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Just call me Coach

Rainout!

I feel their pain.

Like thousands of other ballplayers across Texas, the young T-ball players at the YMCA have been plagued by rained-out practices and games, muddy fields and the hordes of fire ants that thrive in the wet weather.

“It’s the worst season I’ve ever seen. We had a lot of rain,” said Charlie Fox, who has been administrator of Little League baseball’s District 16 since 1981.

“At one time or another, we had from 15 to 20 games postponed throughout our playoff tournament. But we got them all in, finally.”

Dealing with rainouts was one of the less fun aspects of Little League coaching when I did it. Having to deal with the biblical levels of rainfall we’ve had this July would well and truly suck. Charlie Fox, I salute you.

Little League parents

TBogg writes about his and his daughter’s experiences with Little League, in context of the debut of the remake of The Bad News Bears.

Having spent seven years toiling in Little League hell, there is so much that is accurate in TBNB. It seems like Little League exists solely to take all of the joy out of baseball for both kids and parents alike. I was on the Little League board for six of those years in various capacities all leading up to being league president, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. From t-ball dads who can’t understand why five year-olds shouldn’t play 24 games in twelve weeks to mothers calling at night because the coach hates little (Austin, Cody, Aspen, Garfunkel…pick one) and won’t let him pitch in games, when I’ve seen the kid and he can barely make the throw from second to first. Then there were the parents who would drop the kids off at practice and practically peel out of the parking lot so that they can go to the mall for a few hours because they had a free babysitter and then would they show up late to pick the poor kid up while we waited in the parking lot in the gloaming (a word only used with baseball).

Even worse than the meddling overbearing gonna-make-a-star-out-of-my-boy types were the ones who didn’t even show up to watch. I had no problem with the parents who had to work or, with quite a few of my kids, the ones whose dads were in the navy and were out to sea. But to see a kid get dropped off before the game and then watch that car disappear only to show up a couple of hours later used to break my heart. For an eight year-old to slap a single through the hole or make their very first catch in the outfield (no small feat at eight) and not have a mom or dad there to see it is, in my opinion, far worse than missing their very first steps. Because that small achievement is a moment that should be shared by both a proud child and a prouder parent.

I’ve no doubt that this is a normal experience for many. I’m glad to say that it wasn’t for me for the two years that I was involved with the Timbergrove National Baseball League. I spent one season as the head coach of a team that went winless, and another season as an assistant coach of a team that finished in first place, and in neither year did I come across any obnoxious parents. Maybe it was the nature of the league, or maybe I just got lucky two years in a row, but the parents on my teams came to practices, cheered the teams on, and as far as I know never once acted like it was about them and not the kids. I didn’t participate this year because Olivia takes up too much of my time, but I plan on getting back into it when she’s five and eligible for T-ball. It really was a pleasure.

If you want proof (or maybe just reassurance) that even in a competitive atmosphere people can be levelheaded about the whole Little League thing, then I recommend you put the documentary Small Ball at the top of your Netflix queue. I saw it last weekend as part of the “Baseball as America” installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, and it rocked. Filmmaker Andrew Kolker was there to answer questions afterwards, and he confirmed when asked that he did not see any abusive or inappropriate behavior by the parents at the games he attended, either. See the movie and tell me if at least some of your faith in people isn’t restored.

The battle for first place

With two games to go, both of which were rescheduled due to rain, the Twins were tied for the lead of the Mustang division with a 12-2 record. Their penultimate game was yesterday against the co-leading Cardinals, against whom they’d split two games – the Cards whipped us in the season opener, and we nipped them in our last at-bat a week later. The winner of this game would finish first regardless of what happened afterwards.

The game was played at 4 PM, and it was suitably hot and muggy. On the plus side, as it was a Sunday afternoon, the kids’ families were out in force. I think relatives of two of our players accounted for about 30 fans, but everyone was represented.

We had a bit of a scare before the game when one of our star players, who we’d slotted to pitch the late innings, was late arriving. I called his mom from my cell phone and she assured me he was on his way. He’s a diabetic, and they’d checked his blood sugar as he was leaving, only to find that it was low. Having wolfed down a quick snack, he hauled ass to the field and was heading in as I was hanging up.

The game shaped up as a classic pitchers’ duel. Both hurlers had their stuff working, and both of them were striking players out left and right. The Cards scraped up a run in the bottom of the second, and the score stood at 1-0 as we batted in the top of the fourth. Three base hits and a few wild pitches later, we led 3-1. I helped by showing the guys how to make rally caps, a vital aspect of their baseball education which I had inexplicably overlooked previously. The players, who usually goof around in the dugout, were on their feet cheering. It was great to see them that into the game.

After our tardy closer shut them down in the bottom of the fourth, we added two insurance runs. One of our bottom-of-the-lineup guys, who’d gotten his first hit in the prior game, drew a one-out walk and came around to score two batters later when our leadoff man, who’d gone 0 for 2 and struck out swinging at a bad pitch his last time up, doubled to center and scored himself on an errant throw back in to the infield. We were now up 5-1.

There were some tense moments in the bottom of the fifth as our closer struggled with his control. Two batters reached, on a walk and an infield hit, and both eventually scored after wild pitches. A two-out walk brought the tying run to the plate, but our guy still had something left in his tank as he got a strikeout to end the inning.

Best of all, the clock now read 5:31 PM, meaning we had reached the 90-minute game time limit. “Ball game!” shouted the umpire, as a huge whoop emanated from our side of the stands and from our guys on the field. Gloves were thrown into the air, backs were slapped, hugs were exchanged, and as we gathered to wrap things up, the realization settled over us.

The Twins were the champions of the Timbergrove Little League Mustang Division. Go Twins!

The streak is over, long live the streak

We won six games in a row before finally losing, as we did last night in a game that was closer for us than perhaps it should have been. Though we did some good things, including throwing a runner out at home, our pitching was shaky and our offense took awhile to get untracked. The kids were disappointed that they lost, but I think they’ve got a better appreciation now of why they’d been winning.

It’s amazing how easy it is as a coach to lapse into Coachspeak, that cliche-riven amalgam of pithy sayings and Hallmark inspiration. “Losing is a habit, and so is winning,” I intoned last night. “We need to get back to the habit of winning.” I’m not sure what amazes me more, that I can think of things like that to say on the spur of the moment, or that it’s not even an effort to maintain a straight face while doing so. I guess it helps when this kind of stuff is not well-worn to your audience.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the progress most of these kids have made. They’re getting more confident in what they can do, which is a big hurdle to clear. They’re just now at the age where they’re coordinated enough to really build on physical skills they’ve been taught, and it’s really rewarding to see a kid who’s been working on his swing all season finally make contact. You don’t really appreciate how hard hitting a baseball is until you see kids struggle to do it.

With another rainout last weekend, our schedule continues to be full as we scramble to make up missed games. We’re halfway through the season but we’ve only got about 2.5 weeks to go. No rest for the busy, that’s for sure.

Chron columnist Ken Hoffman has an amusing tale of coaching strategy and Lombardiesque speechmaking for his 7-year-old team. I don’t think I’d have the guts to try that kind of shifting defensive players, but hey, if you can’t experiment at this level, when can you?

The streak

Having entered the (for me) uncharted waters of winning a game on Tuesday, we kept on plunging forward by embarking on a winning streak – the Twins defeated the Marlins 9-2 last night for the second straight victory and a 2-1 record overall. Even better, Tiffany was there to see it, so now she’s experienced the thrill of victory with me. The Twins get a rematch against the Cardinals tomorrow, who beat them easily on Opening Day. They’ll have to take them on without me, though, as Tiffany and I will be attending an orientation at the hospital where the baby will be born.

