the app completely usable whichever way the user wanted to orient the device. Apple reviewers are pretty insistent on this unless you have a good reason not to, which I was able to argue for in the case of the DNA model. For an app with numerous user interface elements and data displays in various views on the screen, this is not a trivial task. I guess it probably added a month to the development time. Knowing what I now know, of course, I could do the same thing again (and with better code design) in a much shorter time. Every app developed makes it that much easier to develop the next.

The main question to address was how was I going to use all that extra screen space to enhance the app? I wanted to use as much of the iPhone app’s code as I could and also make the iPad app seem immediately familiar to anyone that already had the iPhone version. One of the difficulties in adding a new type of pitch data to the iPhone version is the lack of space on the screen to present it. I’ve had users request the ability to record and see first pitch strikes and balls and the number of strikes in the last ten pitches, for example. There was room for these and more on the iPad screen, so I couldn’t use the lack of space excuse on the iPad and have indeed coded the iPad app to keep track of these numbers. The users of OnScreen Pitch Count for iPhone can expect to see these features incorporated in an update before long. I’ll come up with a way to show the new data, even if it’s not a pretty way.

I played around with a number of ideas on how to use the extra screen area of the iPad but eventually decided that the default (and currently, only) use should be to display pitch result data for the different pitchers in the game. All those results are available for viewing with the iPhone version, but the user has to swap out the pitch recording screen in order to see the complete pitch results, and still the results can be seen for only one pitcher at a time, even for completed games being reviewed.

The bottom right panel of the iPad contains the buttons for recording pitch results and a display of the current situation: count on batter, runners on base, and outs. The lower left panel shows the cumulative pitch totals in various categories for the pitcher currently on the mound. These are updated after every pitch. The default layout is then to have the same data displayed in the upper left panel (also kept current), only in the relevant percentages that go with the numerical totals show below it The upper right panel displays the totals for the pitcher on the opposing team, if that team’s pitches are being recorded. If there are more pitchers, or if the user wants to display percentages for a pitcher other than the default, he or she can make that choice. So there are three panels available for showing pitch totals while a game is being recorded with the lower left panel always showing the current pitcher. For reviewing completed games, all four panels are available for displaying pitch results at the user’s choice, both in terms of which pitcher and whether totals or percentages.

The last major upgrade feature added to OnScreen Pitch Count for iPhone was the ability to send as email attachments files containing the recorded pitch data in a format that anyone with the app could read and display on their own device. In addition to file sharing this feature provided a way to back up files on any computer. Of course, I wanted to make it possible for users of both the iPad and iPhone versions to share each other’s app files as well, and this turned out not to be that difficult. So anyone with games recorded on the iPhone version can email them to the iPad for viewing the data of up to four pitchers at once.

I’m really glad to have the basic coding of this app behind me and can’t wait to see how people with iPads like it. As always, I invite anyone with a problem, question, or suggestion to email

Maybe I’ll take a break from coding long enough to write something for this blog, or should I say blog archive, since that’s all it’s amounted to for the past several months?

OnScreen Pitch Count Update 1.4 Now on iTunes App Store

Monday, June 14th, 2010

A new version of OnScreen Pitch Count, the most complete, easy-to-use app for recording baseball pitch results on the iPhone and iPod Touch, is now available. Getting OnScreen Pitch Count to the point where it did its main job well and reliably in a way that was quickly learned was my top priority, and I think I was successful in that right from the first release. With time I’ve been able to add features such as emailing results, including attachments that can be imported into spreadsheets. This new update is more in the nature of a polishing than one that introduces big changes. I’ll just use a few screen shots as the quickest way to point out the differences from earlier versions. I recommend downloading the new User Guide for more complete details.

An obvious difference to anyone that’s used the app before is the presence of a toolbar at the top of the different screens of the app. The main screen in which pitch data is entered is shown below. The four toolbar buttons with titles, none of which are used for recording pitch results, were formerly elsewhere on the screen and just do what they always have. The totally new control is the one with the opened lock icon on the left of the bar. A bit below it, in the top yellow region, is a closed lock, which indicates that the screen is locked, its normal condition. As one might expect, tapping the button unlocks the screen and changes the icon indicating the lock state to show an open lock. So what does unlocking do? Two things really. First, it makes it possible to edit the pitcher’s name. Previously, once the name had been entered and saved it couldn’t be changed. Obviously, there are times you might want to change the name, including of course when you’ve misspelled the name for some reason, but also when you’ve only learned the pitcher’s name sometime after the game started, or even after it ended. Unlocking allows you to change the pitcher’s name both during the course of the game or later when you’re reviewing it.

The other thing unlocking does is to make it possible to terminate an inning before three outs have been recorded. This is something that comes up in leagues with limits on runs scored or total batters in an inning. Having coached in a minor Little League that only allowed a team to bat once through its complete order in an inning, I should have thought of this myself, but I had it pointed out to me by a user who coaches a Little League team in Texas. Thanks, Daren. Unless the screen is unlocked with the toolbar button, the New Inning and Switch Sides buttons are disabled (as shown) until the third out of the inning has been recorded, in keeping with my philosophy of preventing accidental taps that can mess up pitch recording. But this was a clear case where an override was needed.
The screen below is one where the pitching results from a game are being reviewed after the game has finished. The toolbar is a bit different from the one already considered. The unlock button allows the editing of the pitcher’s name as before. The Games button is a new one for the app. It allows the user to go directly to the list of recorded games to choose another game to review. This required a couple of steps previously, and the steps were not as obvious as tapping an appropriately labeled button. The Review button is as before. It brings up the complete list of pitchers for which stats were kept in the game. The Done button is to make a new choice to either resume a game, start to record pitches for a new game, or review previous game results (which is what is already being done). Displaying the team name under the pitcher’s name when reviewing a game is also new.
The screen below shows the list of pitchers with recorded stats for a certain game played last July. Note that the toolbar for this screen also has a Games button, making it easy for you to choose a different game if you decided to do so at this point for some reason. The Cancel button will take you back to whatever screen led to the currently showing one if you want to do that directly.
The screen below shows an example of a list of games for which pitch results have been recorded. The Cancel and Done buttons have the expected result. The new feature is the addition of an option in the control at the bottom to Edit a game. Select Edit and then tap on a game in order to edit the names of one or both of the teams in that contest.
All of the new features were requested by users. I think having an easier and more direct and obvious way to navigate from game to game when reviewing pitching performances previously recorded is by far the most important improvement. It was the app’s rather awkward navigation between games and pitchers that caused it to receive a couple of “Great app except for…” reviews. I’m hoping those reviewers will find it in their hearts to review OnScreen Pitch Count again after using this updated version and to give it that extra star in the rating. In any case, I have the satisfaction of knowing I’ve made a good app even better. If you don’t already have it, go check it out on the iTunes App Store.

OnScreen Pitch Count 1.3 Is Now on the iTunes App Store

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

A new version of OnScreen Pitch Count (1.3), my iPhone and iPod Touch app for recording, calculating, and reviewing pitch results and stats of baseball and softball games is now available. A major improvement to the app is the new ability to email pitch data from a game as an attached file in csv (comma-separated values) format. The csv format is one easily imported into spreadsheet programs such as Excel. Once you have the data in a spreadsheet, you can perform any of the many operations available, such as totaling the various pitch quantities for the all the pitchers in the game and so on. Also, once the data is in the spreadsheet’s rows and columns, it can be easily transferred by cut and paste to a master spreadsheet you may be maintaining with full season results, for example. The email can be sent with an attachment or with just a text summary of the results without even leaving the app. The attachment feature is one that a few OnScreen Pitch Count users had requested, so I’m glad to have it up and running.

