Score One For Club Baseball

IndoorBaseballRecently, I had the fortune of observing an indoor practice of a Division 1 college baseball team. While I would have been happy just watching the simulated game they were playing in the cages, I found the uninterrupted 45-minute Q&A with the head coach quite interesting.

He had a wrinkle on the one-pitch hitting drill which I will incorporate this season.  Instead of each pitch being live, you put a runner or runners on and the batter gets three swings; the first is live for the defense and the runner(s), the second is a straight-forward BP swing and the third is live for everyone including the batter. It’s tailor made for the smaller roster sizes in youth baseball/softball.

He described their running philosophy. The runners are taught to keep going until they are stopped by a base coach. I knew I’d be using that as soon as he said it as it keeps the runners aggressive and decisive by eliminating the need to think along with the coach.

He likes hitting heavy balls (I don’t because I think it tends to make younger kids fly open in an effort to drive the ball) and he also said he would always take a catcher who was a better receiver over one who had a cannon for an arm something I came to believe early on. (I’ve written about it here).

The most intriguing part came when someone asked him what kids entering the program lacked. Base running and the ability to play off the ball were the answers. And then he said something along the lines of “The kids don’t play enough. They’re all better technically than we were back when we played. But they lack game sense. But they don’t know what to do when ball isn’t hit to them. I know what many people think about club baseball, with the number of club teams out there now. But I like club baseball. They need to play more games. They play more games when they play club ball.” I’m not sure what the reaction in the room was given he was speaking to a group of town rec and travel coaches.

My reaction was a bit “aha” and relief mixed in one. You hear so much about practice reigning supreme for development, and I had always been in that camp. That started to change last year, when I had a team play in a spring league and saw how much better the kids who played in the spring did when we got to the summer. This year, when my town program wouldn’t get behind a town team in a spring travel league, I had my son tryout for some club teams specifically so he could get more game time.

Am I putting my kid on a club team because I think he’s going to play in college? He’s 11-years-old; I don’t even know if he’s going to play next year, let alone high school or college. But he loves to play and compete and he got a lot better last year playing more than he had ever before. And his club will give him the opportunity to do that again.

We can denounce club teams all we want. They start too young, there are too many of them, they’re just interested in your money, etc. But when a college coach says he likes club ball, it’s worth taking note. Score one for the club teams.


That’s a Wrap

Coach 001Over the holidays I decided not to coach the town travel baseball team this summer. There were several reasons for the decision; the main one being I am between jobs and didn’t want to make a commitment I might not be able to keep. Though I will still coach, as an assistant on the town travel softball team, the decision was agonizing.

It was agonizing not because I am worried about my son’s playing. He and his game will benefit from playing for someone not named “Dad” even if I feel we could have punted on that issue for at least another year. The decision was agonizing because I love coaching. I love the preparation that goes into it and I love the in-game managing. I love replaying every play after the games thinking about what I should have done differently.

I love the moments when baseball reaches out and touches your soul, and it happens just about every day at the youth level. I’ve written about some of the on-field moments, but the off-field ones are just as evocative.

We’re at a restaurant on Father’s Day after a tournament. My son and I are still in our baseball gear to the amusement of my wife and daughter (she’s yet to start her travel softball journey at this point.) A family scoots behind us ready to exit when the dad stops and comes back over to us and says, “I love your uniforms. Happy Father’s Day.”

I nod and say, “Thank you. Same to you,” without really understanding what’s to love about our jerseys. They are just plain red after all. Then it clicks. It’s what’s on the back of our jerseys.

But what I’ll miss most is the extra time spent with my son forging a bond as we’ve weaved our way through the parent/coach/child relationship. I can’t say every step has been easy just as I can’t say I have been perfect. There are plenty of moments I’d like to do over. Still, we’ve always been close, but baseball has brought us closer and being his coach even closer still.

Kid, I’m sure it hasn’t been easy having your dad as your coach. I know I’m hard on you, and I know I expect more of you on and off the field.

What I don’t know is if you understand how proud of you I am. Not because of what you do on the field; win, lose, ofer or three HRs, it’s just a game. I’m proud of you because you listen and make adjustments without fussing. I’m proud of you because you learned long ago that practice helps you improve and now you ask me if we can get more work in. I’m proud you because you show up every day dying to play, ready to compete. Don’t ever lose the fierce competitor in you. It’s okay to hate losing, and I’m glad you do, though you always have to be a good sport about it. And I’m proud of you because of the teammate you are becoming, they way you celebrate your teammates’ successes. In a world that is increasingly all about “I” remember what you give to your teammates you will get back five times over. I’m proud of you because you’ve grown in some many ways I never did.

Every year at the team introductions, I when I ask the players and coaches to name their favorite player, I name some pro. Here’s a well-known secret. You are my favorite baseball player. Why do you think I wear number 72? You wear 27 in homage to Mike Trout. I wear number 72 in homage to you.

27 72

TeamSnap: Parent’s Actions Impact Coaches Decisions

028 TeamSnapThe folks at TeamSnap have published a post I wrote for them about how your actions as a parent affect your athlete’s decisions.

“All I kept thinking was the kid would never play on a team I coached. I could envision the countless phone calls and meetings with his father regarding his son. . . .”