The old saw about pitching being some monumentally large portion of winning baseball is fairly accurate in Little League, especially in a division like ours, where the kids are pitching for the first time. Despite scoring 18 runs in the last two games, we really haven’t hit the ball all that much. A lot of our rallies have been based on walks and wild pitches. Conversely, our hurlers have been outstanding this week, with far more strikeouts than walks and good control overall that’s kept the opponents’ running game in check.

The new field itself is a factor in all this. Our practice field, which is where the games were played last year, had no outfield fences and a backstop that was very close to home plate. The new field has real fences (170 feet down the lines on our field, 175 to dead center) and a much more distant backstop. No one has hit a home run yet, but several balls that were hit between or over the outfield that would have been home runs last year wound up as triples because the fence enabled the defense to get to them in time. Sinilarly, quite a few runners have scored from third on wild pitches where last year they probably wouldn’t have tried.

Last night’s game could have been even less close, as we had one runner thrown out at home after a wild pitch (I thought he was safe, but it was very close) and another called out due to obstruction, as the batter failed to get out of the batter’s box while the catcher was retrieving the ball and throwing it to the pitcher. Actually, as there were two outs in the inning, the umpire correctly ruled that the batter, not the runner, was out. This had no practical effect, since it was what turned out to be our last at-bat, but it gave me confidence in the umpire’s abilities. One of the underappreciated pleasures of Little League is the opportunity to visit some of the more obscure areas of the rule book.

We turned another double play, this one to end the game, last night. With a runner on second, the batter hit a soft line drive that was caught by the pitcher. The runner, who clearly didn’t fully understand the rule about tagging up, was going on contact and steamed into third while our pitcher tossed the ball to the second baseman for the last out. Overall, our defense was as good this game as the last one, which also helped us a lot.

Two in a row! Break up the Twins!

The thrill of victory

That sound you heard tonight had nothing to do with the Presidential press conference. That was the sound of the monkey climbing off my back in the wake of the Mustang Twins’ first win of the season, a 9-5 triumph over the Astros. My two holdover players and I are officially off the schneid and in the W column.

The game was not without its tense moments. With the score 4-1, the bases loaded and one out in the top of the third, the Astros batter hit a line drive that was snagged by our shortstop, who then stepped on second to double off that runner and end the inning. Call it an omen or call it dumb luck, but both the batter and the shortstop were on my team last year. We upped the lead to 9-1 in the bottom half of the inning, as that same shortstop hit a two-run triple and later scored.

Games are limited to 90 minutes in our league, which basically means that no half-inning can start after that hour and a half have passed. Game time was six PM, and we entered the bottom of the fifth up 9-5 and 7:21 showing on the clock. Had we taken nine minutes to bat, the game would have ended, but we were retired in five. Once the sixth inning begins, the five-run limit is rescinded, so we either had to hold them off or not let them get too far ahead and take our chances at last licks.

The first batter in the top of the sixth grounded out, but the next two reached on a walk and a single. Batter #4 then hit a popup on the first base side of the pitcher’s mound. Our hurler, that same shortstop from earlier, got his glove on it but couldn’t hold it. He then went for a force at third but the throw was late. I was starting to sweat.

Thankfully, the umpire remembered that this was an infield fly situation, which I had quite forgotten. He called the batter out – the runners were allowed to advance as they had, but I didn’t care. We had that magic second out. The next batter hit one back to the box for out number three, and the celebration began.

As anyone who followed through my 0-12 campaign last season can attest, winning or losing any individual game is not what’s emphasized at this level. We’re all about having fun, learning to play the game properly, and improving over the course of the year. No matter how you handle it, though, losing all the time is tough on the kids. They do try their best, and it’s really hard not to get at least some tangible, obvious reward for it. Whatever happens from this point forward, these kids now know that they can win. Learning how to deal with losing in a sportsmanlike and dignified manner is important, but so is learning how to win in a sportsmanlike and dignified manner. Success can breed success, but it can also breed arrogance and a sense of entitlement, and in some ways can be harder to cope with than failure. It’s good to experience and learn from both of them.

No time to bask and wallow in it – we play again Thursday and Saturday. We had only one game scheduled last week due to Easter, and it was rained out. Three games a week will be the norm for the rest of the way. We’re 1-1 now, and I think we’re ready for what comes next. Go Twins!

Still perfect

Opening Day was Saturday, and my perfect record as a coach remains unblemished. Unfortunately, that means we lost, 12-3. We had a bad first inning, nobody came close to hitting the ball until their second or third time up, and we didn’t make any plays in the field.

Though it wasn’t pretty to look at, there were some positives to take away. Our pitchers had good velocity and struck out a lot of batters while only walking a few. Honestly, I was a bit surprised that the other team made as much contact as they did against them. One of our kids, who hadn’t really hit the ball all throughout practice, walked and scored in his first at bat, then made contact in his second. It was a popout to the second baseman, but he was justifiably excited (as were we all) by getting the bat on the ball. Progress is always incremental, and it’s important to celebrate the milestones when they pass by.

What was most encouraging, though, was the realization that these kids can and will play better than they did this time. They know it, and we know it. Our penultimate practice on Tuesday was sloppy and mistake-filled, then we pulled it together and had a sharp practice on Thursday. I have hope that the same effect will take place again, for tomorrow’s game.

One note from Thursday: We got our Twins caps, and as they were trying them on, one of the kids asked me about the cap I was wearing. I told them that it was the team cap for the Yakult Swallows and that I’d gotten it at a game in Tokyo. They were all duly impressed, though what they were most curious about was what kind of food one could get at Jingu Stadium. That in turn led to a debate over the merits of sushi. We’re nothing if not a cosmopolitan group here.

One week to go

Opening Day for the Timbergrove Little League is this coming Saturday. We’ll finally get to play on the brand-new fields that were supposed to be ready for last year’s season but were delayed due to drainage problems. We were able to practice there last Tuesday, and with two batting cages we were able to really multitask effectively. Gary worked with pitchers and catchers while rotating everyone through for a few swings while I hit grounders and fly balls for some defensive drills. It was really sweet.

There have been a couple of bumps and bruises in recent practices, thanks to some bad hops and some bad glove-holding technique. The former can’t be avoided, but I’m hoping that the latter will help convince some of the kids who hold their gloves pocket-side up all the time that there’s a better way. We made it through last year without anyone getting really dinged up, and I hope that continues this year.

One of the mothers approached me after Thursday’s practice to ask if we were going to work with the kids on how to slide. That’s something I didn’t do last year, and truth be told it’s not a really high priority this year, not when the basics of throwing and catching are still big needs. Besides, though I’ve not forgotten how to do it, I’m not sure how easily I’ll get back up after demonstrating a slide. Seeing a coach injure himself will surely leave an impression, though it may not be the impression you want to leave.

We definitely have some pitching power this year – four guys who can throw fastballs that will be hard for the average kid to hit. Defense is always a shaky thing for any team, so the more Ks you can rack up, the better your odds will be. The catchers will come from this same group of kids, so we might also be able to control the running game a bit. The rule is that you can’t leave a base until the ball passes the batter. For the most part, if the pitch is caught by the catcher, runners stay put. Our guys will have a chance at making a play at least some of the time when they don’t catch the ball cleanly.

We’ve had good weather karma so far – no practices lost to rain as yet. Fridays are the designated rain days during the season. I hope we don’t need them.

Six days to go. I’m getting excited.

Practice report

We’ve had a week of practices so far, and there are many differences between this year’s team and last year’s at the same point in time. Last year I was still trying to figure out what the kids’ skill levels were, but this year it’s a lot more apparent. Two of our kids already have their tickets to the All Star Game punched, most of the others are showing various abilities, and there’s only one true beginner. Another difference is in hitting. Last year, early batting practice against live pitching involved a lot of swinging and missing. This was especially frustrating because all of them demonstrated they could hit against a pitching machine at the batting cage. This year, just about everyone is making at least some contact, and one or two kids have genuinely surprised me with the bat. We should score some runs this year.