The other major addition is the ability to record wild pitches. There is a new button to tap after a wild pitch occurs. A wild pitch is only recorded when a pitcher throws a ball beyond the catcher’s reach with the result that a base runner is able to advance; so the wild pitch (WP) button is only enabled when there is at least one base runner. This should minimize accidental wild pitch recording. This disabling of the button needs to be taken into account in a couple of instances though. When a runner reaches first base after a missed third strike due to a wild pitch, the user should first put the runner on base with the Other OB button, and then record the wild pitch. If the sole base runner scores on a wild pitch, the wild pitch needs to be recorded before the run is recorded, since that removes the sole runner from the bases and disables the WP button. This is only logical, but might not be obvious the first time. These cases are pointed out in the new pdf User’s Guide for OnScreen Pitch Count available for download online. Wild pitches are common at lower levels of youth baseball and softball, so this can be an important statistic in evaluating how a pitcher is doing and in getting to all the factors that contribute to run scoring.

The screen shots below show the new wild pitch (WP) button and the display for the number of wild pitches. It required a little shifting of buttons and labels around, but the result was good and uncrowded.


Above is the main screen on which pitch results are recorded by button taps.


Above is the screen in which cumulative game pitch totals are displayed.

A coach from Texas called me a couple of weeks ago with a question about OnScreen Pitch Count, which he was planning to use in a game that evening. I confess I was jealous. I’m sitting here in New England on a cold, rainy night, knowing baseball and softball are a month away, and with lots of cold rainouts to come even then. Not only that, when the season starts I won’t be getting a team of kids ready as I did for years in the past. It’s a nostalgic time for memories of when my kids were little. My daughter is still playing, a high school sophomore softball pitcher, and I’ll be there in the stands with OnScreen Pitch Count for all the games I can get to. It’s a good feeling to know there are others (though far from enough!) now using this app I created to capture the pitch results that I, as a coach, would have liked to have had.

You can download OnScreen Pitch Count from the iTunes app Store or find out more about it, including a video and the User’s Guide, at Previous blog posts (“OnScreen Pitch Count: An iPhone App Preview”, “OnScreen Pitch Count Now On Sale on iTunes App Store!”, and “IPhone App Updates and Experiences”) say more about OnScreen Pitch Count and some of my experiences developing and presenting it.

IPhone App Updates and Experiences

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

The biggest news on the app front is that OnScreen Science’s second iPhone app, OnScreen QB Stats, an app for recording, calculating, and reviewing the passing statistics of quarterbacks during and after football games, is now available on the iTunes App Store. I’ll devote another post to that soon, maybe tomorrow, but I want to catch up here on app number one, OnScreen Pitch Count.

OnScreen Pitch Count went on sale from the iTunes Apps Store August 26. I won’t go into the details of the typo I had in the press release I sent out or dwell on how the video I posted to show the app in action worked fine on a Mac or Windows PC, but not an iPhone. That’s all in the distant past, fixed and forgotten.

Once the app had made it to the iTunes App Store, I was looking to find reviewers for it to help get the word out. I’d had magazine reviews of my science education software in the past, all of them quite favorable (a four-star Macworld review of OnScreen Particle Physics caused a major uptick in sales years ago), but not in a long time and never, of course, for an iPhone app. My number one hope was that the Macworld web site would post a review. As luck would have it, Macworld had not long ago reviewed another pitch count app. That showed they had someone sufficiently interested and knowledgeable to do a review, but it might also make it less likely they’d want to devote space to another example in this little niche, even one that was better than the first, especially so late in the baseball season.

Apple provides every developer of an app forty “promo codes” for the free downloading of each new app or update. I sent a promo code with a review request to the email address of the Macworld reviewer, but never got so much as an acknowledgement. I hadn’t counted on a Macworld review anyway and had found other iPhone review sites (a good number of which are devoted solely to games) and approached a few of them. One or two review sites responded with the suggestion that I expedite a review by paying them. That I wasn’t about to do, and I wouldn’t really trust their reviews after knowing how they operate. A couple of reviewers took the trouble to download the app, test it thoroughly, and write a review of it, for which I am grateful.

The two iPhone app review sites that reviewed OnScreen Pitch Count were AppGirlReviews and JustAnotherMobileMonday (JAMM). I ran across the AppGirl on Twitter, and she was happy to take on the review (actually to pass it on to someone on her staff). I learned of the JAMM site via Google. JAMM had reviewed iScore, a baseball scorebook app, for the iPhone. This review showed the reviewer to be a baseball fan who liked to keep score during a game, which I thought, correctly as it turned out, made him a good candidate to review OnScreen Pitch Count.

Even though I felt the app was solid, and it had passed Apple’s review, I still felt some anxiety over the possibility, however unlikely, that a reviewer would uncover a crashing or data-scrambling bug. On that score I was quite relieved, as both reviewers had nothing but good experiences to report. There was plenty of agreement on the performance and power of the app and its ease of use, really, despite complaints about interface. The JAMM reviewer in particular disliked its looks, and I can’t blame him. I had used Apple’s Interface Builder’s oddly minimalist, totally two-dimensional rounded-rect default buttons for the interface.

My hope was that someone wanting to track a kid’s pitches wouldn’t be totally repelled by the looks, and I didn’t want to delay the app’s launch any more than I had to. Of course an unappealing interface can indicate overall lack of care, which by assumption might carry over to the actual functioning of the app. Fortunately, the reviewers used the app enough to see how well it worked. The JAMM reviewer couldn’t stand the app’s looks, but acknowledged that “like the story of the Ugly Duckling, there really is a fantastic and robust app hidden inside there.” In addition to general aesthetic objections, he wanted a more graphical interface (instead of labeled buttons presumably), but I confess I don’t know how to come up with something that would convey “ball” as well as the word. And so on. A great deal of experimentation went into button placement in fact during development.

For opposite reasons, which is interesting, both reviewers emphasized the limited market for OnScreen Pitch Count. The (male) AppGirl reviewer, in particular, seemed downright offended that I suggested in the app’s description that a normal fan might enjoy tracking pitches in a game he or she was watching. My claim was based on my own experience in testing the app, but the reviewer really took exception to the idea, noting that nonetheless he would let it pass and only report on how the app functioned. That is basically what he did, and he had plenty of good things to say, recommending it without qualification for coaches and parents of pitchers. But in closing he came back to say that otherwise it was of interest only to “fanatics,” and that it was “burdensome” to record pitch results. Despite all the positive things he’d said in the middle of the review (the only serious complaint was lack of email capability, which he thought was a “glaring” defect), he gave the app a mediocre numerical score.

The JAMM reviewer, on the other hand, felt the app would be of limited interest because a regular (not a fanatical) baseball fan wants to record much more than pitching data, as in a full scoring of batting and baserunning results. Clearly there is a wide range of fan interest in keeping personal track of what’s happening in a baseball game, from nothing to everything. I still think there are some that may want pitching stats in particular, since pitching is so important, especially when it comes to managers’ decisions.

