Posts Tagged ‘Coaching’

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.

Looking Back At a Rocky Little League Start

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Spring is here, though in New England it’s still a bit hard to tell except by the trees that have finally leafed and blossomed—and the start of Little League baseball. I’m sure the kids have been playing ball since February in Florida, but in New England we don’t get started until late April, and even then we typically have a lot of cold rainouts.

This is the first season in nine years that finds me neither managing nor coaching a team. Although I’ve approached seasons thinking I would just be a parent in the stands before, this time I feel sure I’ve passed the point where I might heed a call to fill in as a last-minute replacement. This definitive retirement is harder than I had anticipated, and I find my heart nostalgic for those earlier years when my son was little and his anticipated playing and my unexpected coaching were all in the future.

I remember looking forward to the day my son, greatly enamored of ball sports from age two, would be able to play Little League baseball. I had only become interested in baseball at age ten, and I had missed out on the Little League experience through living in small towns without a league until I was thirteen. By then it was time to move up to the next level, and, lacking the experience of the earlier years that all the other kids had, I was always one of the worst players on my teams.

I had not fulfilled my dream of becoming a good baseball player, even after hours of practicing alone, fielding balls bounced off my grandparents’ brick chimney and catching make-believe popups tossed as I high as I could make them go. Hitting fast pitching was impossible to learn on your own. I was glad to anticipate that my son would be able to get the full benefit of Little League coaching in the town we lived in. I had played catch with him and so on, but I was looking forward to having experienced coaches take him beyond what I could teach him.

We were lucky to live close to a park that included a Little League diamond. It didn’t meet the full Little League specifications, and the topography of the outfield was complex (hills and holes, irregular dimensions), but the field was adequate for local minor league play and far better than the vacant lot I had done my neighborhood playing on. It had an infield, home plate, and a pitching rubber, though no true mound. Our family had attended a couple of games there to see an older boy on our street play. People brought lawn chairs and blankets to sit on in outfield foul territory.

Over the years my son and I would spend many hours on this field, often just the two of us, doing fielding practice, hitting practice, and pitching practice. “Can we go to the park?” was a daily question of his to me during the baseball months for those years, and the answer was almost always yes. Later I would spend a lot of time there with my daughter working on her windmill pitching delivery for softball.

The first level of Little League is tee-ball, which takes kids as young as five. Tee-ballers in our section of town met in the aforementioned neighborhood park on Saturday mornings. Looking at the Little League rule book gives one the idea that tee-ball should basically consist of regular baseball games, only without pitchers, the batters hitting off a tee instead. In our town, there were no games at all. It was really just some practice in the basics of throwing and catching followed by extended batting practice from a tee.

Batting practice is the most boring activity for the player not batting at any level, but most hitters will make contact with the ball on the tee, which helps. On every ball that was hit, at least half a dozen fielders would try to be the first to get to the ball. There were numerous fathers (mainly) there shouting out technical reminders to their sons (mainly) from the sidelines. I avoided this, as it seemed both distracting and somewhat overbearing, however well-intentioned, though I watched to see how my son was doing and how he compared to the others just as attentively as the rest. Having had a weak throwing arm myself, I was glad to see that my son’s arm was among the best, as I had guessed it would be. Rules and positions were not being taught much to speak of, but the kids got caps and tee-shirts that gave them the feeling of being on a real team.

Despite the lack of games, my son loved tee-ball because he felt he was getting started in real baseball. He would dive for balls in the infield just as he had been diving for imaginary balls for almost as long as he’d been able to walk, mimicking the highlight plays he’d seen on television.

After two years of tee-ball we were definitely ready for something else though. We had hoped he could start minor league ball at age seven, but our league held fast to the eight-year-old minimum then in effect. They did, however, have planned an intermediate step for seven-year-olds, which, though part of the tee-ball program, was actually one in which the coaches pitched in something resembling real games.

