My Private Coach

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Paris circa 1944

You’ve been gone for a little over 12 years.  Your grandson was born three years after you died and your granddaughter two years later still.  I think about you a lot, as I assume most sons and daughters do.  More and more I wonder what you would have been like around your grandkids.  You’d get a kick out them.

Mom comes out to visit every week.  It’s great they have such a close relationship.  She tells them stories so in a way they know you.  I don’t go out to your grave often, but I took them a year ago.  They started telling different stories about you while we were looking at your grave marker.  They told the one where you went out the window when you were jumping on the bed and the one about you when you played hooky and your mom found you on the train.  Your grandson loves the one about you playing football in Stade de Paris during the war and so he told that one.

Your granddaughter loves to sing and dance.  She ice skates, does gymnastics and played softball for the first time last summer.  I’m sure it comes as no surprise your grandson loves sports.  He got a bike when he turned one (sorry, I know you got me a bat as soon as I could walk).  Soccer is his first love, but he’s a ball player too.  He’s a catcher like you were.  He loves it and in some ways I think it kept him interested in baseball long enough to get through the doldrums of t-ball.  And of course, they both race bikes.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Which is why I’m sure it also comes as no surprise I coach his baseball teams and her softball team.  You always coached and I just assumed it’s what fathers do.  How many balls did you throw me until I finally figured out how to catch one across my body?  I started coaching him because I didn’t trust anyone else.  And I keep doing it because I can’t imagine not doing it or not being there and mostly I just don’t want to miss anything they do.  I bring you along with me in a way because you never missed anything.  Mom finally agreed to give me the chain you left me so I wear it to their games.  When I put it on, I usually mumble something like, “Come on.  Let’s go watch him play.”

He says I’m hard as coach, hard on him in particular.  I wonder where that comes from.  I try my best not to be because I remember how much I hated it when I got a rocket from you when we took infield and the other kids didn’t.  I always thought you were living your childhood through me.  While there is some element of truth there, I realize now it also came from a place of wanting me to have the opportunities you didn’t have and to enjoy playing for as long as I possibly could.  Mom says I’m just like you when it comes to the kids’ sports.  I suppose she’s not wrong, and it has become a sorta joking, sorta not joking catchphrase in my house.  Truthfully, I try my best to do a better job than you did.  Not because you weren’t good.  You did a great job teaching and coaching me even if there are a few things I wish you would have done differently.  I wish you hadn’t turned me around at the plate.  It turns out my dominant eye is my right eye so every now and then I like to imagine what I could have done if you had kept me as a left-handed hitter (your grandson hits lefty by the way.)  I wish you could have explained things better.  Nothing was more frustrating than being in slump and hearing you say, “You’re not getting in the hitting zone” which meant, and still means, nothing to me.  In 1970 Ted Williams wrote a little book which tells you just about everything you could want to know about hitting, you could have researched a bit.  But that’s not why I want to be better.

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I want to be better because I’m scared.  I’m scared I will short change them if I don’t do everything I possibly can to help them do whatever they want to do.  I’m scared they won’t get to experience all the things I got to experience because you taught me how to hit and catch and throw.  And I’m scared they will look back and regret not having taken it (whatever it is, baseball, soccer, singing, dancing, acting . . .) as far as their abilities will let them.  Mostly, I am scared out of my mind I will be measured and found lacking as their father because I didn’t do everything I could to give them all the opportunities they deserved as you did for me.  And so I figure if I can do better than you then I’ll be doing a fantastic job.

I know you were upset when I stopped playing but really I took baseball as far as my abilities could.   And now the game you taught me has come full circle and the student is the teacher.  Your grandson loves me fiercely though he will never utter those words (yet another thing he has in common with you) and I have no doubt the bond we’ve developed through sports is a key catalyst.  By the way, he doesn’t have to say the words because he shows me all the time in his way, just as you showed me all the time in yours.

I gave the eulogy at your funeral.  I’m sure you expected that.  I wrote it on the plane ride back to Italy when I left you at the hospital the very last time I saw you.  I started thinking how I would never see you again, never speak with you again.  Somewhere over the Atlantic, I realized I was wrong.  I’d always see you because you were always there for me.  So I told them about the things that would always remind me of you.  You’d be happy to know a lot of people turned out.  I had them laughing and crying because that was the effect you had on people.  I got through it pretty well.  I only choked up when I told them about the smell of cut grass.  The smell of cut grass is baseball and while our relationship was defined by so many things, baseball was always first in line.

