Posts Tagged ‘baseball’

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.