You Don’t Need a Blaupunkt

010 Baseball Equipment CostsA youth baseball bat that costs $330.  A set of catcher’s gear that is $400.  A glove that costs $280.  Baseball has never been a low cost sport, but what is happening with youth baseball equipment?

I have nothing against expensive bats or the parents who have the wherewithal to buy Johnny a new one every year.  I do have a problem with the idea an expensive piece of equipment will make your kid a better player.  The technology may have gotten infinitely better, but you can’t buy your kid a swing.  Success at any aspect of baseball comes from practice and more practice.  Sally can only become a better hitter by putting in the work at which point she could hit with a broomstick.  To quote Crash Davis in that epic of epics Bull Durham, “You don’t need a quadraphonic Blaupunkt.  What you need is a curveball.”

While I don’t have anything against expensive bats, I do have a couple of questions.  Why does this year’s version cost 50% more than last year’s?  Nothing has changed but the color.  While BPF (bat performance factor) isn’t the be all and end all measurement, doesn’t it stand to reason if manufacturer Y’s 201X model bat has the same BPF, barrel size and barrel length as the 201Z model then in the hands of the same hitter both bats are going to “perform” the same?  My suggestion, hunt around for an unused bat from one or two years prior and save yourself a fortune.

And what exactly is the point of making a bat which can only be used in temps above 50o?  For 50% of the baseball playing world, you need a second “cold weather” bat or a bat warmer accessory which they conveniently have for an additional $30 or, of course, you could move house (NB: I’m not sure this is statistically correct.)

I do like some of the advances in catcher’s gear and youth gloves though I’m still not convinced the costs are justified.  I like the technology coming over from hockey into catcher’s gear, for example, gel pads in the knees of the shin guards which provides better protection, enabling better protection from lighter weight equipment.  Companies such as All-Star are putting out mini-versions of the same technology pro catchers use and let’s face it, getting hit by a baseball at any age hurts a lot, so why not keep a young catcher engaged by protecting him well.

Youth gloves have come a long way too.  The smaller finger stalls make the gloves manageable so the kids can get a properly sized-glove without compromising their ability to catch the ball which, after all, is the primary purpose of a glove.  My son has an Akadema youth glove which is an actual baseball glove that won’t become so soft and lose its shape so quickly midway through one season it’s dangerous.  As with bats, my advice is to look for a sale or get last year’s model.

In the end, I’m all for technological advances in baseball equipment.  I’d love to get the latest and greatest bat for my kids every year, but honestly, they are fine swinging last year’s model.  If you have the means to get the latest high-end gear for Johnny, then knock yourself out.  Just don’t believe he is going to start hitting like Mike Trout because of what he’s swinging.

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Let the Parents Stay

009 No ParentsWith recent stories that participation in youth sports is declining because of the parents and of two Pop Warner football leagues cancelling their seasons due to parent behavior, one because of a fistfight between parents in the stands and the other due to threats of violence (someone left bullets with names of league officials printed on them outside the field gates?!?), calls for banning parents from games are increasing.  Then comes news a Buffalo, NY Pop Warner league is charging admissions to its games.  Seems likes everyone wants to keep the parents away.  It’s not the answer.

I tell this story often.  I told it as part of the eulogy at my dad’s funeral.  Until I went away to college, my parents only missed one of my games.  One game across all those baseball and basketball seasons and one wretched Pop Warner football season.  It was a high school baseball game in Virginia Beach.  I was flying back with my team that afternoon, and they had to drive home during the day so someone could fetch me at the airport.  The fact they were always there is among my fondest memories of family and of playing.

My wife thinks I’m insane for prioritizing the kids’ games over my own activities.  She couldn’t always make the games.  No judgment from me, but occasionally my son asked if Mamma was coming.  He noticed.  I think it’s really important kids see their parents are interested, are there to support them and think the things they do matter.  It was to me.  It is to my son.  I’m guessing it is to most kids.