I’m doing well as a second banana, filling whatever role needs to be filled at a given time. I think I’ll be spending some extra time with the less experienced kids, working on the basics of throwing and catching. A lot of these kids don’t have any instinct for how to hold their gloves when a ball is approaching. They automatically hold them face up, as if to make a basket catch, even on chest-high throws. I’m going to break them of that habit if it drives me (and them) crazy. Throwing is harder to teach, but I keep drilling the same fundamentals – extend your arm, step as you throw, the shoulder drives the action and not the elbow – and I hope it sinks in.

Spring break is this week, so we’ll have a smaller crew show up at practices. Gary the head coach will be out of town, so I’ll be the interim coach in his absence. At least this time I have some idea what to do.

Draft Day

Thursday night was the draft for the Timbergrove Little League, so barring anyone coming or going, the rosters are now set. Quite a bit happened that night, starting with the fact that I am no longer the head coach of the Twins. I am now an assistant coach. I’ll explain that in a minute.

The draft started off with all of the coaches for each respective division gathering together. The league president went over all of the administrative tasks – team sponsorships, deposits for equipment bags, practice fields, candy sales, and so on – then explained the rules for the draft. Basically, each team started with a certain number of players who were guaranteed to be on their teams. They are coaches’ children, and players who were on that team the previous year and wanted to return to it. Some players expressed a desire to be on a certain team or to be on the same team with certain other players, and we were to try to accomodate them within reason.

The teams with the fewest players would pick until each team had the same number, then the draft proceeded with rounds alternating in worst-to-first and first-to-worst order. The Twins had the fewest players to start with and finished in last place, so the draft was a chance to rebuild.

After all of the preliminaries, the six coaches in the Mustang Division realized that there were only 55 players total, meaning nine players per team. That wasn’t gong to work, since every kid misses a game here and there, so we decided to combine two teams. There were two teams that had one player each – the Twins, who had a single returnee from last year, and a new team, the Giants, who had the coach’s son. That coach and I volunteered to join forces, with the new team keeping the Twins name. Since he has a son playing, we agreed that he’d be the head coach. So now you can just call me Assistant Coach.

The draft went spectacularly well for the Twins. Every other team had between three and six players to start out, and they all had certain kids that they had to take to satisfy various requests. We had no such constraints and were able to pick off several of the more talented kids that we’d seen last Saturday.

The kid we picked first was one of my guys from last year, who had originally indicated that he wanted to be on a different team. Fortunately, when I spoke to him and his mother on Saturday, they both said they’d be okay with having me as his coach again. The other coaches were also okay with that. Even better, he and another good player had asked to play together, so we wound up with both of them. We picked up two other standouts during the catchup rounds, and by the end of the evening felt like we were loaded for bear.

The thing that I liked about the draft the most, though, was actually getting to know my colleagues a bit. Coming in last year with an already-formed team, I was never really acquainted with the other coaches. Now I feel like I’m on more equal footing with everyone else.

As for my “demotion”, I’m happy to be relieved of some tasks that I didn’t have to face last year due to my last-minute status, such as arranging for a team sponsor. With the baby due in May, which is season’s end, I knew I’d need someone else to help me out anyway, so this works out just fine. But I admit that a part of me already misses being the guy in charge. I’m going to need to keep my instinct to take command in check.

Practices should start this week, probably Tuesday. I’m ready to get started.

Checking out the talent

Today was tryout day for the Timbergrove Little League. Unlike last year, when I was called in to coach an already-formed team, I had the opportunity to observe and participate in a brief workout of the new and returning players in the 9- and 10-year-old Mustang division. Four players from my team last year will still be in this division – one is already on the roster, one has requested to play for a different team, and the other two, who want to play together, will be in the draft.

As my reward for coaching a winless team in 2003, I will get the first draft choice when we choose up sides next Thursday. As it happens, the player I plan on picking is one of my guys from last year. He was a good player then – his teammates picked him as their MVP – and he’s improved since then. Picking him ought to give me the inside track on my other former player and at least one other kid, a boy who happens to be a neighbor of mine. Kids are allowed to express a desire to be on the same team as another kid, and while coaches aren’t bound by that, we do have a gentlemen’s agreement to try to accomodate them. If I can use that to my advantage and get a couple of kids who already know me, I most certainly will.

I took some notes on each player during the workout, but there’s not much to go on. The kids who stood out were fairly few, and with some 30 kids there, no one got a lot of opportunity to distinguish him or herself (one player there was a girl). The draft will be a crapshoot, and frankly I’m just hoping for some good citizens with parents who understand it’s a game.

By this point, it also seems pretty clear that I am in fact the head coach of the Twins, by default if nothing else. I sure do hope I’ll have an assistant who can stand in for me in May when I’ll be otherwise occupied. Of course, maybe the baby will wait until the season is over before she makes her appearance. Surely that’s the least she can do for her dad, right?

Coach 2: Electric Boogaloo

You may recall that I spent a few months last year coaching a Little League team. At the end of the season, I was asked several times by parents, players, and league officials if I would do it again this year. Last night, I got a call from the league president asking me that question. I told him that I was willing to coach, but since I’m not the father of a player, they should give preference to someone who is. I also said that I’d be more than happy to assist such a person.

I had the same conversation some time ago with the guy who recruited me as a coach in the first place, who is a coworker of Tiffany’s. The word from him has been that there’s a player’s dad who would like to coach but who doesn’t have a whole lot of baseball experience. I’d be a pretty good fit for him as operations manager/consigliere/Don Zimmer without the Pedro-charging proclivities. Both he and the league prez are aware that whatever role I fill, I’ll likely miss the end of the season due to other obligations.

I should find out fairly soon what they have in mind for me. There’s a league meeting on Feb. 21, which I presume includes the draft, since we began practicing on Feb. 22 last year. I’ll let you know what happens.

Coach lets team manage itself

Why didn’t I think of this? A Little League coach let his players manage themselves for a playoff game, and they won.

[Coach Paul] Davis patiently watched from the top row of the bleachers as son Nick and the rest of his team played one of their most important games of the season. He was making a point by allowing his players to simply coach themselves.

“I thought about doing this a few years ago, but that team was too young,” Davis said. “I felt this team would show it could manage all by itself.”

Actually, I know why I never did this:

Assistant Coach Bob Kirby found it difficult to simply sit and watch.

“It’s a lot easier being on the field,” he said. “This is going to drive me crazy.”

Yeah, that would’ve been me, too. I’m glad someone else tried it, but I’ll remain a slave to tradition, thanks.

I shall very likely return

When last we spoke, during the Little League All Star Game, I was uncertain about my future status as a coach. I had a chat yesterday with John, the league president and co-worker of Tiffany’s who recruited me to be a coach in the first place, and I can now say that barring unforseen circumstances I will be back, though perhaps as an assistant coach. I will very likely remain in the Mustang division, where the 9- and 10-year-olds play, and I will show up a few times during Fall Ball in October so I can have some clue about which players to draft next year.

I told John that I enjoyed the experience, and that I would like to return, but that if he had a player’s father who really wanted to coach that he should go ahead and bypass me. I agreed to be an assistant if that happens, but for now I’m still pencilled in as a head coach, giving me an opportunity to improve on my perfect record and to bore you all with more coaching tales next year. So don’t go away, I’ll be back.

The Little League All Star Game

Friday night I was an assistant coach at our Little League All Star Game. The game featured kids from the first-, fourth-, and sixth-place teams (my group) versus the representatives from the second-, third-, and fifth-place teams. Our team lost 15-5, meaning that I maintained my perfect record for the season.