Every Saturday morning from April through July I step on to the field to coach your grandson and I smell cut grass and I see you.  Maybe it’s a reflection of you I see in myself.  Either way, thanks for teaching me this great game of baseball and through it how to be a dad.  I can only hope I’m half the coach and parent you were.  If I am, your two grandkids are going to be just fine.


So Your Catcher Can’t Throw

Why the Rays Traded for a Catcher Who Can’t Throw
.  The title of the 018 Pop Time article about the Hank Conger trade was too intriguing to pass over (and not borrow.)  Conger is coming off of one of the worst seasons ever by a catcher in caught-stealing percentage; one in which he threw out one of 43 runners.  Tampa Bay still wanted him.  The article, which gives a statistical view of Conger and catching in general, implies pop time and arm strength do not have a big impact on the running game over which pitchers have far more control.  Framing pitches, as difficult as it may be to quantify, is much more important and an area where Conger excels.  The spread in runs saved between the best-throwing and worst-throwing catchers is tiny (6.3 runs) as compared to the spread between the best and worst framers (44.2 runs.)  Put another way, a catcher who is a great receiver has a much greater influence on the outcome of a ballgame than one with a cannon for an arm.  If it’s true in the Majors, it is doubly so in youth baseball.

When I started thinking about lineups before last season, I knew my son would start behind the plate.  He really enjoys catching and he had shown some aptitude during the rec season.  My only hesitation was his arm strength and throwing inconsistency.  Hesitation turned into trepidation as the season opener neared because in the Cal Ripken Tournament runners could steal any base once the ball passed the plate.  I started envisioning a carousel of runners who would take off even on strikes over the heart of the plate.  I mentioned something to an opposing coach at the tournament meeting who shot me a quizzical look and said “no one steals unless the ball gets behind the catcher.”

As the season played out, I realized he was right.  I found the most important things my catcher could do were catching the pitches which should be caught, keeping as many bad ones as possible from going to the backstop and getting the ball back to the pitcher consistently.  Being a good receiver helped us far more than the runners stealing hurt.  Good catching kept the game moving and kept the pitcher in a rhythm.  There might not be pitch framing in the traditional sense in youth baseball, but a catcher who sticks pitches, and by that I mean catches them, and keeps the umpire from getting drilled is going to get a lot of called strikes with the very liberal interpretations of the strike zone at the young ages.  And the umpires appreciate good catching.  In the season opener, I went to pull my son after two innings to give him a break and the umpire asked me to leave him in, “He’s doing a great job.  He’s keeping the game moving.  Please don’t take him out.”   For my young pitchers, finding a rhythm is critical.  Pitching well is about repeatability which is hard enough to achieve in practice for these kids, let alone in a game situation where they have to wait a minute between pitches because their middle infielders are fetching the throw back from the catcher.

For sure, we were run on a lot during the season.  We only caught one runner stealing and that was on a tag play on an attempted steal of home.  The steals came either on balls which went to the backstop or in situations where I instructed our catchers to hold the ball.  Not one was on was on a pitch caught by the catcher in a situation where they were free to throw.  And it didn’t matter who was behind the plate.  My best player, my stud pitcher who throws in the low 50s and is a vacuum at short, had 25 steals against over eight innings as a catcher.  I didn’t keep stats on wild pitches and passed balls, but I know the steals weren’t because he wasn’t doing all the right things behind the plate.  A lot of kids were getting on and a lot of bad pitches he had no chance of getting to were going to the backstop when he was catching.  Even your best player isn’t going to nab a lot of runners and while it may be a highlight reel play in youth baseball, throwing out runners attempting to steal doesn’t define good catching.

As I think about next year, I have no hesitation about my son being number one on the depth chart at catcher.  He still has work to do on his throwing and his footwork moving from the squat to a strong throwing position, but this winter we will focus on continuing to improve areas he did a good job in as a receiver.  I also need to find a few more kids who have the aptitude to be good receivers and the desire to catch (you can have the best glove, but if you don’t want to be behind the plate you’re not going to do well).  If they have a strong arm all the better, but it won’t be the deciding factor.  There’s so much talk about arm strength and pop time, but in youth baseball, while your catchers won’t lose you any games with their arm, they just might steal a few with their glove.