I was so happy that both reviewers (real world people I’d never met) had found the app to work perfectly and to be of great potential use to its primary audience that I didn’t let any negative comments bother me. Really.

A little after the reviews appeared someone posted a user review on the iTunes App Store, which gave OnScreen Pitch Count five stars, but also mentioned the need for email. My first update would add email. This update (version 1.1) was approved and posted for sale on the iTunes App Store on September 17. After the update had been posted, I noticed the iTunes summary said that iPhone OS 3 was required for my app. Since I had gone to quite a bit of work (following Apple’s guidelines faithfully) to use the improved emailing capability of version 3, while providing downward compatibility with OS 2.2 (through use of weak binding and conditional execution, for the cognoscenti), I was not happy about this. My query to Apple was unanswered. I decided to live with it and move on to requiring OS 3 or greater for future updates. This affects iPhone customers almost not at all, but about half the iPod Touch users have yet to upgrade the OS, since they have to pay to do so. I recently discovered an iPhone developer discussion thread about this very problem of OS-requirement change as being due to an Apple bug.

Another user rating led to version 1.2. This user expressed the desire to see pitch results expressed in percentage form as well as total numbers. The update incorporating this new feature was posted for sale October 15. Finally, I addressed the ugliness issue and made the minimal, but significant, change to the use of better-looking buttons. The new buttons, while not photo-realistic, are pleasing I think, looking a bit like they’ve been rendered by colored pencil shading. Version 1.2.1 with the new look was approved as I wrote this.

UPDATE: See also “OnScreen Pitch Count 1.3 Is Now on the iTunes App Store”.

OnScreen Pitch Count Now On Sale on iTunes App Store!

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

OnScreen Pitch Count, my iPhone “app” for recording pitch results in a baseball or softball game has been approved for placement on the iTunes App Store and is now available for purchase, in the Sports department, naturally. The past couple of posts here (OnScreen Pitch Count: An iPhone App Preview and How I Made a Quick-and-Dirty Six-Minute Demo Video of My iPhone App) have been devoted to describing the app and my efforts to get it ready.

The only way to sell an app for the iPhone and iPod Touch is through the App Store, and Apple has to approve individually every app that goes on sale there. The estimated time for this approval had been quoted as about two weeks when I submitted OnScreen Pitch Count on the night of August 12. I hurried to get it done then because I was going to be out town for five days, visiting family.

I spent the next couple of weeks wondering if I’d somehow introduced a fatal bug at the last minute (“impossible,” but still one thinks about the impossible sometimes) or if the reviewer at Apple might be someone that didn’t know the first thing about baseball. The evening of August 26 arrived, and OnScreen Pitch Count still hadn’t been approved. Then, almost two weeks to the hour since I’d submitted my app, I got the email saying it was now on sale on the iTunes app store.

Sure enough, within an hour or so the link embedded in my email worked to take me to the OnScreen Particle app’s display on the iTunes App Store. Sure, it’s too late in the baseball season to make many sales now, but it’s still a good feeling to know the app has been approved.

Let me quote a couple of paragraphs from the iTunes app description:

OnScreen Pitch Count from OnScreen Science, Inc. is an app for anyone wanting to have the pulse of a baseball or softball game at his or her fingertips. Pitching is the key to the game, and with OnScreen Pitch Count you’ll have data that even the tv analysts don’t. You’ll know how many pitches each pitcher in the game has thrown and exactly what the net results of those pitches have been.

Whether you’re watching your favorite team play, listening to a game on the radio, sitting in the stands at your child’s Little League game, or coaching a game in which extra pitching data could help you make the right decision, you’ll find OnScreen Pitch Count enhances your enjoyment of the game as it increases your understanding of it.

If you enjoy following baseball or softball, and especially if you coach it at any level, you should check OnScreen Pitch out. Even if you don’t really need it until next spring, you might as well get it and learn it now. I welcome comments and questions. See the email address in the right hand column.

UPDATE: See also “IPhone App Updates and Experiences” and “OnScreen Pitch Count 1.3 Is Now on the iTunes App Store”.

OnScreen Pitch Count: An iPhone App Preview

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

I’ve been explaining the infrequency of my postings here as due to the time I’ve spent working on an iPhone “app.” Now that it’s about to be submitted to the iTunes App Store for inclusion on that exclusive online site for selling (or even giving away) iPhone apps, it seems I should give my devoted readers a preview of the app: OnScreen Pitch Count, the first iPhone app from OnScreen Science, Inc.

Pitch Count? “How could you take that long to make a pitch counter?” you may be thinking (and perhaps “How is it better than the mechanical clicker kind you can buy at the hardware store?”). Hopefully a description of what the app can do will answer both those questions.

The screenshot below shows the main display and the buttons one taps to record pitch results. Incidentally, I considered naming the app OnScreen Pitch Results since it more accurately describes what the app keeps track of, but that name is two characters longer than allowed before being truncated in the App Store listings, so I’m going with Pitch Count, which may be better anyway. The name of the current pitcher is displayed at the top. This example is from a moment in this year’s MLB All Star game.

The buttons in the lower green area are the ones that record each pitch result. One of my first tasks was to determine just what I wanted to keep track of. I referred to my own experience as a Little League coach and also as an interested baseball fan. I rejected the level of detail that would include pitch location and pitch type (curve ball, fast ball, etc.) as being more than anyone but a pitching coach or scout would probably want or be able to handle, not even considering the difficulty in coming up with a user-friendly way of recording that much information for each pitch.

Using a basic knowledge of baseball and some trial and error, I came up with the buttons that are displayed above. In keeping track of strikes thrown we need not only to record pitches that add to the strike total in a given at bat but also the pitches that result in foul balls after two strikes have already been recorded or that result in balls being put into play, leading either to an out being recorded or to the batter reaching base. A great deal of thought and experiment went into choosing the size and placement of the buttons, which I have found to be easy to use in the actual flow of a game.

The bottom two rows of buttons are for recording pitches not put into play: balls and the three kinds of strikes. The Walk and Strikeout buttons are not enabled until four balls or three strikes have been registered. I found from experience that putting in the extra step of recording a walk or strikeout reduced the chance of error and made the situation that much clearer. The Undo button can be tapped to undo the results of as many as two pitches, for example for changing a ball into a called strike after a hasty tap made before the umpire had spoken. It can also, of course, be used to cancel an accidental tap of any button. When three strikes have been recorded, the Strikeout button is highlighted to indicate the next step, and all other ball and strike buttons are disabled until the strikeout is recorded or the strike call is undone. At any time, only the buttons that have meaning are enabled. For example, if there are no runners on base, the Basepath Out and Run buttons are disabled. At important steps such as recording the third out, the next button to be tapped is indicated by highlighting (as mentioned previously for recording a strikeout).

Above the two lower rows of buttons are those relevant to balls put into play and possible results with runners on base. As currently programmed, hits and errors are recorded but without the specific type of hit (single etc.). The Out button is tapped whenever a ball hit by the batter results in the batter being put out before reaching base or in a baserunner being forced out. A basepath out is recorded when a runner is put out not as the result of a hit ball, say caught stealing. In the case of a double play, both an out and a basepath out are recorded. This system of buttons keeps the hits, errors, outs, and current baserunners straight. The Other OB button is used to record batters reaching after being hit by a pitch and so on. It even has the option of the batter reaching first base after a dropped third strike, properly recording the strikeout while removing the out.