Each baseball park run by the city was to have one or more traveling teams, so called because the teams would travel to all the parks in the city to play each other. It happened that our park didn’t have enough kids to field a traveling team and wouldn’t have had a coach for it anyway, so after a couple of weeks of getting the runaround at our old park, we were glad to get the go-ahead to go to another park and join its traveling team.

This was a larger park which contained two baseball diamonds, one Little League and one full-sized, arranged so that their deep outfields merged without a fence between them. The tee-ballers were in the big expanse of outfield, and the traveling team had the small diamond. Trish, who seemed to be in charge of the traveling team program, ran the park’s traveling team workouts for the first couple of weeks. The practices had pretty much been limited to batting practice with Trish or someone else pitching, at least since we’d arrived from our park. The third week Trish wasn’t there, so eventually one of the parents was enlisted to run the practice. It was not a good choice, though the guy had a heart of gold, I think, which became a problem in this instance.

Especially at the beginning level, there are going to be a few kids that have trouble hitting a pitched ball even when it’s being pitched to them for the sole purpose of being hit. One of the first hitters in that day’s batting practice was such a kid. Either his hand-eye coordination was below average, or he felt the pressure of having everyone watch him try to hit to an incapacitating degree. Swing and miss followed swing and miss. It was a painful experience for witnesses, but doubtless much worse for the two principals.

As the swing count rose, the kid had probably become exhausted as well, and he wasn’t coming any closer to making contact than he had been on the first pitch. It was like a nightmare of the I-can’t-get-out-of-this-loop type, which is the kind I sometimes have as I’m just waking up in the morning. Really, it must have been a sort of feedback loop, in which every pitch that was swung on and missed made the guy pitching all the more determined to give the kid one to hit, so he wouldn’t finish the session discouraged I guess. Or maybe he had it in his mind that every kid was to be alloted a certain number of hits. It was driving me nuts, but as I didn’t know the fellow pitching and was just a parent without any particular standing I felt obliged to just watch and hope. The time to end the week’s activity came with the unfortunate bat swinger still at the plate.

The combination of the late start and the long time spent on one kid who couldn’t hit the ball meant that the whole session had gone by without my son having so much as touched a ball or picked up a bat, and he could not have been the only one so deprived.

As we walked without speaking back to the car, I saw my son was near tears and angry. He, who had maintained his high spirits through those earlier tee-ball sessions, was now throwing down his glove in frustration and saying he was ready to quit. It was quite a shocking turn. I decided I would step forward to offer some advice (let the kid hit off a tee to finish?) if a similar situation arose in the future, no matter how awkward it might seem.

Next week Trish was again absent, and there was no equipment for the team either. I tossed out a ball we had brought with us just to get the boys started playing catch. At least everyone was going to touch the ball this week. As I surveyed the scene, a man I had never seen before approached from across the outfield. His face, which was shining with hope, made me think of a leprechaun. He came right up to me, and his very first words were “Will you coach this team?” He was the director of tee-ball I learned. Given the sorry state of the program and my son’s disenchantment with it, I was ready to view this as an opportunity. I saw another coaching candidate behind the backstop, a father of one of the other boys, and told him that I would coach if he would also. I don’t remember if we had so much as spoken to each other before; but he agreed after some heavy-duty coaxing.

I realized just how desperate the director must have been to find a coach when he told us we should gather at a spot across the field where the team would get shirts and caps for the team picture-taking. So the boys and their brand new rookie coaches (wearing team caps as well) had their team photo made, and no one would need to know exactly how long the coaches had been on the job. I was also somewhat stunned to hear that we had our first game coming up next week.