I can’t imagine not watching my kids play.  It’s a large chunk of why I coach.  Last year, my son tried out for a soccer team. The tryouts were closed to parents.  My first thought was I don’t want to be part of a program which excludes the parents.

Yes, I said I.  Youth sports is an arrangement between the team, the player and the parents.  He plays; I pay and schlep and therefore I get to watch.  It isn’t I pay and schlep and therefore I have a say in what goes on or I can act like a horse’s behind.  But parents do pay and schlep which means they are part of youth sports for better or for worse.  Without them there are no youth sports.

As a coach, it’s my job to make it “for better.”  My tryouts and practices are open to the parents.  I have nothing to hide, plus if my parents are reinforcing the same messages then my players can only get better.  And if they feel like they are part of the program, they just might be more inclined to behave.

At the beginning of last season, each player, his parents and I signed a contract regarding participation, sportsmanship and behavior.  I also laid out three ground rules for the parents. If they didn’t think they could abide, no hard feelings, this isn’t the program for you.  I have a great group of parents.  Even so, I had to step in a couple of times to remind my parents to cheer for our team, not against the other team or to step away from my dugout and let his kid play.  I had no qualms about it because it’s my job to create a positive environment for the players.  It was easier to do so because I kept the parents close to the team. I didn’t push them away.

We’ve all seen when coaches don’t step in.  Opening game of the travel season.  We’re in the field when the umpire completely misses one.  Inning over.  In between innings, an opposing parent berates the umpire nonstop to the point where I wanted to eject the guy.  I should have stepped in.  I didn’t, my bad.  But really the opposing coach, who had handled the blown call graciously, should have stopped it.  What message is he sending his parents and his players?  It was embarrassing, and by letting it continue, he was condoning it and letting it potentially escalate.  Luckily it didn’t.

I don’t have an answer on how to cure the parent mentality which produces the bad behavior and poor judgment.  Education regarding what the games are supposed to be about is a start.  Leagues expend so much effort on educating the coaches, why not the parents?  But there is no simple answer.  One part of the solution completely within my reach as the coach is establishing the right parental environment and stepping in when necessary.  It’s my team after all.  I think a lot is up to me as the coach to do everything possible to stop the insanity before it happens and to shut it down if I see it happening.  The answer isn’t keeping parents away from the games.  It hurts the kids, it hurts the parents, it hurts the program and, ultimately, it hurts the sport.

The Bleeping Bunt

008 The Bleepin BuntTwice this season, opposing teams bunted on us.  Once in rec ball and once in travel.  Both times there were two outs.  Interestingly, to me anyway, both times the bunter was one of the opposing coach’s kids.  I’m not sure which one infuriated me more.

I’m not against bunting in baseball.  I’m against bunting in 8U & 9U baseball.  Dead set against it.

My intense disdain for bunting comes down to two philosophical issues.  Bunting at this age is taking advantage of the kids and it is taking away from them as well.

Let’s start with what you take away: time and experience hitting the baseball.  “You hit, you play” – a truism of baseball at the just about any level beyond rec and the young ages that employ continuous batting order/roster batting.  Basically, the way I see it kids, we’re here to hit the baseball so go up there and put your best swings on the ball.  And to become a better hitter, you need to swing and swing a lot; off the tee, soft-toss, batting practice and in actual games where the pitcher isn’t someone named Dad or that you call coach.

Now, for sure, my job entails teaching them how to bunt properly which I will do at some point(s) over the next year or so.  And for some of the faster ones, a good drag bunt should be a weapon in their arsenal at the plate.  But teaching bunting requires time; dropping two or three down before every BP session does not a good bunter make.  At this point, bunting just hasn’t risen to the top of the priority list of things to work on in my limited practice time.  Right now, they need more time working on their swing and situational experience using that swing.  To put it another way, assuming any of them have the ability (and who really knows at this age), they’re not making the high school team because they can bunt.  I’d rather have them spend the time working on hitting. “You hit, you play.”