One of the things that I discovered through two practices and the game itself was that I really did have a good group of kids to coach. There were two players on our All Star team for whom I didn’t care much.

One of them played catcher. Later in the game, the opponents had the bases loaded. A pitch got past the catcher and went through a hole in the backstop. The umpire declared the ball dead and told each runner to advance a base, which scored a run and left runners on second and third. The batter then proceeded to draw a walk. The runner on third, having forgotten that he was no longer forced, started to trot home. The other coaches and I, upon realizing what was going on, hollered at the catcher, who was still in possession of the ball, to tag him. Instead, he froze up and the runner made it back to third without drawing a throw.

After the inning, I walked over to talk to him. I gave him a short pep talk about how the catcher is the brains of the defense and needs to know the game situation at all times. He never even looked at me. I let it go, since I didn’t think I had the standing to make him pay attention to me, but if that was his default attitude he and I would have had problems over a season.

The other kid reached third base in each of the two innings that I coached at third. He was clearly a speedster, and while on the base he babbled on about trying to steal home while the catcher turned his back to put his mask back on after returning the ball to the pitcher. (I found out later on from his coach that they had scouted this catcher and knew his habits.) In the meantime, I reminded him that there were less than two outs so he needed to tag up on a fly ball. Sure enough, a popup was hit in the infield. He was ten feet off the base when it was caught. It made no difference, but I gave him a few words about doing what the coach tells him to do.

The second time we met at third base was in the last inning, again with one out. He was more insistent about trying to score on a wild pitch. Sure enough, one came, but the ball bounced right back to the catcher. I told him to stay put, but he took off anyway and was out by a mile. Moreover, he ran into the catcher instead of sliding. As the catcher outweighed him by a substantial amount, he got the worst of it. He also got bawled out by both of his coaches later, who informed him that league rules allowed for him to be suspended or barred for doing that.

You might think I’m being a little hard on these kids, and you may be right. I didn’t have all that much exposure to them, and maybe I caught them in a bad light. All I can say is that I’ve seen what I call Superstar Syndrome before, and these two showed clear signs of it. Give me a team full of less talented but earnest workers any day.

Saturday was the closing ceremonies, in which trophies were handed out to all of the players, from T-ball to the top-level kids. If that sounds chaotic, you’re on the mark. The league president announced that the new field would be ready for fall ball, which means I may have to decide sooner than I originally thought if I want to ride this horse again. I do have another commitment for evenings and Saturdays in th autumn, though. So we’ll just have to see.

And so it ends

The Twins played their final game last night. They played hard and they played well, but they came up short. We finished the season as we started it, looking for our first win.

The final loss was really tough. We were down 9-7 to start the bottom of the fourth, and with a little more than 15 minutes left before the time limit kicked in, I figured we needed a 1-2-3 inning to get another chance. When the first three batters got on to load the bases with no outs, I was sure we were doomed.

Not so fast! The next batter hit a line drive right at the third baseman, who snatched it for out number one. On the very next pitch, a sharp ground ball was hit to the shortstop, who grabbed it, tagged the runner heading to third, then stepped on second base to complete a spectactular unassisted doubleplay. We hustled everyone into the dugout and were able to start a fifth inning.

Now the kids were fired up. We were drawing walks and hitting the ball, and when the dust cleared, we’d scored the maximum five runs to take a 12-9 lead. All we had to do was shut them down for the win.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. I could see some jitters out there, and when the opponents started to come back, the pressure may have gotten to us. In the end, we lost 13-12.

The guys took it pretty hard. I told them they had nothing to be ashamed of, that they’d given their best and they’d gone down fighting. I told them they were all better players than they’d been at the start of the season, and that I was proud of them.

The team parents took everyone out for pizza afterwards, which no doubt helped take some of the sting out of losing (that and some Shiner Bock sure helped for me). They presented me with an autographed team ball, and a card with a gift certificate at Oshman’s Sporting Goods as a thank you. I was really touched.

Before the game, I asked each player in private to tell me who his pick for team Most Valuable Player was. I told them that I would announce the MVP and the All Star Game selections afterwards. We were limited to three All Star choices, which was tough for me, since I had four legitimate candidates. The three kids who got picked, one of whom was the team’s MVP choice, were pumped when they heard the news. One of them had been in the league for four years, and this was the first time he’d been picked.

Several parents told me later that they really liked the team MVP concept. It helped each kid think about the other guys’ contributions. They chose a worthy candidate, who was given a “season ball” as his prize.

I lingered at the pizza parlour after the bill was paid, saying goodbye to everyone. There were some rough patches during the season, and plenty of times when I wondered if I had any clue about what I was doing, but looking back over it, I can say it was really rewarding. The kids were generally responsive, the parents were involved and helpful, and it was just plain fun. I was asked several times if I’ll do this again. I deflected the questions because I wanted to take some time and think about it. I do think I will, though.

So that’s the story of my season as coach. I’ll be at the All Star Game – each team coach is expected to be there – but for all practical purposes I’m done. I do know one thing: if I do wind up doing this again, my won-lost record can only improve. How many other coaches have that assurance?

All Stars

Been awhile since I’ve added a Just Call Me Coach post. We’re still looking for that first win – with three games to go, we stand 0-10. I keep seeing signs of improvement – in our most recent game, we hit the ball as well as we’ve ever hit it – but the other teams are allowed to grow and mature during the season as well. I know it’s been tough on the kids, but they keep hanging in there.

There have been a few rough patches for me, not so much over the losing but with player personnel issues. I haven’t gone into any of this on the grounds that some day, one of my kids or more likely one of their parents may stumble acorss this, and I don’t want any of them seeing something that must be about themselves or their kids that they don’t like. Thankfully, I’ve been able to handle these situations. To be honest, I’ve surprised myself somewhat. One reason why I’ve always shied away from a management track at work is because I don’t want to be in charge of people’s destinies. As I’ve told Tiffany, one result of this experience is that I no longer fear becoming a manager some day.

The funny thing is that back when I was a kid in baseball camp, I usually wound up being team captain. I was rather pushy and more than a little sure of my own abilities, convinced that no one else could make lineups as well as I could. I’d press the point until the other kids decided it was easier to let me have my way. I quickly learned that this did not make me God, it made me a harried bureaucrat who had to prevent a revolution from fomenting against me. I frequently batted myself last in the order, even though I was one of the better hitters, as a way to keep the peace. I must have buried most of those memories, because I hadn’t thought of them when this season started.

One positive aspect of being down by ten or more runs frequently is that you can make good on promises to give everyone a chance in the infield without taking a risk that you’ll tank a game. Hey, you’ve gotta find those silver linings where you can.

Today I got word that I’ll have to submit three or four kids as our team’s All Star Game representatives. I have a pretty good idea of who I’ll pick, but I just know it’ll cause some hurt feelings. Sigh.

I’ve told the kids that during the last game, they get to vote on the team’s Most Valuable Player. Every player gets a vote, and no one is allowed to vote for himself. The winner will get a game ball. I’m genuinely curious to see who it will be.

Our next game is Friday, which I’ll miss due to our planned trip to the Schlitterbahn. Two more games for me, then it’s all over.

Feeling a little down

We had a tough game on Saturday. The game was originally scheduled for 9 AM on May 3. A few weeks ago, the other team’s coach emailed me to ask if we could move the game to Friday night, since he had a conflict on Saturday. I agreed and made the arrangements. A little while after that, I was told that the elementary school that many of my kids attend was having a school dance on that Friday, and that half of my team would have to miss the game if it were played then. So I went back to the other coach and said sorry, we need to move the game back to its original time. He agreed. Unfortunately, during the time that the game had been moved, one of my better players made plans for Saturday. Two other kids missed the game as well, one of which I did not know about beforehand. We wound up playing with only eight fielders as a result.