Double click for a video of Conger discussing his approach:

The Private Coach

017 The Private Coach 001My son goes to private baseball and soccer lessons.  He goes once a week for an hour in each sport.  He does it in the offseason, basically for two months in the winter.  I tried softball lessons for my daughter too, but she wasn’t into them.  I think the lessons are great.  So I was more than a bit surprised at the palpable condescension when the subject came up at a coaches meeting as part of a discussion on making our travel program “more competitive.”  The inference being our program needed to be more like the gazillion, dime-a-dozen, full-time, full-year programs already out there.

When my son started with baseball lessons I felt like an idiotic, overzealous parent for taking an eight-year-old to a private coach.  I must have said a million times, “I know he’s not going pro” only to find out the coach worked with just about every kid in town.  His client list included at least ten other eight-year-olds.  The knowledge somewhat lessened my bemusement at the nine page program for a show my daughter participated in a few weeks later with her ice skating class.  The participating classes, including my daughter’s, took up half-a-page as did the credits.  The other eight pages were needed to accommodate the names of the private coaches (sometimes two or three of them) employed by each individual skater who performed in the actual show.  Seems I’m not alone in employing private coaches.

017 The Private Coach 003I had a private baseball coach growing up.  We just didn’t pay for him because his name was Dad.  Unfortunately that dynamic doesn’t work for my son, so he goes to a private coach because sometimes he needs a different voice to teach him (even if many times his coach and I say the same things.)  And he goes because though he doesn’t often want to have a catch, he lights up when he plays and he comes out of the lessons energized.  He goes to a soccer coach, which he does want to play always, because it’s an opportunity for focused technical skill development (table stakes in soccer much like skating is in hockey if you ask me) with more touches than he gets at his travel team practice.  And he goes because he wants to play goalie so we found a coach who dedicates half the lesson to goalie skills.   I have him go to both because they provide an environment for development and repetition from which comes the consistency which will help him improve which I want because I want both my kids to play team sports in high school because of the profound effect playing in high school had on me.  I am afraid if he doesn’t pick up a baseball during the winter and he doesn’t develop his technical soccer skills he won’t have that chance.

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When I sat down to write this I was sure I would find some profound insight or reason why he has a private coach.  The truth is never black and white and the reasons are a mix of wants, needs and fears, some his and some mine.  Toss me into the pool of crazy, sports parents if you like, but I really have no aspirations of a pro in the family and I’m not hoping for a college scholarship, though it would be nice as I’d like retirement to be more than the ten seconds in will take for my head to land on my desk when I die of old age in my office.

Have I lost the plot on youth sports?  Maybe. I’m not really sure.  Do I think private lessons are his ticket to the pros?  Absolutely not.  But just as I wouldn’t hesitate to get him an academic tutor if he needs help or a gentle nudge, I didn’t hesitate to get him a private sports coach (why is it we never tell our kids they won’t be President but we’re quick to tell them they won’t be a pro athlete?)  I think I’m a good baseball coach, but I am a CTO by trade, and it would a bit foolish and arrogant to think a full-time baseball coach isn’t better no matter how great I know I am.  If nothing else, the lessons give my son a chance to play once a week and give me a chance to pick up on some drills and techniques I can put to good use come the summer.

Stop Knocking Travel Sports

016 Travel Sports GoodI began 8U Travel because I thought it ludicrous my son was starting travel sports at the age of eight.  I still do.  I think the state of travel sports is verging on insane with “elite” programs looking to “take it to the next level” (whatever those statements mean) and forcing young kids to play one sport year-round preying on the fears of parents.  And I agree those same parents have lost the plot in their blind belief their kid is getting a college scholarship or “going pro” (she isn’t).  But people whining about travel programs ruining youth sports and the demise of the rec league are kidding themselves.  If the objectives of youth sports are kids being active, improving in their chosen sports, and gaining life skills, travel sports are the singular best option to deliver.