The middle yellow section above shows the current situation in the inning: outs, runners on base, and the ball and strike count on the hitter. The cumulative game totals of balls and strikes (including balls put in play etc.) for the current pitcher are shown above that section. A tap of the Details button brings up the cumulative game totals for pitch results, runs allowed, baserunners, etc. for the current pitcher, as shown in the screen shot below.


The pitcher whose results are shown above pitched only one inning as closer, but the same totals for every pitcher in the game can be brought up for inspection by a tap of the Review button followed by a scroll and a tap to select the pitcher from the list of those recorded (see below). All pitchers appearing in the game for either team can be recorded. Or, a single pitcher appearing at any point in the game can be followed alone, depending on the user’s interest. All of the data recorded in a given game is saved on the iPhone or iPod Touch and can be reviewed at any time with the OnScreen Pitch Count app.


When I started to work on this project there were no competing apps that I was aware of, but since then a few have appeared. OnScreen Pitch Count lies in between some that seem to be really barebones counters of balls and strikes (with limitations on the number of pitchers) and much more detailed “pitching scout” type apps that record more data but are aimed at tracking individual pitchers over time. I think OnScreen Pitch Count should find  a comfortable place in this niche of pitch recording apps. I’m pretty confident it can more than hold its own in usability and usefulness. As far as I’ve been able to tell from scanning app descriptions, OnScreen Pitch Count is the only app that properly charges runs to the pitcher that allowed the scoring runner to reach base even when the run scored after a relief pitcher had come into the game.

Of course, interrupting the pitch-recording to answer the iPhone or to play a game between innings has no effect on OnScreen Pitch Count, and it will resume right where it left off whenever it’s pressed into service again. This happens automatically for pauses of up to an hour, but you can resume any unfinished game at any time, whether after a long rain delay or after you’ve paused a game tape for days.

How much will it cost? I’m leaning toward $2.99. It would be worth a lot more than that to some people, but the way mass appeal apps have been forced to fight for attention on the App Store has led to popular games being sold for 99¢. OnScreen Pitch Count is not competing in the popular game market, but the depression in game prices has led to iPhone users’ expecting very low prices on anything they buy.

I should mention that I found in my testing of OnScreen Pitch Count, watching both local softball games and televised major league games, that the spectator experience was enhanced by following with such close attention and having so much information literally at my fingertips. I would have loved to have had the information when I was coaching Little League. It was a lot of work to program OnScreen Pitch Count, though the development tools Apple supplies are excellent. Further improvements and my next app (I have an idea!) will be easier, assuming I get on with it before I forget what I’ve learned.

In a day or two after I post this I should have more information about OnScreen Pitch Count up at this link: I plan to have a video demonstration.

UPDATE: See also “OnScreen Pitch Count Now On Sale on iTunes App Store!”, “IPhone App Updates and Experiences”, and “OnScreen Pitch Count 1.3 Is Now on the iTunes App Store”.

Show Me Where It Hurts: Memory Illuminates a Few Moments of My Baseball Career

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

This is going to be another brief example of how the survival of ancient memories depends, not on the real significance of the remembered events, but on the intensity of the feelings associated with them at the time they took place, a subject I’ve touched on before (Something on Memories). I was fourteen years old on that evening of which some small portions have stuck in my mind. Few, few are the moments that come to memory from that far back.

The occasion was a baseball game. I was on a Pony League team, which in my Texas town near Dallas was the step above Little League, played on a bigger field, but one which I believe was still smaller than a full-sized one. Despite my having come to love baseball (listening to the 1952 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers was the turning point at age ten) a few years before, I had never played in an organized league before the age of thirteen, not having lived any place that had organized youth baseball until I arrived in my new town for the seventh grade. Baseball was a big sport in this town, the Little League all-star team having made it to the State tournament the summer before I arrived to start school in the fall.

Before then, I had done my best to acquire baseball skills without the benefit of organized play or coaching, most of the time without the benefit of a partner to play catch with. I was not that bad at fielding and catching. My arm was weak though, and I had never batted against fast pitching. My hitting skill level was low, and my confidence in it was even lower. In truth, I had been one of those kids that hoped for a walk whenever I was at the plate in a game important enough to have an umpire, such as the sixth versus fifth grade softball game with a teacher umpiring. Yes, I can remember a painful called third strike I took in a crucial situation!

Despite being conscious of my below-average baseball skills, a condition which I still hoped was temporary, I was eager to play at last on a real team, so I had signed up at the first opportunity and had gone to the tryouts, which were conducted on a real field under the lights and open to the public. I don’t remember much about the tryout beyond being nervous, dreading to hear my name called, and then getting ready to field ground balls from one of the league officials, as all the coaches waited to judge my performance. I recall no details of the tryout, just the feeling that went with the knowledge that I had done poorly, worse than I had hoped, and being relieved it was over.

In addition to making the jump to a high-level baseball culture, I had experienced substantial culture shock in this new town and school due to the advanced boy-girl relationships compared to what had known before. There were lots of couples going steady. They danced to “cat music” (more on that some other time). I was not part of this social scene and had slipped into a low status slot, which I was not accustomed to, having the previous year been, in a small school, very popular with the boys and girls alike. I was really quite intimidated by the social scene, and my self-confidence had been battered.

But in that spring of my first year in the new town, I recall that my mere trying out for baseball had evidently impressed one of the fairly high-status girls, who was a baseball enthusiast (perhaps a bit of a baseball groupie). She had approached me with a smile and a glowing face saying she’d heard (I think) that I was playing baseball. Rather than accepting this as a good icebreaker, I had evaded the subject, though I can’t recall the awkward details of how. I felt ashamed of how poorly I had done, and I think I was afraid that she had only heard I had tried out, without getting a performance report, so that it would be better for her not to view me as a “real” baseball player, especially since she valued baseball so highly. I was realizing just how far I was behind the good players in my new league. But for all I know—it would not be surprising—she had been in the stands during the tryouts. Perhaps just being on a team (like playing in a rock band for some) was enough to give me prestige in her eyes. Or maybe she had been wishing for a way to approach me before. Maybe she just relished any chance to talk about her favorite subject. I’ll never know. Though I can picture very well how she looked those many years ago, I can’t recall her name. I do feel a certain tenderness toward her now, though; and retrospective gratitude.

When I started writing this piece I thought that the remembered events I was going to relate had occurred in my first year in Pony League, but on reflection I feel sure they were in the second year. That’s the strong feeling I got from picturing the catcher on my team on the night in question and then remembering who the catcher was on my first team. Catchers are central to the game, so I guess it’s not surprising I can remember them.

Speaking of memories, I might as well relate another that just popped up. It was during an intra-squad game of some sort on that first team, so that half our team was playing the other half. I had just come to the plate to face one of my teammates, a pitcher from the previous year’s all-star team. The catcher was into the game and said to the pitcher the same thing he would have said when an opposing batter came to the plate in a real game: “OK, this guy can’t hit!” Then he must have realized just how true that statement was in my case, and that I might be stung by those words, so he quickly added “Just doubles, triples…” Of course, I understood what had gone on in his mind, and it would have been better for my ego for him to have treated me like anyone else, since the change revealed just how lowly he estimated my batting prowess. It was an attempt at kindness that made things worse, leading me to mutter something in protest of the supposed compliment to show I knew better. Still, I had to appreciate the tough thirteen-year-old catcher’s consideration for my feelings, and I haven’t forgotten it. Thanks, Gary.