We had a great practice on Thursday, in which everyone got to do a lot of hitting and came away feeling good about it, but it largely didn’t carry over to Saturday. We are still improving at the plate, but there’s a lot of room yet to go.

We had two runners thrown out on the bases during the game, which is the Little League equivalent of taking a third strike in slow-pitch softball. Good baserunning depends more on experience than on athleticism, so it’s an issue on a team like ours that’s fairly green. I stressed to the players that they need to do what the base coaches tell them to do. If it turns out to be wrong, it’s our fault and not theirs.

Good things do still happen, even in tough games like this one. One of the outfielders made a sliding catch on a fly ball, which resulted in wild applause from the stands, a huge grin on his face, and a game ball for his effort. I overheard him afterwards saying that the outfield is cool. That’s one less thing for me to worry about.

I was really feeling down after this game, feeling like I haven’t done much to help the kids get better as baseball players. I’m okay now, after getting some reassurance from Tiffany and going to see X2: X-Men United on Saturday night. We play again tonight. I’m ready for it.

UPDATE: This is the attitude that I hope we play with for the rest of the season.

Setting goals

We lost again on Tuesday to reach the halfway mark with an 0-6 record. Still, as losses go, this one wasn’t too bad. I thought we got a good effort from everyone, and was encouraged to see some of the guys start to hit. In particular, the kid for whom I had a (not vocalized) goal of hitting the ball once this season did in fact hit the ball, and reached base as a result, later coming around to score. I gave him a game ball for his effort, and could tell he was pleased with himself.

We had a practice tonight, and concentrated on hitting. To simplify things, one of the dads pitched and another one caught, so we just rotated everyone through turns at the plate. The results were good – lots of contact, and lots of positive feelings about making so much contact. A couple of the kids were really pumped, and I hope that will carry over to Saturday’s game.

I spent a few minutes with each kid at the start of practice giving them some goals for the rest of the season. A lot of praise, a lot of encouragement, a lot of you-can-do-it, all for motivation. I’m seeing improvements, and I just have to believe it will eventually translate into a victory.

We’ll see. We finally play the team we were supposed to have played in Game 1, which got rained out and was rescheduled for May 22 (this would have been our second game against them). Our sponsor, the Kiwanis, is hosting a pancake breakfast at the lodge where our field is from 7 AM to 1 PM on Saturday. I asked the parents to bring the kids to the lodge after the game – I don’t want any upset tummies during play if I can help it.

Six down, six left. Go Twins!

Nearing the halfway point

We are now five games into our 12-game schedule, and we are still looking for our first win. I think this is going to be harder on me than it will on the kids, who seem for the most part to be having fun. According to my assistant coach, we lost a game while I was in California that we should have won. We blew a large lead, and one of the opponents actually hit a ball over the fence to help his team win. The good news is that the kids weren’t crushed by this – they had played well and accepted the coach’s words of encouragement.

If anyone took that loss hard, it was one of the team moms, who has helped out in the dugout by keeping track of whose turn it is to bat. Unfortunately, late in the game the batter who made the last out in the previous inning led off. The error was discovered during that at-bat with the count one ball and two strikes, at which time the umpire ruled Batter 1 out. Batter 2 was then told to take his place, inheriting the count of 1-2. He struck out on the next pitch. Team Mom was pretty upset about this, but we’ve assured her that these things happen, and I think she’s feeling better now.

I should note that I was pretty sure when I heard this from my assistant coach that the ruling was incorrect, and having looked it up, I’m quite certain of it:

6.07 BATTING OUT OF TURN.

(a) A batter shall be called out, on appeal, when he fails to bat in his proper turn, and another batter completes a time at bat in his place. (1) The proper batter may take his place in the batter’s box at any time before the improper batter becomes a runner or is put out, and any balls and strikes shall be counted in the proper batter’s time at bat.

[…]

To illustrate various situations arising from batting out of turn, assume a first inning batting order as follows: Abel Baker Charles Daniel Edward Frank George Hooker Irwin.
PLAY (1). Baker bats. With the count 2 balls and 1 strike, (a) the offensive team discovers the error or (b) the defensive team appeals. RULING: In either case, Abel replaces Baker, with the count on him 2 balls and 1 strike.

So, we had one fewer out that inning than we should have, and this helped keep enough time on the clock for one more inning to be played. What rotten luck. Too late to do anything about it now, too.

Everyone was glad to see me at Friday’s game, my first game back. We had a bigger than usual crowd among the players’ families as well. Alas, we didn’t play our best game. The pitching was off, the defense was off, and we couldn’t buy a run until late in the game. Our batters are still too tentative at the plate. They are good at laying off bad pitches and drawing walks, but we’ve been called out on strikes on hittable pitches too many times. I’ve pulled guys aside when this happens to talk to them about it, but it’s still sinking in.

Once again, we got the short end of a bad umpire’s ruling. With the bases loaded and one out, our batter struck out and the catcher failed to hold strike three. The runners danced off the bases, everybody started yelling, and the next thing you knew, the batter was running to first even though he was automatically out (since first base was occupied with less than two outs). The catcher threw the ball anyway, and it got away from the first baseman as two runners scored. The umpire then announced that the batter was out (correct) and all runners had to return to their bases (incorrect, since league rules say they can advance at their jeopardy once the ball passes the batter). We argued to no avail, but at least this time the league president was there and he had some words for the ump after the inning. It didn’t affect the outcome, but it was still annoying.

Next game is tonight. We’ll see how it goes.

The good, the bad, and the strange

The good news is we scored 10 runs in our game tonight. The bad news is that the other guys scored 13. The strange news is that we scored 10 runs without ever once making contact with the ball. Every single one of our at-bats resulted in a walk or strikeout, thus sending the Rob Deer Fan Club into paroxysms of joy.

Not as much joy for our guys, though the two five-run rallies (teams are limited to five runs per inning up until the final frame) had everyone jumping and hollering. The other guys brought in their best pitcher after that, a ten-year-old Mariano Rivera who blew heat past everyone. A couple of them who were called out on strikes were pretty upset about it afterwards. Unlike the last ump, this one had a fairly realistic strike zone, one that was almost too small for this level. Both players complained that Strike Three was outside, and they took it hard. I spent some time smoothing their ruffled feathers, but since this all happened in the last inning there wasn’t a chance for them to get out on the field and get over it.

Unfortunately, we’ll be missing the next two games due to travels. I feel bad about that, like I’m abandoning them. I hope they have some better luck in my absence.

We did do some good things in the field, including a great grab of a line drive by our shortstop, who had started on the mound. We also did a better job of handling third strikes, though there were fewer strikeouts because these guys hit the ball a lot.

I’m preaching a steady diet of optimism, encouragement, and get-em-next-time. I do hope we get some results, because that sort of thing can only go so far. We’ll see how it is next week when I’m back.

Can’t win ’em all

We finally played our first game today, but alas, we lost by the score of 9-4. We did some good things and some not-so-good things, and we’ve identified a few areas for improvement for Game 2, which will be Monday evening.

I thought our pitchers did well. They didn’t walk a lot of guys, and they kept their cool. It helps that the strike zone in this league is big enough to drive a Ford F-350 through, but they had decent control and I was pleased with them.

The big strike zone is great when they’re up. When we batted, we didn’t do a lot of hitting. We did most of our scoring in one inning, helped by a traditional Little League rally of a dropped third strike, a couple of walks, and a seeing-eye single. Most of our at-bats would be satisfying to followers of the Three True Outcomes doctrine – walk, strikeout, or home run – except for the home runs. We’ll have to work on our strike zone judgment, and on being more aggressive with good pitches.