Read the post here.

When It Really Was Just a Game

Take a close look at the picture below.  Closer.  I’m the batter.  It’s from a game played in 1981.  It might as well be a picture from the baseball’s Dead Ball Era compared to what we see today.


What struck me immediately was that I’m not wearing a helmet.  Then I remembered the catchers didn’t wear any equipment other than a face mark.  Though the ball we played with was rubber ball which is what they used in Japan (we were playing a team from Tokyo), it was still a hard ball so I don’t know how we got away without wearing any equipment.  What really got me laughing though was the umpire.  He looks like he  came off the set of The Richard Simmons’ Show.

This wasn’t some minor little baseball game out in the back of beyond.  The game was played in Central Park.  It was the opening game of the Nanshiki Baseball Games, a.k.a., the Friendship Series, five games played across the five boroughs that pitted a team of 11- and 12-year-old all-stars from New York City against a team of all-stars from Tokyo.  There was news coverage – John Tesh, he started out as a TV news sports reporter, gave me two of my 15 minutes of fame when he interviewed me for the nightly news  – and some congressman made sure we were mentioned in the Congressional Record.  You’d never know it from the picture though.


With NYC Mayor Ed Koch at Gracie Mansion

Today we seem to get rankled if there aren’t two umpires with 15 certification badges on their uniforms at an 8U tournament game or if the field isn’t in pristine condition or there are no batting cages.  Every kid has their own bat, two usually, batting gloves, an infield glove, an outfield glove and a first baseman’s mitt.  My kids are no exception.

I’m not saying it was better in 1981 and I’m certainly not intending to minimize youth sports injuries.  It’s a little nuts they let us bat without helmets, rubber ball or not.  But when we treat the players like mini-major leaguers and we expect the fields to be mini-major league stadiums and we expect the umpires to be major-league umpires, we start looking at the games like they are the World Series.  We lose sight of the fact the games really don’t matter.  Worse, we start to teach the kids the trappings are important rather than “just go out and play.”  Second game of our summer season.  As the visitors stroll in to our admittedly horrible fields, one of the kids turns to a teammate and says, “These dugouts don’t even have roofs.”

Sure, we took the games seriously and our coaches coached hard and they coached to win.  But take another look at the photo.  No one is asking the people behind the plate to move as if somehow they will have an effect on the game.  The bat I’m using was one of four we had for the entire team, and in a million years I never would have thought of asking my parents for batting gloves.  And then there’s that umpire who I can’t help but think was fished out of the stands.

None of it detracted from the game or made us play any differently or made a difference in the game itself – we won though the series ended 2-2-1.  It was the most fitting outcome, and one I couldn’t imagine being allowed to happen today.


Beacon Jewelers Little League, Spring 2016. - Photo by Schram“Batting 4th, #13!”

A simple comment which brought with it a flood of memories of games and escapades long gone.  It was social media response from a high school teammate to birthday wishes I had sent him.  I had used his nickname from when we played together.  In the intervening years, I’ve neither spoken with him nor seen him, and if not for social media’s having made the world tremendously small, I doubt I would have had reason to think of him (I’m sure the reverse is true.)  Yet 30 years later, we still remember each other by things ascribed to us on a ballfield.

When you stop playing the meaningful games, not the adult, beer can stuff, but games you believe are important at a time when the majority of your years are still ahead of you, no one tells you it is the last time you’ll truly be part of a team.  It’s the last time you’ll ever being willing to go through a wall for another person simply because they wear the same jersey you do.  I’m sure in some walks of life the team is the single most defining element, but for the majority of us, nothing will ever approximate the feeling of being a teammate.  It hit me hard when I started my first job out of college.  My colleagues and I worked hard together and had lots fun, but at the end of the day we went our separate ways.  We didn’t share the same experiences and “live” in the back of a bus the way teammates do, so how could I have really thought it would be the same?


When I look back over my son’s travel seasons and my daughter’s just completed first softball season, I’ll always remember their accomplishments and feats, both the good and the not-so-good.  But what seems to always come front and center are the moments they first started connecting with another kid as a teammate, those precious moments in which what any one player did didn’t matter, but what they did collectively surely meant the world.  They probably don’t even recognize it yet because they are at the stage where the games are important to them and they have so many more moments ahead of them.  But this is where it starts.

It’s the championship game of our summer league playoffs.  It’s clear during my pregame spiel (I gave them the Herb Brooks’ “Not this game.  Not tonight” speech) they are nervous.  My son is nervous as he’s getting ready to hit.  Sensing it, his teammate, a nine-year-old kid, pulls him over and says “You’ve been doing it for us all year long.  You can do it.”  It loosens my son up immediately and though neither of them know I’ve heard their exchange, I know coaching these boys has been worth every minute and all the effort.

Sports transcend the playing field.  That’s a simple truth, and if you don’t know that you’ve never played.  It’s a powerful feeling to belong to something bigger than you just as it’s a powerful lesson to figure out how to get along regardless of your feelings for the individual occupying the uniform.  I don’t like every guy I ever played with, but I’d sit down and have a drink with any one of them any time.  The bonds you make with your teammates are as eternal as they are strong.

I can’t think of a better reason for my kids to play team sports.