After I had been in town for a while and gotten to know more neighborhood kids, I started playing baseball with some of them in a vacant lot practically every day. I enjoyed that a lot more than the organized baseball. I got plenty of batting practice in those games, but our rule was not to throw full speed. We could only try to get people out with pitch location. Other than that it was like batting practice. I’m sure my batting eye and swing improved over time. I was comfortable hitting in those pickup games. Of course a real game with fast pitching and game pressure was something else.

Anyway, the Pony League game I’m going to talk about was one of those in which the other team only had eight players show up. As a coach, I’ve always hated those games and tried to make sure the game just got rescheduled before teams showed up at the field. That only works for anticipated absences though. Once the players, coaches, and umpires have arrived at the field, possibly for a night game which requires a lot of electricity for the lighting, it’s hard to just leave and reschedule. No, if one team is short and the other has more than it needs to field nine, the frequent solution is for the team with a surplus to lend a player to the other team for the night. On this night, I was that player. As a coach, I made it a point not to choose the worst player on the team as the automatic substitute for the other team, but that’s not the way it usually goes.

On this night long ago I was certainly being offered as a substitute because I was deemed by my coach (whose name and face even are lost to me, though I can remember those of my first-year coach) as the worst on our team. It was embarrassing, of course, to have that distinction, even though I imagine I was asked to volunteer and probably thanked for agreeing to. I was performing a service and I would definitely get to play the whole game this way. I can’t remember any details about the team switch; just the fact that it happened and that it was embarrassing. Nor can I remember anything about the game until the first time I came to bat.

So here I was on this night facing a pitcher named Bud, who was wearing the same uniform as I. I can’t be sure if I only remember one pitch or if it was in fact the first pitch I was thrown (as it seems) which I lined into right field for a clean single. I do remember it was very satisfying to be standing at first base, especially under the circumstances. I remember the coach of my temporary team saying “He wasn’t supposed to do that, was he?” to my regular coach.

The next thing that I remember distinctly is being on third base after that hit. I can’t recall the exact details of how I got from first to third base: some forgotten sequence of events drawn from the possibilities of hit, walk, error, and wild pitch. I just remember being on third when the batter took ball four to bring me home: yet another contribution I was about to make to this my adopted team-for-the-night.

As I proceed in my trot toward the plate, the catcher (my “real” team’s catcher) evidently decides to start playing psychological games with me. Or is he just having a little fun with a teammate? But he looks serious and irritated, as though I were rubbing it in that I was helping the other team. It’s not my fault. I’m just playing the game! He’s glaring at me and faking throws to third base. What’s the point of that?

Soon, but not soon enough to escape the terrible destiny Fate had prepared for me, I realized my situation. The bases had not been loaded! I could not walk home. The throw was made to the third baseman. I was tagged out. Shame and ignominy fell on me like heavy shrouds! The Earth did not open up to let me escape through an underground passageway, so I must have trotted to the dugout, but I have no memory of anything beyond the realization of my mistake, not of the tag nor of who was playing third. Did anyone on either team or any coach say anything to me? Did I bat again that night? Did I make any plays in the field? Who won the game? All of these details have been wiped clean from my memory.

All that remains is the humiliation of being the player given to the other team, the brief glow of satisfaction from my clean hit, and the anguish of comprehending my boneheaded mistake. Was there no third base coach? I suppose not. Did anyone suspect that I had deliberately made an out to help my real team? I would probably have preferred that to the felt certainty that everyone had clearly seen my mistake, one that a “real” player would never have made, so that in the commission of it I had thereby amply justified my selection as the giveaway player, my blunder having effaced that beautiful single. I don’t remember anything about the rest of the season, before or after that game. Just those few moments have survived. Such is the way of memory.

An Evening in Lowell: Mixing in a Changeup

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

The New York Yankees came into Boston last Friday to play the Red Sox in the first game of a crucial series between these hardball rivals with the enormous player payrolls. It was a beautiful evening, and I felt very lucky to be at the ball park! Only I wasn’t at Fenway Park watching the Sox. Tickets are very difficult to get for Fenway, especially to a single game for five people on a Friday night at a low price. Especially right behind home plate. Well, there are no such tickets combining low price, availability, and great location in Fenway. Against the Yankees? Are you kidding? No, I was in Lowell, Mass., a bit to the north of Boston, to see my first New England Riptide game. That’s professional fast pitch softball, a sport played by women on a smaller field with a bigger ball, where the pitching is underhand from only forty-three feet and every pitch is some kind of breaking ball. The league’s official name is National Pro Fastpitch.

I was with my wife and a few girls on the summer league softball team for fourteen and under that my daughter plays on. I first became more interested in softball through coaching and watching my daughter’s teams. I’d watched some international matchups and Women’s College World Series games on television, but had never seen a game with highly skilled players in person. Since there was a promotion for this night that included members of our team and their guests, it seemed the right time to see what this league was like. The Riptide were playing the Chicago Bandits.

It was like going to a minor league baseball game, but on an even smaller scale. The Riptide home games are played on a nice regional high school field. The concession stand is not all that different from one at a Little League or high school game except they have more choices, including beer as well as sodas. Seating is not assigned; it’s first come, first seated. We were early, so we had time to buy food (I got a pulled pork sandwich—not bad for $5—and a Heineken—a little warm since they had just put their drinks in the ice, and of course more expensive than anywhere but a ball park at $4) and still find seats right behind home plate, from which vantage point we got to see the teams take pregame fielding and batting practice (screen with a hole in it for underhand pitching). I found watching the fielding practice a pleasure in itself, having seen so many muffed grounders, balls bouncing out of gloves, etc. at our girls’ level of play. I think the girls on our team were properly impressed, hopefully inspired, also.

The atmosphere at the ball park was quite enjoyable. Of course there were probably more young softball players in the stands than usual because of the promotion, and probably considerably more people in attendance than usual as well. In keeping with the minor league baseball tradition, they had various non-ballgame things going on. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Taz were all visiting from Six Flags New England, and a couple of them threw out first pitches. Between innings one young girl raced the Riptide mascot character (a gull, I gather) and one of the Six Flag characters around the diamond. It was amusing to see the girl, all business, look back to see if they were gaining on her. Another break featured three girls in a hula hoop contest. Our girls got to join the Billerica Bratz team in singing Sweet Caroline (by accident or fate, a Red Sox anthem of sorts) into a microphone brought into the stands between innings. The sound operator had a different theme song for every home team player, and when a player came to the plate, he played a short excerpt of her theme. There were other musical effects for tense moments: the Jaws music still scares me a little, I’ll admit.

The NPF players have their traveling expenses paid and receive a modest salary. The sixteen-player teams in the league each have a salary cap for payroll of $100,000. No, I didn’t make a mistake on the number of zeros, and that is the total payroll, not just the single player limit. So most players make a couple or a few thousand dollars to play the 48-game summer season. There are a few big names in softball, with pitcher Jennie Finch being the biggest, but this year most of those are on the Olympic team, thus depleting the NPF of its top players. All of the players on both rosters had their colleges listed in the programs, and I would guess most are only a year or two out of college. Whatever else they may be doing, they really want to keep playing softball, and are glad to have found a way to make that happen. How is this desire to play manifested?