We did do a few good things in the field. Our catcher had a lot of action, as the opponents ran at every opportunity. They did reach on dropped third strikes a few times, but overall he did a great job. I think he’ll really develop back there. Both guys who played second base got to field a ground ball and tag the runner coming from first. The defense was about what I expected it to be.

Items to work on: Awareness of the strike zone. Running on passed balls and dropped third strikes, and reacting faster when they run. Outfield play – they hit three balls to right field and none to left, probably because batters are more likely to swing late and thus hit to the opposite field.

The opposing team was better than us – I’d be willing to bet almost all of them played last year. They were well-versed in strategy – they knew that at this level, aggressive baserunning is a winner. Definitely a talking point for the next game. I do think we’re not so far away from them, and with some improvements I’ll like our chances against them next time.

Next game is Monday, then I’ll miss two games due to travels. I’m already thinking about lineups and pitchers.

Some days you win, some days you lose…

…and some days it rains, as Nuke LaLoosh once said. Today it’s raining, and our opening game has been postponed. Rats!

According to the email I received that informed me of the rainout, it’s the coaches’ job to figure out when the game can be rescheduled. That’s more complication than I bargained for. I’ll have to speak to one of the league guys about that and get some clarification.

We’ll have a practice on Thursday, which will serve as a last tuneup for our new opening game on Saturday. I stayed and watched a couple innings of another game last Saturday after the team pictures were taken, and there are a few things I want to point out, such as reminding everyone of the dropped third strike rule – I saw two batters reach base the same inning that way. A little more work for the pitchers, especially the guys who didn’t get to throw last time, would also be nice.

I’m really disappointed. I was ready for today, and now I’ve got to wait until Saturday. It’s a letdown, but that’s how it goes.

Thus endeth spring training

Ready or not, Monday is the first game for the Mustang Twins. We had a pretty good last practice yesterday, and the boys were all excited about getting their uniforms, but I’ve got some concerns. Part of it is just that I don’t know what the rest of the competition is like. I fear that as there had been a draft for players by the coaches and that this team had been put together without a coach, this team may not be as talented as the others. Not that I care about winning a league title or anything like that, but I am concerned that not being competitive will ruin the fun for the kids.

I hope I’m wrong about that, but I’ll find out one way or the other on Monday. More immediately, I’m concerned about a couple of kids in particular. This team has some less-talented kids with good self confidence, and some more-talented kids who seem to lack self confidence. One barely stands in the batter’s box because he fears getting hit by a pitch. Unfortunately, in a 9- and 10-year-old league with kids pitching, one cannot credibly say that he has nothing to worry about. The tack we’ve taken is to point out that he’ll always have enough time to duck out of the way. So far, that’s been the case, so maybe that will help him.

Another has a strong thowing arm and has been slated to do some pitching, but lately has been frustrated by an inability to throw strikes. He asked me after this practice if I’d not pitch him instead. I’ve told him to keep working at it and that I’d like him to try again later in the season. Frankly, we need all the arms we can get.

If it sounds like I’m feeling negative, I’m really not. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this experience, and I think we’ll have fun regardless of what else happens. I’m more worried about hurting someone’s feelings than the outcome of any given game. All I can do is try to project confidence and hope the kids follow my lead.

Team Picture Day is tomorrow. I’ll try to post a photo after I get one.

Why I’ve never wanted to be a manager

Last night I called the mother of one of my players to ask her to attend a Team Mom meeting on Tuesday. We will get our schedule and information about uniforms at that time, so I’ll finally be able to plan out my time for the next two months.

After she agreed to attend this meeting, she dropped a little bombshell on me: Apparently, a couple of the other moms had a problem with the way my assistant coach ran the practices on Thursday and Saturday. Hoo boy.

One reason why I’ve never been interested in pursuing a manager’s role at work is because I have no desire to deal with personality conflicts. I don’t want to have to sort out who did what to whom, who started it, whose fault it is, who’s getting shafted and who’s getting away with it, etc etc etc. Some day, I’ll have kids of my own, and I’ll have to deal with that sort of thing with them. I don’t need it from adults.

It turned out not to be so bad. My assistant coach has been very helpful to me, but he’s not particularly warm and fuzzy (as one of the moms I spoke to put it). He wanted to work out particular kids at particular positions, based on some covnersations we’d had about where I thought they’d be playing, and wasn’t very receptive to questions about it. I mostly listened to the moms and let them vent a little – there are days when having a background in customer service really comes in handy – and assured them that everyone on the team has a contribution to make. Both of them told me they appreciated my taking the time to talk to them, so I hope this incident is behind us.

One thing that came out of my conversation with my assistant coach, whom I spoke to before I called the moms, was how to marry a philosophy of wanting to have fun with the reality that winning is more fun than losing. I’m a relatively mature adult who knows full well that Winning Isn’t Everything. On the other hand, as Charlie Brown once said, losing isn’t anything. I’ve played on various beer league softball teams, all of which were mediocre at best, and it’s my personal opinion that it’s a lot harder to just play for fun if you have no chance to win. There’s no joy in getting your butt kicked on a regular basis.

A coach of a team in a competitive league has to put the welfare of the team ahead of the welfare of any individual. In particular, that means only playing your best players. This league insists on having everyone play, and that’s a philosophy I support. That doesn’t mean that everyone gets to play wherever they want, though. I do think that at this level it’s in the best interests of both the team and the individuals to generally play the best players in the infield, since that’s where most of the action is. I want to give everyone a chance to succeed, and that means not setting them up to fail.

To be blunt about it, there are a couple of kids who don’t catch or throw well enough to warrant regular playing time on a team whose primary mission is to win. Our primary missions are fun and learning, so they’ll play as much as everyone else does. Given that I do believe that you cannot completely de-emphasize winning, however, I’ll be limiting how often they play in the infield.

(On a side note, as it happens both of the kids whose moms I spoke to would be reasonably successful in the infield. I believe they will be more successful in the outfield, not because they’ll be hidden from the action but because I think they can shag fly balls. I told them as much, and I plan on giving a form of that speech to the kids themselves on Tuesday.)

It’s a fine balance, and I expect to stumble a few times on the way. I hope the next time I’m confronted by this issue it goes as smoothly as this one seems to have gone.

So when does this season actually start?

HISD spring break is over, so with any luck we should have a full house at tomorrow’s practice, which will once again be at the batting cage. T and I are travelling to a wedding this weekend, leaving on Wednesday, so that’s the only practice I’ll get to attend. I expect my main assistant coach to run a couple while I’m gone. I have no doubt he’ll do a fine job of it, though a small part of me worries that the kids will somehow see me as less Coach-like when I return. For now, I’ll need him to work a couple of the kids whom I envision pitching but who missed all of last week’s practices.

I’m still concerned about the hitting – our coach-pitch and kid-pitch batting practices were not exactly filled with the sound of the crack of the bat (well, with aluminum, I guess it’s more the *ping* of the bat). I’m anxious to see how they do against the Jugs machine, which has the virtue of throwing consistent strikes.

As far as I know, the season is supposed to start Real Soon Now, perhaps next weekend. As yet, I have no idea what the schedule is. I’ve got some travel and other likely conflicts over the next two months, so I’m getting a little antsy about having to make plans without knowing when I’ll have a game. Soon, they tell me, soon.

Finally got our catcher’s equipment problem solved – the league equipment manager met me after our Saturday practice and handed off two chest protectors and a second pair of shin guards. As it happens, the original pair did seem to fit the two kids we worked out at catcher that day. Both of them have promise behind the plate – they don’t fear the ball and they can make the plays, two traits that are very much not to be underrated at this age. I’ll work out one or two more kids behind the plate, but those two will see the bulk of the innings there.

This has really been a good experience for me so far. I can’t wait for the real games to start.