Far worse though, by bunting you are taking advantage of the kids on defense.  And to me that is a no-no.  A no-no in the way peaking in on the catcher is a no-no.  Sure it’s part of baseball.  But just as the kids need to work on hitting, they need to work on all aspects of playing defense.  Even more so.  At least in t-ball they’ve been swinging the bat.  What they’ve not been doing is playing anything that resembles defense.  There are so many things they need to learn about proper fielding mechanics, let alone infield and outfield play and cutoffs, that bunt defense is a super low priority.

And therein lies the rub, because you know that Mr. Coach.  And that’s why my issue with bunting is really with you; directly with you.  Is winning a game so important to you you’re going to short-change your kids and take advantage of mine?  I won’t even mention in the travel game you were beating us by a hefty number of runs so scoring one more really didn’t matter.  If your kid needs to square up and bunt to get on, maybe, and this is a crazy thought, you should spend more time with him working on hitting.

Hey, what do I know?  You both beat us and my kids were ill-equipped to defend the bunt and that is totally, 100% on me.  I can live with it because they went down swinging.

Why I Coach or the Obvious Epiphany

007 Why I CoachAfter writing last week’s Coachisms post, I got a bug to find Carmine, he of “losing the second game of a double header is like kissing your sister” fame, and give him a call.  This was no small feat given all I had to go on was his first name, his son’s first name, the name of our team and the names of two other players.  With the internet being the internet and some good Samaritans who returned a website info request with a phone call, I eventually managed to get Carmine’s phone number.  Which is how I found myself speaking with a man I only ever knew as the coach I played for when my summers of travel ball came to end.

It was a wonderful call going the way I imagine all such calls go, catching up on the intervening years, our families and reminiscing about that team and some of the kids, now grown men, I played with.  Then Carmine said something which lit up a light bulb, a flaming torch really, in my head about why I coach.

Put the call with Carmine on hold for a second and take a short detour which provides some background and allows me to pat myself on the back (what’s that Bruce Springsteen song, Glory Days?)  The last games I played for Carmine were in the northeast regionals of whatever league we played in that summer some 29 years ago.  I had been in a slump for a good chunk of the summer, but Carmine kept trotting me out to first and batting me fourth.  His faith was rewarded come August when I was ripping the cover off the ball.  You couldn’t get me out.

That’s when we played those northeast regionals somewhere in New Jersey.  I went eight for 15 over the four games with 10 rbi (and that includes a one for four game with three lineouts to third.)  As I said, I was ripping the cover off the ball.  The third game is the decisive game for us.  We’re playing against a team from Latham and we had both destroyed the other teams in the tournament.  Win and we go to the World Series.  Lose and Latham goes.  It’s the last inning and we’re down by two when I come up with two outs and the bases loaded.  I’m already two for three, but they’ve changed their pitcher bringing the center fielder in to pitch and moving the pitcher to center field.  The first guy threw hard.  The new guy throws even harder.  It’s early in the at bat when he throws me a fastball.  I remember thinking, sometimes the game slows down just so, “It’s a bit on the outer third.  Oh well.  What the [expletive deleted].  Give it a go.”  I hit a bullet, an absolute laser.  A one-hopper right at the center fielder that never gets higher than four feet off the ground.  We know the kid has a gun, but Carmine sends our runner on second because we might not get another shot.  He’s out.  Game over.  Bye-bye World Series.  And though I don’t realize it at the time, bye-bye summer baseball.

The kid who got thrown out at the plate was our stud pitcher.  He was drafted by the Marlins and made it as far as triple AAA.  What I didn’t know, as Carmine now informs me on the phone, is Zimmy got a hefty signing bonus out of college.  It’s Carmine who first brings up the tournament in New Jersey as he explains how Zimmy got his college scholarship.  “After that tournament in New Jersey, Zimmy played with another team in the Babe Ruth tournament.  You know that was the one mistake I made, not playing us in Babe Ruth.”