Well, for one thing they hustle. And how they hustle! While Red Sox fans were wondering whether their star hitter Manny Ramirez was faking a knee injury out of spite because the Red Sox management hadn’t yet picked up his $20 million option for next year (all the while paying him about that much for the current year), we in Lowell were seeing two teams put nine players on the field who never walked when they could run, although they are basically working for peanuts.

To get an idea of the level of enthusiasm exhibited and the amount of stretching that went on, just imagine (if you follow major league baseball) two teams composed of nothing but David Ecksteins and Ichiros, then jack it up a little. After that, morph those skilled players into young women in their twenties with the feminine charm that accompanies the bloom of health and vitality, and remember to include a good number of pony tails. I think of the Riptide player who loosened up while awaiting her turn to hit by jumping high off the ground in the on deck circle, feet pulled up behind her, in an impressive display of agility and eagerness. But don’t imagine all the players are slim and trim; one or two were bigger than what you’d normally associate with athleticism, which usually includes speed and agility. However, I’m sure the bigger girls have great balance and can hit the ball a long way, peg the ball to second to erase a runner, or demonstrate some other skill of value to the team. Baseball and softball are skill sports, where even a self-styled “non-athlete” such as John Kruk can excel with the proper physical skills.

The weather for the game was perfect and the mosquitos neither too plentiful nor too voracious. It was in every sense a good game (well-pitched, well-played, and dramatic), except that the home team lost 2-1. An early highlight for me was the Riptide’s first hit on a perfectly placed drag bunt. The third baseman for the Bandits, Stacy May, whom I had seen waiting in line at the concession stand before the game (imagine A-Rod in line before a game at Fenway!), turned out to be the heroine of the night. She hit a homerun over the center field fence to score her team’s first run and later made a couple of key plays in the field, most notably one on which she leaped high to snag a line drive and then dived to tag the base with her glove to double up the runner on third and kill a Riptide rally. Exemplifying the spirit and fun of the sport, the Riptide players danced along with the cheers they chanted during a rally, much as our young girl players do.

Both pitchers pitched very well, and I could really see the balls break in different directions, especially during warmup pitches when the umpire wasn’t in the way. I found it interesting that, contrary to the universal advice of the pitching books and videos I’ve studied in my effort to learn how to coach softball pitching, Jocelyn Forest, the Riptide pitcher, instead of landing with her stride foot on the “power line” straight from the pitching rubber to the plate, always landed well to the left of it—yet another example of someone coming up with an idiosyncratic way to do something successfully.

If there was an error made in the game, I can’t recall it, though a key hit by the Bandits was on a ball that hit off the glove of the center fielder as she ran in and attempted a shoestring catch. The cleanly played game was in marked contrast to a baseball game I saw in Lowell a few years ago, in which the Class A Lowell Spinners (Red Sox farm team) and their opponents each made multiple errors. That’s a small sample, and I can imagine why Class A baseball would have more errors: more balls put into play, more balls hit hard, more players just out of high school. However, it was a striking contrast, and I can say with a good deal of confidence that if one goes to an NPF game, one can expect to see good fielding.

The overall experience was refreshing and mind-clearing somehow. It is rare to find that many people so obviously relishing what they are engaged in and going about it with such elan and skill. Those girls are having a blast! I highly recommend going to an NPF game. In addition to the two teams already mentioned, there are others in Philadelphia, Akron, Washington DC, and Rockford, IL).

For me (and obviously there’s a personal and contingent element to every experience) the psychic refreshment from attending the game was like that obtained from a satisfying concert. Now that I think about it, the enjoyment and satisfaction for the players is probably similar to that of young people in a road band, where all the gigs and travel arrangements are lined up in advance, so that all the musicians have to do is show up and play their hearts out—with a lot of improvisation: all improvisation really, in the sense of responding to the unpredictable actions of others, always within the rules, but always different. They’re teammates, they’re young, it’s summer, and life is beautiful. Some of the joy gets passed on to the witnesses; try to find a game.

It’s Only One Game

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

I recently wrote (Looking Back At a Rocky Little League Start) about my unplanned entry into Little League coaching when my son was seven years old. That had been coach-pitch ball, where everyone batted each inning, no matter how many outs were made, and no score was kept, except by the players of course.

The following spring we were excited by the prospect of real baseball in the Little League minors. One afternoon, my son, a friend of his, and I were at our neighborhood park engaging in a little preseason baseball practice. A Little League team, or as we later learned, two teams—minor and major league affiliates—were practicing on the diamond, while we were in deep right and center field. This is not a regulation park with Little League fences, so the field is regularly used for frisbee tossing, sunbathing, etc. when games are not being played.

My son and his friend caught the talent-scouting eye of one of the coaches on the diamond. The coach walked over to talk to us to see what was what. He asked the boys if they played Little League. The friend did, but was about to move out of town. All the interest was then focused on my son. The coach, whose name was Jon, invited him to join in the next team practice. Actually, since it was an unofficial practice, he called it a get-together or something like that.

I remembered a story I’d read in the local paper a few years before about a coach in our town being arrested at a ball field right in front of his team for conducting an early unauthorized Little League practice. The league president had called the cops on him supposedly for practicing on a city field before receiving permission from the city. I had thought it was crazy, and that the more practice kids got the better, but there’s no denying the early bird coach had probably been seeking an advantage. These coaches must have felt the heat was off as far as any consequences as extreme as arrest went. They probably would have said that everyone was doing it.

I guess my son and I were flattered by Jon’s desire to have my son practice with his team. Or, more likely, I was flattered, and my son was just happy for the chance to get started with real baseball. We came to the next unofficial practice of these Little League Red Sox. We were delighted to see that Wilson, one of our favorite kids on the “traveling team” from the previous year was there as well. Since his older brother was on the major league Red Sox, Wilson was guaranteed a spot on its minor league affiliate, which made it all the more attractive to us.

What a step up it was for my son to be practicing with experienced players under experienced coaches! Jon’s son was on the minor league team, and he seemed to be a very nice kid, which won Jon points with me as a potential coach for my son. I liked the way the coaches treated the kids and ran the practice, so both my son and I were quickly sold on the idea of being on the Red Sox. I planned to sign up to be eligible for coaching again in case my son’s team had need of coaching help. It felt like the Red Sox were our team already.

The player draft was conducted before one of the Little League meetings. Jon came from the draft to the meeting where I was waiting and told me there had been no problem; the Red Sox had landed my son. I glanced at the list of players in the draft Jon was holding and thought I saw next to my son’s name the notation “Will only play for Red Sox.” Since that went far beyond anything we would ever have said, stretching a strong preference into a requirement, I realized there had possibly been some chicanery involved in getting my son. Assuming I saw what I thought I saw, I still don’t know if the statement was actually used or just held in reserve in case someone tried to draft my son before the Red Sox could. I never said anything to Jon about it; and, since I didn’t, the only sure thing is that I let it go by without comment despite my suspicion.