Before diving into the benefits of travel, let’s get the competitive, only focused on winning cards out on the table.  A common argument of naysayers is travel programs eliminate the fun with an over the top focus on winning.  Sports are competitive by definition, and it’s naïve to think rec leagues are not focused on winning just because they employ equal playing time rules.  The kids on my son’s t-ball team were constantly counting runs and trying to figure out who won the games in which no outs were recorded, everyone hit in every inning and the last kid up always hit a “home run.”  In Minors rec ball this past summer, I watched coaches try to stack their teams at the draft and, more than once, my son’s team was on the receiving end of some (expletive-deleted) bush league plays from coaches so worried about winning they resorted to tactics which would result in the next batter getting drilled at older ages.  All sports are competitive, the kids who play them want to win as do the coaches as do the parents regardless of playing time rules and the “everyone makes a team” scenario of rec leagues.

So what do travel sports bring to the party that rec sports cannot?

You want your kid to be active

The rec baseball season is 12 games plus playoffs over seven weeks.  It’s short.  It’s compact.  Travel baseball afforded my son the opportunity to play another nine weeks into the dead spot of summer when organized sports are few and far between.  Where we live there is no rec soccer after U7 so it’s either play travel or don’t play soccer.

You want your kid to improve

Every parent who volunteers to coach rec league should be applauded and thanked profusely.  But when the only prerequisite to being Coach is the ability to raise a hand, your kid’s development as an athlete is left to potluck.  Hopefully you get a coach who knows about the sport and can break it down into something a kid can absorb.  Of course, if I hear another “keep your back elbow up . . . .”

Then there’s that short, compact season again.  Players don’t get better in games.  They get better at practice.  My rec team could only find time for three practices last season with our two games per week schedule.  There wasn’t a lot of development going on there.  Of course, we could have added a third or fourth night a week for practice at which point what’s the difference between rec and travel?

There’s also the fact playing with better players speeds development.  It’s hard for a kid to get better as, say, a second baseman, when the other infielders have a 50-50 shot of fielding a grounder let alone knowing to try to get the lead runner.

You want your kid to develop some life skills

Learning how to be part of a team: Being part of a team, learning your role within it and understanding how teams work are social skills which serve a lifetime both professionally and personally.  The problem is rec teams are teams only in that the players wear the same color shirts.  By virtue of the everyone plays equal time, everyone plays every position and everyone bats in every spot in the lineup ethos (important and pivotal as it is), rec sports lack both the catalyst to drive player bonding and the reward systems which help kids learn how teams work.  Having to make the team helps immediately kick start the gelling process which is further accelerated by getting together for practices and games three to four times a week.  Coupled with the extra playing time together, it helps the kids quickly sort out the hierarchy in the team, who the better players are, who plays what positions, who the leaders are and how and when to lead and how and when to follow.  It just doesn’t happen with rec ball.

Learning how to deal with the fact not everyone is treated the same: I once heard former MLBer Art Shamsky say superstars are treated differently so you had better get used to it.  It’s a salient truth of sports and everyday life.  Have I mentioned in rec everyone is on the team because they signed up, everyone gets a shot at every position and everyone plays the same amount?  Travel sports, where the best kid plays short and bats third most the time, offer young athletes their first exposure to the fact not everyone is treated the same.  Even on my travel team, where I did my best to give innings to all the kids, the better players played more innings in the field and played more innings in key positions because they deserved it.

Learning how to work for what you want:  That reward system can help instill the “hard work” ethic.  You work hard at practice, you get opportunities to play.  Unburdened by the need to have everyone get a shot at short, I was able to reward kids who worked their tails off at practice with opportunities to play in certain positions or situations.  In rec, well, everyone got to play shortstop.

Beyond helping your kid be active, improve athletically and develop social skills, travel sports provide them the bonus of belonging to something larger, of accepting someone and being accepted simply because you share a uniform, basically of being “one of us” because you are part of the travel team.  There’s a circus in my town every July 4th.  My daughter loves the circus; my son hates it.  So while my wife and daughter where watching the acrobats and elephants last summer, my son and I went down to the field to throw the baseball around.  When we got there, several boys from the older teams in our program were playing a whiffle ball game.  My son walked over hesitantly because he knew no one and was instantly invited into the game simply because he wore the same hat.  The power of the uniform is enormous.