Knowing that practically nothing had been accomplished toward preparing them to play baseball in the previous weeks, I was afraid we would be embarrassed in a game and the boys would become demoralized. I told the team “We have a game next week,” and asked them “Are we ready for a game?” Thinking as an adult, I expected that they would sense their unpreparedness, start to feel the same anxiety I did, and hopefully say something like, “No way,” so I could say “OK, let’s get to work to make up for lost time.” Instead I got an enthusiastic “Yeah! Yeah!”—a bring-‘em-on this-is-what-we’ve-been-waiting-for sort of cheer, complete with leaps and pumping fists, led by an irrepressible kid named Michael.

This was a good reminder to me of what the main object of this program was—kids having fun playing baseball, not coaches running a major league development camp. I was glad they had misinterpreted my question as a call to get pumped up. I smiled and said all right, but I thought we needed to get ready, and we spent the rest of the time working on routine infield plays, running the bases, and hitting.

To become an official coach in the league you had to fill out an application of course, but also attend at least three league meetings, which were really just meetings of coaches. The meeting place was in the basement of the annex to a Catholic Church, whose name I hadn’t even heard before, even though it ran a school; which I mention to point out that, even though I had been living in my town for about fifteen years, my acquaintanceship with many of its institutions, not just Little League, was pretty limited. I eventually found the church and a place to park in the nearly full parking lot.

The room was packed and loud with animated talk, as attendance was always highest just as the season was getting started since coaches were chomping at the bit to get the go-ahead to start practices if teams had been selected or to find out when player tryouts and drafts would be if not. Schedules, equipment, and uniforms all had to be obtained. There was no league web site to convey information back then, so attending meetings was the way to find out what was going on.

I probably stood out a bit in the crowd, if only for my beard and longer-than-average hair. It was a very working class group. Some of the coaches came to meetings wearing their work uniforms. The word for the second person plural used by many in the group was “yous,” which I’m not sure I had encountered in person before, though it was obviously very common. I’d guess I was one of only a small percentage of the coaches in the room that had attended college. I should add that, while the population figure might indicate this was not a small town, among those born here there was a prevailing small-town-like mistrust of the outsider, meaning anyone that hadn’t grown up in the town and shared the same experience of school, church, and youth sports. Despite my fifteen years of residency, they were in a way right to view me as an outsider, if not to mistrust me.

I think most of the professional-class, college-educated people that had moved into town in large numbers during the past few years had put their kids (when they had kids) into the thriving soccer program instead of the declining baseball one. That may be worth writing about someday, but there was no way I was going to encourage one of my kids to play soccer, especially not in preference to baseball. So the love of baseball made me part of this baseball coaching fellowship, even if I might seem different from most of the others in some ways. I reckoned that in baseball savvy I was probably near the bottom.

The local Little League was not a welcoming organization. Though my fellow new coach and I received pro forma permission to take the field without having completed the meeting attendance requirements with the promise we would rectify the situation as soon as possible, not one person came up to us to say hello, glad to have you aboard or anything. I think it was mainly just an organizational culture that didn’t foster welcoming.

The first team we were up against was from the section of town that reputedly had the best teams most years. The coaches, a man and a woman, were of the very serious-about-winning type. They were preparing players for next year’s minor league teams, and of course they had sons on the team. Their main difference from me was that they had grown up in this town, knew Trish well, and were established insiders in youth sports, including hockey, which was as foreign to me and my son as cricket, since I had grown up in Texas and had never had a pair of ice skates on my feet.

The way the games went was that each coach pitched to his own team, while the coaches of the team in the field stood on the field as well, positioning players and giving tips on where to throw the ball in different situations and so on. Everyone in the complete batting order would bat once each inning, no matter how many outs had been recorded. Runners would advance around the diamond as in a real game (except there was no stealing), but the score would not be kept. That was the theory.

We were the home team, and Trish was on the scene, overseeing the proceedings. After the other team had batted through their order, they took the field, and I stepped to the pitching rubber. As soon as our leadoff hitter had gotten a bat, donned a helmet, and stepped to the plate, I delivered my first pitch, which was accompanied by shouts of “Hold on!” from the other team’s coaches, who had not completed the positioning of their defense. From the tone of their outcries, my failure to reckon how long these preparations might take was evidently an outrageous breach of etiquette or an imagined attempt to gain an advantage in a game with no scorekeeping, I’m not sure which. Startled as I was by the vehemence of the protests, I apologized for not having checked before pitching, but that was not sufficient.