It appeared that I was going to be Jon’s main assistant coach. I was looking forward to helping and learning from Jon and was glad not to have the responsibility for a team, which had been thrust upon me at the last minute a year before. There seemed a good possibility that I might inherit the managerial role the following year after Jon had moved up with his son to the majors. For now I was doing whatever Jon asked me to, whether putting balls on the tee for batting practice or hitting ground balls to players.

During a practice shortly before the season was to start Jon asked me, somewhat dubiously I thought, “Can you handle this team?” Thinking he needed to go to the bank before it closed or something and wanted me to run the practice for half an hour or so, I said I thought I could for a while. But no, he meant could I take over the managing job for the season! His son was being called up to the majors along with a couple of the other older players, and Jon was moving up with him to help coach at the next level. This meant I would be on my own and with a team depleted of some of its best players. It seemed to be my fate to have a team thrust on me each year. Despite my doubts, I said yes I would try, part of the reason being that I didn’t want to take a chance on whoever else might get the job at that point, as there were no other candidates on Jon’s coaching staff.

If I had been reluctant to take on the seven-year-old coach-pitch team the year before, I really felt in over my head now. This was real baseball, and I imagined it as being close to what my only experience with organized ball had been when I was a teenager. What about run-down pickle drills? What drills would I use at all beyond the most basic fielding and throwing to bases? Could I throw strikes in batting practice? My coach-pitch experience should help there. I would have to start learning the Little League rule book. I would at least be able to know for a fact that no rules were being evaded or stretched by our team. Teaching kids how to pitch? I’d never pitched. Time to order some videos and books! I did find some that were helpful, but time seemed so short.

The two best older players left on the team, Tim and Dennis, nine and ten years old, respectively, were unhappy because they hadn’t been called up to the majors along with the others they liked to consider their peers. There was some talk of their quitting, but fortunately they came to the first practice with me as the manager. Dennis’s mother even helped out by throwing some batting practice.

We had not a single experienced pitcher now, but had some kids that wanted to try. I had already identified Tim as the one kid with the arm, control, and confidence a pitcher needs, but he was untested. Beyond him I wasn’t sure who the best prospects were. I held a couple of tryouts using a pitching targetI had just bought. It was a big tarp mounted on a frame about five feet high and three feet wide with a Little League size strike zone cut out in the middle and with net pockets to catch balls in the strike zone, including special small pockets for balls put on the corners of the strike zone. Most of my pitcher candidates had trouble hitting the target at all, I mean the whole tarp, never mind the strike zone. Dennis, the tall ten-year-old I’ve already mentioned, was promising I thought; but, upon further consideration, he was sure that he didn’t want to pitch. Too much pressure obviously. I put him at catcher, as I wanted a good player there. My son was someone to consider for the future. Mark, another ten-year-old was sure he wanted to try.

A stressful non-baseball problem also arose before our first game. The team had gotten a late addition to its roster in the person of Don, a big ten-year-old with a strong arm, which made me think of him as another potential pitcher. A couple of days after Don showed up I got a call from the mother of Rob, a returning nine-year-old whom I was considering for second base. Rob’s mother was extremely upset that Don had been added to the team. A few years back in the early grades, Rob’s mother had gone high up the school hierarchy to ask for protection for Rob against Don, whom Rob was afraid of. After that, according to Rob’s mother, Don’s mother had accosted her in public and physically threatened her.

I have no way of knowing what the actual situation was between the boys, but I’m sure both mothers had been acting forcefully, in the way that came most naturally to them, in defense of their sons, as they saw it; Rob’s mother to protect her son from bullying (as she perceived it) and Don’s mother to protect her son from unfair accusations and classification (as she perceived it). Whatever had happened, and it had been a few years now, Rob’s mother had gotten a restraining order against Don’s mother back when the original incident took place and was still scared of her.

Much as I hated to be involved, all I could see to do was to call Don’s mother to arrange for him to go to a different team, as he was the newcomer with no ties. To my surprise, she was adamant that Don would not move, that she had no problem with the situation, so Rob’s mother should move her son if she had a problem. Furthermore, she would sue Little League if we “discriminated against” Don by attempting to move him. Obviously, I was stepping into a drama that had been going on for some time, so that what seemed a very reasonable request to me was being perceived as yet another unfair move against Don to be resisted by all available means.

I called Rob’s mother to bring her up to date and see how she felt. She had already talked to Rob about the possibility of his moving to another team; his team loyalty was stronger than whatever residual fear he had of Don, and he wouldn’t consider changing teams himself. That was heartening. This parental conflict was more than I had bargained for, but I couldn’t see anything to do but to go ahead with both boys on the team, keep an eye on things, and hope for the best since the initial conflict had been years in the past.

Don’s mother had showed up with him the first day, ready to become a coach for the team and fully assuming she would, as she had previously coached Don’s soccer team. I only had one assistant coach at the time, the mother of one of the eight-year-old rookies. She was good with the kids, but not very knowledgeable about baseball. She had signed on to coach with Jon mainly to help keep her son, who was a reluctant participant in Little League (only playing at her insistence, I gathered) and prone to bug watching during team practices, on task. So, I could have used the help. But given the situation, I told Don’s mother I was not going to have her as a coach. That evidently surprised her as much as her unwillingness to consider moving her son to another team had surprised me. She said “You’re bold,” I believe the adjective was, but, despite some talk about taking it to the league president, she accepted my decision, and later on in the season became pretty friendly.

I was probably more nervous than the kids about our first game. I didn’t know what to expect. I had barely had a chance to decide who would play where. Wilson and my son were rookies starting at third and short, respectively; Tim and Dennis were new to pitching and catching; and none of the other starting infielders had played their positions before.

The kids looked sharp and focused in their pre-game fielding practice. Tim started the game for us on the mound (figuratively speaking, since our league’s “mounds” were as flat as the rest of the infield, though there was a pitching rubber, which always had a hole in front of it). The Little League pitching rules then in effect (they have since moved to limits on actual pitches per game and week) placed limitations on the number of innings in which a player could pitch. My plan was to get three innings out of Tim and then bring in someone else, leaving Tim eligible to pitch again in our next game, which was only two days off. One pitch in the fourth inning would have made him ineligible for three days.

At the end of Tim’s three innings, I was proud of how the team had been playing and relieved at the way things were going. Tim had pitched well, and our team had a 4-3 lead. Win or lose, this was a respectable showing, and my fears of a fiasco seemed unfounded. Things went downhill fast after Mike was replaced at pitcher. Mark pitched the fourth inning and only got two outs, while giving up five runs. The rule in our minor league was that a team could only bat once through their order in an inning until the final inning. We batted ten or eleven in our league, as we played with four outfielders and had the option of an extra hitter. The fifth inning was worse, as Don failed to get anyone out before I switched to my last known available pitcher to finish it. That last pitcher happened to be the eight-year-old son of the manager, and I would have to stick with him, no matter what. He let in a couple more runs, but struck out the last batter of the inning for the only out we got. We failed to score in the bottom of the inning, and we were now down 15-4 through five.

The Indians’ manager came over to talk to me somewhat apologetically. He wanted me to know that he knew what it was like to be in my shoes, for the previous year his team had won only one game and that was by a forfeit (in other words, they had lost every game). He may have sensed we were on the brink of a similar season with a rookie manager and a depleted team with obvious pitching problems, or maybe he was just recalling similarly lopsided games. I appreciated his words. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking: why not tell your players to swing the bat if the pitch is at all hittable? Under similar circumstances now, I would probably make that suggestion, but as a rookie manager I felt more inhibited I guess.