I understand the downsides of where travel sports are headed and perhaps already have arrived.  There are too many programs.  There are too many programs which prey on parents who are afraid little Sally is going to fall behind by calling themselves “elite”, charging a fortune and then forcing Sally to specialize in that one sport year round in order to justify the high price tag yet.  But if the objectives of youth sports are to be active, to develop athletically and to develop socially, the truth is rec leagues have almost no chance to deliver on those objectives.  Travel programs unequivocally do.  The key is choosing the right program with the right coach and philosophy for you and your child at the age and a price point which are also right for your family.  Maybe I’m lucky.  I’ve found a soccer coach who is understanding of my son missing practice because of baseball in the spring, just as I am lucky to coach in a program where I’m not forced to have the kids play year round to justify a cost.  Then again I wouldn’t be doing travel sports any other way.  I don’t think my situation is unique.  I think the benefits of travel sports are.

The Coach 15

015 The Coach 15I couldn’t be happier Thanksgiving is in the rear-view mirror.  Now I can figure out which diet I’m going on.  It’s that or get a new uniform.  There are many things no one mentions when you volunteer to coach.  Worst among them, you will become sadly out of shape.  At least in college they warn you about the Freshman 15.

Before I started coaching I did a lot of cycling.  I rode four or five times a week and raced another 20 times a year.  This past season I didn’t touch the bike.  While my lack of riding didn’t start because of coaching (I needed a break after 18 straight years of getting up at 4:00 am), coaching made it all but impossible to get back in the saddle.  I like to ride in the mornings so training doesn’t hanging over my head all day.  That’s hard to do when you don’t get to bed until the little hours on game night.

Game days were a whirlwind.  I’d get to work early as I’d have to catch the 2:38pm train home if we were to have a prayer of making the game on time.  Thus every meeting was crammed in before 2:15pm at which point I left the office at a full sprint, the two block run being the only exercise I got all summer  (don’t knock it, New York City blocks are notoriously long.)  Once home, it was double check the game charts were in my bag, the minivan still had the equipment it permanently housed (my wife loved the mud, dirt and sand which also took up residence, I’m lucky like that) and then pack, check and recheck my son’s equipment bag (yes, I’m totally clear on my enabling his laziness and lack of accountability, but this is baseball we’re talking about.  I’m sure my priorities were straight on this one.)  I happened to have a father who had panic attacks about being late so my son and I left 30 minutes earlier than the time Google Maps said it would take to get to the field that night (telling your son the coach has to be there super early to make sure he knows exactly how field plays works only so many times when you go 2-11.)

The fun really began when we got home after the game which would be 8:30pm if we played at home and closer to 9:15pm if we travelled.  First up, getting him undressed outside lest the dirt follow us inside (ok, my wife doesn’t really love the dirt.)  Then down to the basement to throw his socks in the washing machine and soak his pants (red socks which run and white baseball pants are simply not a good combination.)  Dinner time!  I had a good 15 minutes to chow down and respond to work email before it was time to put down one of the kids (to bed of course.)  Ideally, I’d be out of there by 10:00 pm at which point I could hang up the now clean socks and put everything else sans pants in the wash.  I’d grab a beer from the fridge downstairs and plop down in front of the TV with my beloved game charts.  Stats were always first (pitching followed by defense followed by offense), followed by a rotation update based on pitch limits, and then the next game’s lineup and positions.  I dreaded the positions.  It’s like juggling machetes (balance innings in the field, give everyone a chance at various positions but keep some consistency so kids weren’t bouncing all over the field inning to inning and put a competitive team out there while not showing a hint of “Daddy Ball”.)   By the time it came to positions, I was ready for beer number two which was good because it was also a reminder I needed to hang up the clean uniforms.  Now all that stood between me and unwinding was a game recap emailed to my assistant coaches along with the stats and the next game lineup and positions.  Of course it was also between 12:30am and 1:00am now.  On good nights, I was lucky not to pass out on the couch, so there was no chance I was going to get up three hours later to ride.

Lack of time, lack of sleep and late night eating and drinking; I doubt you will find a Tour de France champion with that combination of habits, though I’m guessing I’m not alone as a coach.  And truthfully, I wouldn’t change a thing (well, I’d lose 15lbs before the season.)  At least there’s some hope.  With Thanksgiving out of the way and soccer season over, I can start that diet and make the long-awaited date with my bicycle.  At least until winter baseball sessions start next month.