“Carmine, we should have won that tournament in New Jersey.  If Zimmy,” I interrupt.  It’s as far as I get.

“I’ll tell you why we lost.  I’ll tell you what you did wrong.  You hit that ball too damn hard.  And you hit it right at the center fielder.  You hit it two feet to either side and you’ve got at least a double and we score three runs.”  I’m speechless.  I’ve not spoken to the man in 29 years since not too long after that game, and unprovoked, he recalls every detail about a play that, with the passing of my dad, I am convinced I am the only person on the planet who remembers.  In an instant my whole view of coaching flipped on its head.

The light bulb that went off is this.  I coach completely and utterly for me.  Not for my son.  Not for my daughter.  Not for the kids on my travel team.  For me and what I get out of it.

I have always thought about coaching in terms of what I give to the kids.  First and foremost my own kid.  And this year, with the travel team, the other kids as well.  As players we always remember the games and the plays and the coaches, especially the coaches, the good ones and the bad ones and the impact they have on us.  And I always have tended (pretended?) to think about coaching in those terms.  I will give these kids something, hopefully a great something, that they will take forward with them and ultimately look back on later in their lives.  And for sure, there is some truth in that.

But I have never thought about it in terms of what they give me, how their experiences all come back to me. To be a part of it, to live it, to breathe it and to watch them execute the things I’ve taught them and to watch them experience indescribable highs and cry with the lows.  It’s a gift they give to me.

It’s our lone playoff win in 8U travel this past summer.  My son hits a little league home run to tie it up and the kids are jumping up and down and he’s running home with both arms in the air and I’m hi-fiving with the kids and just so excited and proud and happy.  The next kid, our best kid, gets up and hits a bomb – our first real homer fence or no fence.  The moment he hits it, I am yelling at the top of my lungs to my third base coach, his dad, “Send him, send him, send him, send him!”  And when he crosses the plate, I’m jumping up and down with the kids and then there’s a moment when things have quieted down and the next kid is up and the home run hitter is in front of me.  And I hug him.  I’m so damn happy and so damn proud of him, possibly even more so than that third base coach, and on a high and it is infinitely better than if I had hit the homer because I know what he doesn’t.  I know just how freakin’ amazing what he just did really is and how rare it is and that one day the games are going to stop.  For him, he’s happy no doubt, but it’s a single moment in a young life that promises a million more right around the corner.  And so that high, that reward, is made all the more exquisite by the knowledge the games will end one day and he’s going to be remember that homer for the rest of his life.  I know I will.

Just as I’ll remember my son’s first hit, game-tying liner to center in his first game of kid-pitch baseball in the minors (his team’s only hit that day), and just as I’ll remember every second of his first “homer” and the three errors it took to get him home and his face with those arms up in the air as he nears the plate, I’ll remember the bomb that followed it.  Just as I’ll remember the diving grab and throw to nab the runner at first my third baseman made – it’s takes six miracles for an 8-year-old to make a diving grab on a grounder and get the kid out.  Just as I’ll remember the over-the-shoulder catch and throw to double off a runner at first my emergency shortstop made (complete with a scoop at first).  Just as I’ll remember 100 other plays from this past travel season because that’s really the gift of coaching.  I am so invested in those kids, every one of them, and experiencing those highs and even the lows is the return on that investment.  It’s the reward of being called Coach.  Chasing them is why I do it.

In the end, it turns out coaching is all about me and what I get from those little kids and their games.  It took a whimsical call for me to have the epiphany that was oh so obvious.  Just as I was back in that summer when he stuck with me, I am once again indebted to Carmine.  Hey, if nothing else, he helped me understand why I am up until 1 a.m. on game nights with my post-game stats, recap and make the next game lineup ritual.

Thanks Carmine.  Great coaches live forever.