The point of the managerial conference was that, being down by more than ten runs after five full innings, under regular Little League rules our team would have had to concede the game, but our league allowed the manager to decide whether to continue or not. A factor to take into account was that teams would not be limited to one time through the batting order in the sixth inning, which is the last inning in Little League. I suppose the memory of our good start and that strikeout of their last hitter influenced my decision to gamble on getting them out fairly quickly, so that we could get one last at bat and hopefully score a few runs to end the game on a somewhat positive note. I probably didn’t really think through the worst case scenario thoroughly, focused as I was on the potentially upbeat ending.

I soon regretted my decision to continue playing. Though the sixth inning started off well enough, with two of the first three batters being retired, from then on the inning became a walkathon, as the batters all seemed to come up looking for a walk, which was indeed to be found. Those two early outs proved to be a curse, as they held out the hope that the next batter could always be the last. It wasn’t as though the opposing batters were all walking on four wild pitches; there were some excruciating walks on 3-2 counts. At this point an adult umpire would almost surely have called any pitch a kid could reach with a bat a strike, but the teenage umpire was sticking by the strike zone as he saw it without considering the score or the fact that the hitters weren’t swinging at anything. Not then, nor ever, did I complain about an umpire’s call, but I think it would have been a good idea to have suggested expanding the zone a little to him if I had thought of it before the inning had started. As the opposing team was not limited to one turn in the last inning, players were coming up for the second time in the inning, and walks continued to bring in runs. I felt bad for the rookie pitcher, needless to say. It was another of those infinite-loop nightmares.

With nine more runs already in, and the score standing at 24-4, there was no way to foresee when or if we’d ever get that final out. Better late than never, I asked for a timeout, walked out to the mound, and waved the team in for a conference. “What’s he doing now?” one of the opposing team parents asked disgustedly within my wife’s hearing. “OK, guys, we’re going to call it a day. Remember, it’s only one game.” “Finally!” said Tim. One of the fathers later told me that Tim’s post-game assessment had been “This team sucks!” What a coaching debut!

Despite the ignominious conclusion of our game, I could see reason for hope. We had had the lead after three innings. We had made plays! If you’re a beginning coach in your team’s first game, the sight of your infielders fielding ground balls and making good throws to first base, where the first baseman catches the ball for the putout—no matter how routine the play should be—is indescribably beautiful. All our trouble had come after I’d taken Tim out. Given that it was the team’s first game and none of the pitchers had ever thrown a pitch in a game, it probably wasn’t too surprising that most of them had trouble throwing strikes. The importance of pitching and experience was not a new discovery. With Tim pitching in our next game, we should have a fighting chance, depending on the quality of the opposition.

I guess it was the combination of the devastating score and the other manager’s reference to their winless season that nonetheless made thoughts of an 0-18 record for the year start to prey on me after only one game. Would I be hoping for a forfeit before the season was over, so I could at least match last-year’s Indians with that one “win?” Would the kids realize there were reasons for optimism, or would they be crushed beyond hope? Would kids start quitting the team? Would the parents start to mutter about my incompetence? What about my son? Had I shattered his confidence by leaving him out there to walk so many batters? All of my doubts about being ready for coaching were weighing on me.

We didn’t have long to wait for our next crack at a victory, as we only had one day off before taking on the Cardinals. Nonetheless it seemed like a long time to me, and it was long enough for us to hear one of my son’s friends say in a matter-of-fact, not a teasing, way that we must really be bad to have lost to the team he knew hadn’t won a single game the year before. I wasn’t pessimistic, just worried.

Contrary to my fears, the kids seemed to be fine. No one failed to come to the game, and they showed no signs of being disheartened. They were not sullen or mutinous. They were kids from eight to ten years old, eager, almost all of them, to play baseball, the greatest game ever invented. Tim was our starting pitcher again. I planned to use up his weekly allotment of six innings in this one game, so long as he seemed OK.

No matter how he may have felt about his team’s chances, Tim pitched even better in this game; and we were still making plays. Through four innings we had a slim 3-1 lead; and each team had recorded only one hit. Then in the fifth we started to hit; we scored three runs in both the fifth and sixth; and we took a 9-2 lead into the bottom of the sixth. In that last inning, with one run in, the Cardinals had runners on first and second with no outs. Then Tim struck out a hitter and got the following one out on a popup.

The next batter hit a ground ball to the third-baseman Mark, who fielded it cleanly and then looked up to see the large runner from second coming right at him. To my great relief, instead of throwing to first base, Mark did the right thing, tagging the runner out, though rather harder than necessary, as often happens in the Little League minors. It was one of the most memorable outs I’ve witnessed in my entire baseball-watching life. Thank you, Mark!

There were smiles all around on our side and great relief for at least one of us. The winless season was no longer a possibility! Tim had pitched a four-hitter with twelve strikeouts, the biggest strikeout coming in the fifth to end the inning with the bases loaded. Dennis was going to be strongly encouraged, maybe even pressured a little, to get over his reluctance to pitch.

Our team would go on to win its next nine games, with both Dennis and my son joining Tim in pitching the team to wins along the way, before losing by one run to the Cardinals in our third meeting with them. Suddenly we were among the elite teams in the city. But with that came the coach’s burden of higher expectations. There was really no escape from the pressure that year, but the second kind is better.

An important thing coaching has taught me is that kids naturally have the highly desirable combined ability to both treat their current activity or contest very seriously and to recover completely from what seems briefly to be a devastating setback or defeat. This was one of the things I had been hoping to instill in the kids on my team: try your best, but don’t dwell on losses. It turned out they didn’t really need to be taught that, if such a thing could be taught except by example anyway.

Being responsible for preparing the team to play its best—to win if possible—and imagining (rightly in some cases) that the other parents were just as anxious about their child’s and their child’s team’s game success as I was, was both a burden and a privilege. I’ve observed that parents seem more anxious about their children in sports when they are younger, I suppose because they seem more vulnerable; and, for some, because of the parents’ hope that they will see their child blossom into a star athlete.

Looking at pictures of that team, I am struck by how little they were. How could their winning or losing baseball games have taken on so much importance to me and to other parents? Part of it is the natural desire of the teacher to see his students perform well, whatever skill they are supposed to have mastered. Obviously, being the father of one of those little players who also took baseball seriously was the main reason, but I didn’t share many of his childish enthusiasms.

I think that points to the answer: baseball provided a bridge I could cross over to his world where play was extremely serious, yet fun, a bridge back to childhood itself. That feat is pretty much impossible for most of us through watching or joining in on other types of play—playing Star Wars, say, to take an example from my son’s childhood. I think the rules and the scoring of baseball are part of what makes the bridge work: the game is still fun and dramatic for grownups. And in organized baseball, the children are able to come partway across the bridge in the other direction toward the adult world. This ambiguous and unconscious mixing of worlds may be the reason that some parents behave so badly, so childishly, at their kids’ games. This would be an inherent danger.

I don’t fully know what to make of the sort of mania we can get into following our young children’s organized games, but I know my son and his friends have good memories of their early Little League days and so do their parents, so I guess no further analysis is needed in way of justification.