The male coach had only one word to express his exasperation at my quick-pitch transgression: “Unbelievable!” I might have expected Trish to step in and say something like, “Just relax. Cut him some slack. It’s his first game. No harm done.” But what she said was quite different.

Trish spoke only to the coach, ignoring me: “This is what they’re sending me. I have to work with what I’ve got.” For all these years, right until I started writing about it, I had always viewed this comment of Trish’s as an expression of insider versus outsider hostility or an excessive deference to the other coach; but it has dawned on me that there may have been some hurt feelings involved that I wasn’t aware of, and hadn’t considered, which would somehow make her comment easier to take. I can imagine that Trish may have been expecting to coach our team herself but had discovered the job had been stripped from her.

And that “unbelievable” expression of disgust at my incompetence might have been spoken partly in solidarity with Trish, who could have painted us as usurpers to the other coaches before the game. But that’s just speculation. The sure fact is that the league was not in very good shape, and insulting new volunteers was not helpful.

Whatever the motives for the decidedly unfriendly comments, I shook them off and let the coaches get their defense set; then I proceeded to pitch strikes to our hitters, which was the best answer I could have come up with since most of our guys could hit. Our team thoroughly outplayed the other one. Even though we were not keeping an official score, it goes without saying that the players were keeping track of how many runs had crossed the plate for each team.

After the game had ended and I was lugging the equipment bag to the car, another car pulled up alongside mine. Michael, his face glowing, had something he was bursting to say: “We dominated them!” Non-competitive games for kids only appeal to grownups, I’ve found.

According to the kids on our team—and I really didn’t keep score or encourage them to—we “won” every game we played that year, which is believable. Just by chance, we had a lot of future all-stars on that team. The season was over when school finished in late June, but I hated to have that be the end. One of the parents knew a coach who would keep his Little League team’s equipment for the summer and let us use it. We agreed to keep meeting every Saturday morning, so long as we had enough to play with four or five on a side. We got together almost every week during the summer, unofficially of course, and with a few extras (a little brother, a big brother, a couple of friends) each time. I know we formed tighter bonds and learned more baseball because of those extra weeks.

I coached most of the boys on the traveling team at least one or two times more, either on all-star teams or regular Little League teams. I still have the ball they signed and presented to me back then when they could barely print their names. The ink has faded, but the memory of who and how they were has not.

The boys on the team are sixteen now, young men really. Though a number of them have moved to other towns, I still see some of them and their parents from time to time, occasionally at school events, but most often at baseball games, now high school or Senior Little League. I don’t know how frequently I’ll see the boys once they have graduated, but I hope enough to tell how they are faring in life. I should add that, as I put in my time in the coaching ranks, I became accepted by the other coaches and gained their respect. There’s no denying that it helped that my son and daughter became known as good players and that teams I managed won a few city championships.

Coaching Little League baseball and, later, softball (when my daughter decided, to my delight, that she wanted to play) became an important part of my life, a totally unexpected one, and it all started when a desperate tee-ball director approached me from across a green field teeming with five-to-seven-year-olds to give me the call I hadn’t realized I was waiting for. I suppose one can look at any unexpected turning point in one’s life as being due to fate or providence, depending on one’s outlook on life and the cosmos, but this one has really stuck in my mind.

I knew I liked teaching baseball to my son, but I discovered I liked to teach other kids as well. Little League involvement also changed my relationship to the community, as it gave me a role in the daily lives of people and their children to a degree that I would never have had otherwise. Thinking about what I’ve done in my life that’s not strictly family related, I’m not sure that Little League coaching doesn’t seem the most significant.