Little League goes on

Spring break may decimate our practices, but thankfully war seemed to have no effect. Last night was what should be the last sparsely-attended practice due to family travels. One of the kids who was there had just returned from attending Spring Training in Phoenix. He eagerly recited the games he saw, and mentioned that he’d gotten Benito Santiago’s autograph.

We ran through more batting practice, first with me pitching and then with the kids taking turns on the mound. That was really more like pitching practice, since two of the four had a hard time throwing strikes. Several of the kids who I believe will get the bulk of the innings pitched weren’t there, so if nothing else I’ve got a firmer idea of who probably won’t round out the staff.

Tiffany was at the practice last night. On the way home, she asked me about one of the kids, whom she thought had an attitude problem. I said no, he’s just a hyperactive 10-year-old, who doesn’t have the patience to wait his turn and is always letting you know it. I told her I was a lot like that when I was a kid in baseball camp. I knew a lot about baseball, and I knew that I knew a lot about baseball, and I wasn’t afraid to let the coaches know it if I thought they weren’t measuring up. I’m probably the only kid who ever got tossed out of a game at the Hall of Fame Warrior Baseball Camp for being a pain in the ass. (Note to Mom and Dad: It was Joe Nugent who tossed me. I know you’re just shocked to hear that. I thought he was screwing us on ball/strike calls.)

Telling Tiffany that reminded me of a particular incident from baseball camp. One of the guys on my team had hit a home run, and as he was crossing the plate the coach noticed that the catcher had removed his mitt and was rubbing his left hand. It turned out that the bat had hit his glove during the swing. “Aha!” cried the coach. “Catcher’s interference! The home run is cancelled and the batter goes back to first base!”

(I should point out here that the coach in question was one of the lowly assistant coaches. Bert, Jack, or Larry would never have gotten this call wrong.)

“That’s wrong!” I piped up. I had just come across this particular rule in a Rules Quiz in Baseball Digest magazine. “If the batter reaches base despite the catcher’s interference, the play stands.” It was to no avail. The coach, who knew that I was a little sharpy, insisted that I was making that rule up and that the only possible outcome to catcher’s interference was the batter winding up on first base.

Do I really have to tell you who was right? Here’s Rule 6.08 (c):

The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when-

(c) The catcher or any fielder interferes with him. If a play follows the interference, the manager of the offense may advise the plate umpire that he elects to decline the interference penalty and accept the play. Such election shall be made immediately at the end of the play. However, if the batter reaches first base on a hit, an error, a base on balls, a hit batsman, or otherwise, and all other runners advance at least one base, the play proceeds without reference to the interference. If catcher’s interference is called with a play in progress the umpire will allow the play to continue because the manager may elect to take the play.

I may have been obnoxious, but I knew my rules. And I feel reasonably confident about how to handle kids like that. I had some experience with it before, you see.

UPDATE: To belatedly answer Rich’s question in the comments, catcher’s interference is scored as an error on the catcher.

Spring break takes its toll

We had three and two kids for the last two practices, today and Thursday. HISD is now on spring break, so some kids are out of town (including two who are off at spring training), and Thursday was a school trip to San Antonio. Tuesday was well attended, though.

With the smaller number of kids, we’ve mostly done batting practice. I’m finally figuring out the best way to pitch to the kids, just in time to have them pitch to themselves. All three of the guys who were there today took a turn pitching, and all three did all right. Two of them were ones I hadn’t really considered as hurlers. I may have more options on the mound than I’d first thought. That’s a good thing.

Tuesday we ran through infield and outfield drills. I now know that I can hit fly balls on demand. Major leaguers call it hitting fungoes. Don’t ask me where that word came from (you are of course welcome to Google it if you’re so inclined). For the most part, the guys who were best at catching fly balls were ones who’ve done well everywhere I’ve put them. I’m not sure how I’m going to juggle all of these guys. The league allows free substitution, which will help a little even though it’ll make keeping the lineup card chaotic.

We discovered an equipment issue on Tuesday. There’s no chest protector, and the shinguards are too big. I’ve been playing phone tag with the league’s equipment guy to get this straightened out. I was supposed to meet him after Thursday’s practice but he never caled me back. Annoying.

I also heard through Tiffany that the real field may not be ready in time for the season. Apparently, the city inspector has red-tagged it for improper drainage. Naturally, it’s the city Parks Department that’s building the damn thing. It would be funny if it weren’t so inconvenient. More grist for Kevin‘s mill.

No practice Tuesday – the field is unavailable for the next two Tuesdays. We’re going to go back to the batting cage on the 28th. I’m a little concerned that I haven’t seen anyone hit for any power yet. Almost no batted balls have made it to the outfield. Maybe that’s an indictment of my pitching, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll see when the kids pitch to themselves.

Spring is here

Finally, we’ve had a string of sunny and warm days around here. I suppose if my birthday weren’t in February, I’d hate the damn month as much as everyone else does. And I don’t even live in a cold climate.

Practice last Saturday was a bit limited, with only seven kids showing up as four others had conflicts. HISD’s spring break is next week, so attendance will continue to be spotty. On the plus side, two of my kids are travelling to spring training with their dads, so at least they’ll get some baseball by osmosis. Lucky stiffs.

(I hear from my dad that my cousin Joe will be attending the Seattle Mariners’ spring training camp as a guest of Terry Pollreisz, hitting coach for the San Antonio Missions and former head coach at the University of Portland. Hey, Dad, tell Joe to bring a diary.)

We ran through some infield drills first. I was reasonably happy with how they handled grounders, though throwing to first still needs work. I think I’ve identified a potential third baseman and shortstop, which is good. I’ll have to see some of the guys who weren’t there to know for sure.

After shagging grounders, I put everyone at a position and threw batting practice. While my infield-drill grounder-hitting has improved since the first practice, my batting-practice-pitching still needs work. When I pitch from the league mound, my pitches are coming in too high for the kids. I finally figured out to start from behind the mound and throw a bit harder, much like the pitching machine we used at the batting cage. Eventually, I’d like to have some of the kids throw a little batting practice, but not yet.

Today the guy who recruited me to coach sent out email to all league coaches reminding us that we need to have a corporate sponsor lined up for our team by Friday. After I stopped hyperventilating, I sent him a note saying “uh, I must have missed that part when you talked me into this”. Thankfully, there are some unaligned sponsors in the queue, so one of them will be assigned to us. Whew!

Next practice is tomorrow. We should have good weather again. I love springtime.

So what kind of coach will I be?

“There are three things the average man thinks he can do better than anyone else: Build a fire, run a hotel, and manage a baseball team.” — Rocky Bridges, quoted in Why Time Begins on Opening Day

Thomas Boswell once wrote that there are four kinds of baseball managers: Little Napoleons, Tall Tacticians, Peerless Leaders, and Uncle Robbies. Each was named for its prototype: John McGraw, Connie Mack, Frank Chance, and Wilbert Robinson, and through the years they have persisted in the major leagues. Modern examples of the breeds are Larry Bowa, Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, and Don Zimmer, respectively.

I was pondering what mold I fit as I drove home today, but I think Boswell’s spectrum is a bit lacking for Little League coaches. I see myself as more of a teacher than tactician, and I think with 9 and 10 year olds, the best goal to set is one of improvement rather than winning. Obviously, one hopes accomplishing the former will lead to the latter, but even if it doesn’t there’s still plenty of success to be had.

So far, our practices have been based on the drills that I did for many summers as a kid, when I attended the Hall of Fame Warrior Baseball Camp for four weeks each year. It was a day-only camp, from Monday through Friday. We’d emphasize a different aspect of the game each day, then play a game in the morning, break for lunch and a World Series or All-Star Game highlight film, then play another game in the afternoon. As a baseball-obsessed kid, I’m hard pressed to think of anything better than that.

