It’s every kid’s dream. If you played little league, it was yours too. Two outs, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, down by three. Of course, you hit the dramatic, game-winning grand slam. To borrow from Neil Diamond, except for the names and a few other changes, this story’s the same one. Except it’s not. Casey didn’t get the big hit. Casey struck out.
It’s the playoffs and we’re playing the second place team. They’ve beaten us pretty good before but tonight the boys are outplaying their opponents in every way until the bottom of the fifth. We’re up 4-1 when we implode and give up five runs. They bring in their best pitcher. A walk, a hit, an out, another walk and another out brings up my son. Two outs, last inning, bases loaded, down by two. Except for the names and a few other changes.
I give him the reminders I use with him, “telephone” to remind him to keep his hands up and “aggressive” to remind him not to let good pitches go early in the count. Then I tell him, “this at bat is like any other. You’re been hitting all year so go up there and get your licks in. Same as always.” I am telling him this so I calm down. I yell over to my third base coach to text me the results because I’ll be in the car in the parking lot. I’d be lying if I said I remember the exact sequence, but he fouls off a couple, takes a couple of balls, fouls off another and goes down on a fastball, a little up but, with the strike zones used in 8U baseball, one he has to swing at. It was a really good swing, popped the hips, swung hard, got the barrel through the zone in time with the pitch, he just missed it.
I want to go to him and hug him. I want to tell him, “I know it hurts a lot. It’s okay. It’s okay to be upset, but you didn’t lose the game. It was a great at bat and a great swing. I’m proud of you for the guts it took to go up there and have an at bat like that.” Then he throws his bat.
I want to go to him and hug him, but now I am disciplining him. He’s an emotional kid so I know he’s upset and there will be tears. I don’t like the tears, but these are little kids playing a tough game. Contrary to what Jimmy Dugan said there is crying in baseball. Lots of it. (Jeff Vrabel wrote a great piece on it .) Now I’m making him pick up his bat, walk it into the dugout and have a chat with me. When he doesn’t do it my voice goes up a level or two. He’s in no mood to listen. More water works ensue and he digs his heels in a little deeper. I’m getting angrier by the second. I’m not sure what’s most fueling it, the fact he threw his bat, the fact he is not picking it up, the fact I’ve got 11 other upset kids but there is only one causing a scene or the fact this situation has turned into a parenting moment on public display. “Who needs this?” flickers across my brain before he kicks the ground, grudgingly picks up his bat, brings it into the dugout and I give him the only warning he will receive, “It ever happens again and you will find yourself glued to the bench.” We shake hands with the other team and go out to try and give my team some perspective. He’s calm, or at least calmer, after the post-game spiel so we get an ice cream, and I finally tell him what I wanted to tell him all long.
I always held the hardest part of coaching my own kid to be Daddy Ball, the fear delusional visions of grandeur will motivate me to play my kid in spots he has no business playing in. But ability and playing time tend to take care of themselves even if parents are prone to see whatever they want to see. The more young players I’ve seen and the more I’ve heard their private coaches’ assessments, the more I’ve learned to trust my own assessments and those of my assistant coaches to guide who’s on the field when and where.
More and more, I’ve come to believe the hardest part of coaching your own kid is being a parent and finding the balance between coaching and parenting. I’ve had to cut an eight-year old. I’ve had to tell a parent they had to ease up on their kid. I’ve had to occasionally tell a parent their kid wasn’t “all that.” I might not have enjoyed doing so, but all of those were easier than disciplining my son because I was confident I was right. The blurry line between parent and coach creates an insecurity and enables clouded judgment. My son had to be disciplined no doubt. But who really made it more of a scene in the end? The moment I became the parent instead of the coach, I lost my ability to remain appropriately detached and not place expectations on my kid I wouldn’t have for the other players Or at least to deal with the situation rationally. I turned an unpleasant situation into a bad one for everyone. I would have spoken with or disciplined any player for throwing their bat. But I would have been a whole lot calmer about it if it were someone else. It’s not my kid’s fault his dad is the coach. We all know he shouldn’t benefit from it, but he shouldn’t suffer from it either.
After the season I ran into a parent who brought up the at bat. They told me how bad they felt for me and how well I handled it. “You’ve got such a passionate player and I can only imagine how much you wanted to console him.” Good job? Let’s ask my son.