(One side effect of attending this camp every year was a great familiarity with certain highlight films. I can still recite bits of Curt Gowdy’s or Joe Garagiola’s narration from some of the films, such as this bit about Tony Perez from the 1975 World Series – “The Series hasn’t been much fun for Perez so far; he’s fifteen-for-oh. But with one swing of the bat, it’s GOODBYE slump, GOODBYE baseball, and GOODBYE Red Sox lead.” For some odd reason, this ability always impressed my fellow campers much more than it ever did the ladies. But I digress.)

The camp was run by three men: Bert Levinson (a middle school principal and classic Little Napoleon), Larry Anderson (definitely an Uncle Robbie), and Jack Tracy, a Peerless Leader whose claim to fame was being on the spring training roster of the 1969 Mets. He never made it to The Show, but in his honor we always cheered for the Mets when they showed the ’69 World Series film.

It has not escaped my notice that the lessons these guys taught me over and over again in the 1970s influence everything I’ve done with the team so far and likely everything I will do in the coming weeks. I can’t think of a better tribute to give to a teacher, and I hope that when the season is over a little bit of them has been passed on to my kids.

To answer the question I posed in the title, I can see aspects of all four archetypes in me. What comes through depends on the day, my mood, and how the kids are behaving. I suspect I’ll be somewhere between a Peerless Leader and an Uncle Robbie for the most part. One of my assistant coaches is more the Tall Tactician type, with a smidgeon of Little Napoleon thrown in – he’s definitely going to be the enforcer of discipline. I suppose this collection of personalities could be confusing to the kids, but so far at least they seem to be paying attention to me.

Next practice is Saturday. I sure hope it dries out a bit before then.

Now pitching

We managed to have a fairly short practice tonight in spite of the wet field. My goal for the evening was to give everyone a turn on the pitcher’s mound to see what they all had. League rules mandate how much each kid can pitch, so teams need a minimum of four hurlers. Ideally, I’d like to have more – after all, as Jack reminds me, you can never have too much pitching.

After working everyone through a couple of turns on the mound, there’s two kids who I’m sure will be pitching, and another four or five who will have a shot at it. (There were at least two others who weren’t there tonight as well.) I’m going to continue giving everyone some time on the mound if possible, because it’s a pretty good way to see who has good throwing mechanics and who needs work. I’m hoping that by forcing some of them to think about what they’re doing and to do it in a specific way, I’ll help them improve how they throw in all contexts.

I do have to be a little more careful about how I approach the issue of who will and will not actually pitch during a game. After one of the kids who I know will pitch did his second workout, I said out loud that he would be on the staff. Tiffany mentioned to me afterwards that some of the parents on the sidelines got a bit worked up by that. I don’t think everyone else realized how many kids would wind up on the mound, and a couple of the kids took my words to mean that they had been ruled out. I did talk about the need for numbers, though, so I don’t think this will bite me. When I send out my next email, I’ll reinforce that.

Next practice will be Saturday. I’m hoping the weather will finally cooperate so we can do some more infield/outfield drills and give everyone some time at bat as well.

Batter up!

The team practice last night was at an indoor batting cage. I’d made the decision to do that instead of work out on the regular field because of the recent nasty weather which forced the cancellation of our last practice. The weather yesterday actually turned out to be pretty decent, but the field would have still been wet and muddy.

We started out with me pitching to the kids. I was behind one of those batting-practice screens you see major leaguers use. It’s basically a seven foot square hurricane fence, with a small rectangle cut out in the top left for me to throw through. After everyone had taken a turn, I offered a dollar to anyone who hit a line drive back through that cut-out section. The first kid to do so was the smallest one on the team. He’d swung and missed at most of the pitches before that, so it was really gratifying to see him connect like that. One other kid collected later on.

Eventually we got the manager to set up the Jugs pitching machine to give them a different look. We set the machine for 40 MPH, which was a bit faster than they were used to seeing. All of them started out swinging too late to make contact, but by the time they finished they had the timing down. That was encouraging.

The Jugs machine uses these weird rubber-coated yellow balls that are dimpled like golf balls. I could swear we used to feed the Jugs machine regular baseballs when I was a kid at baseball camp, but maybe that was only in the arm-style machines.

The other major accomplishment was handing off the candy to the parents who had signed up to sell it. They all seemed to know what they were doing, which was a relief to me. They have until March 31 to complete their capitalistic mission.

No practice this Saturday due to a Cub Scout conflict. We’ll be back on the field on Tuesday.

Rainout

I cancelled team practice today because of the nasty weather today. We’ll try again on Thursday. I’m going to try to find an indoor batting cage that we can use as a backup in case the weather doesn’t cooperate then.

We’re back down to 11 players. Nia, the one girl on the team, decided to play in a YMCA league instead. She’ll be with smaller kids who are also fairly new to playing baseball, which is a better fit for her. Having 11 kids will make it easier to ensure everyone plays, but it means we have less slack if there are no-shows. I don’t know what the forfeit rule is, and I hope I don’t have to find out.

I’ve gotten some feedback from parents that the kids are excited about playing. I’m glad I made a good first impression. I hope to build on their enthusiasm.

I’m supposed to pick up some candy from a league volunteer tomorrow. Apparently, candy sales are part of how the league pays for itself. A couple of the parents are signed up to do the selling, which is fine by me because that’s something I’ve never been comfortable with. Better anyone else than me.

Practice notes: Getting to know you

My Little League team (the Twins) had their first practice today. We’d had quite a bit of rain and nastiness in Houston over the past couple of days, so I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do much of anything, but in typical Houston fashion the weather today was totally different – bright, sunny, moderate temps. The practive field was even reasonably dry, though with some large puddles scattered around.

There are twelve kids on my team, eleven boys and one girl. Nia has never played before and is the smallest kid on the team. She probably belongs in the 7-8 year old league, but she turns nine during the season, so league rules say she has to be in the 9-10 year old group. I’m going to do what I can to get her up to speed, but it won’t surprise me if she drops out. Her parents were at the practice and told Tiffany that they were concerned that she’s too little. We’ll see how she does.

Ten kids showed up for practice. One had a prior engagement, the other was home sick. The sick kid’s dad had agreed to be one of my assistant coaches, so he was there. I know Logan, his son, played last year so I expect he’ll be one of the better players. Both he and the other assistant coach would likely have made fine head coaches, but apparently neither could commit to it time-wise. Both will be very helpful to me, though I’m a little concerned about there being a too-many-cooks problem. Not too worried, just a little.

Most of the kids had decent throwing mechanics, though they will definitely benefit from drills. I attended a baseball camp every summer as a kid for eight years, and I can still remember most of the workouts they put us through. The best part of that was playing the games, of course, but that’ll have to wait here. Practices are going to be an hour to an hour and a half, which hopefully isn’t too long to hold their attention through this sort of thing.

Today we ran an infield/outfield drill. Each kid was at an infield position, and I’d hit them a groundball and have the throw to first. I then moved some kids to the outfield and we went through cutoff man drills. That’s a complicated thing to do, and it’ll require a lot of repetition. The kids were all pretty rusty as well, and when you toss in the various water hazards on the field, it got a bit comical at times. At least I didn’t whiff too often hitting the ball to them.

Next practice is Tuesday evening. A bunch of the boys will be on a Cub Scout campout this weekend, so we’ll have a Thursday practice as well instead of next Saturday. I’m going to start auditioning pitchers on Tuesday, and let them get some hitting in also. That ought to get them excited.

I’m still working on matching names to faces. I know all of the names, but I can’t tell who’s who yet for the most part. Next practice, I’m going to make a point of using names when I can and making the kids say their names when I’m unsure. That ought to do it for me.