It Happened in a Meaningless Game

037 It Happened In a Meaningless Rec GameIt finally happened.  It was inevitable really.  Still, I never saw it coming.  This past weekend, I found myself in the middle of a circus between umpires and coaches from both teams for the first time.   It was a rec league regular season game, no less.  Every team makes the playoffs.  If ever there was a meaningless game, this was it.

It came to a head over a bomb my best player hit and a missed base.  The particulars do not matter, and even if they did, retelling the story would serve no purpose.  There are three versions of the truth – your side, their side and what actually happened and you would only be getting my side.

What does matter to me is the whole affair has left me wondering if there really can be a cure for the woes which plague youth sports.  Did I mention it was a meaningless rec game?  And it’s left me saddened that, after everything I’ve thought about and written in the eight months I’ve been writing 8U Travel, I was not able to diffuse the situation more quickly.

It took 48 hours for my anger to subside (I could feel it boiling anew every time I started to write which is why this post is a day later than usual.)  As I’ve replayed the events in my mind a million times or so, I’ve come to realize anyone, and I mean anyone, can get caught up in a moment, especially if you feel your players are being taken advantage of.  In those moments, the best approach you can take is to step back, breathe and think, most of all think, before you speak or do anything.

It is the one thing I wish I had done differently, and believe me, I feel I did a pretty good job, trying my best to not engage the other team’s coach (which I eventually and unfortunately did) and trying to focus only on the call and rules (which is ultimately how I did resolve the situation.)  If I had simply stepped back, I would have gotten to the logical conclusion earlier and I truly believe the incident would have been over in 30 seconds.  The rule book is pretty clear after all.

Engaging the other team’s coach was the mistake I made.  I did it only once and only when I felt I was personally under attack, but I should know better.  No matter how many times he wanted to (even between innings after our at bat had ended he came back at it), I should have been smarter, knowing that in the end getting the proper call should have been my only thought and that warranted a discussion with the umpires and them only.

And it should have been a simple discussion at that really.  “What is the call? . . . If that’s the call, that’s not actually the rule so I am going to protest which as per our league rules we need resolve with a look at the rule book or call the rules commissioner to get a ruling.”  Situation over.  It should have been that easy.

But I felt put into an unwinnable situation.  If I simply acquiesced, I would be letting down my players and teaching them to back down even when you know the rules of the game are on your side.  On the other hand, was I modeling the best behavior and teaching them the best way to handle tensions and irrational emotions thrown their way?

What saddened me was the fracas took the focus away from what we should have been celebrating, the fact a nine-year-old kid hit a ball 220-plus feet, an over-the-fence homerun in any little league field with a fence.  He got his homerun in the end, which was the proper call, but not without a lot of commotion and puzzled looks from all the players on both teams.  The only positive I could take away is that I never raised my voice.

At the end of the game, I apologized to my team.  I told them it was my job to do better in those situations.  I told them the thing we should be celebrating is the win and the homerun.  And I told them I would do it all over again, albeit differently, because it was also my job to have their backs.

Step back, breathe and think.  Step back, breathe and think.


Time to Make the Lineups

036 Time to Make the LineupsIt is 11:30 p.m. on Sunday night.  Another fun, but jam-packed weekend.  A rec league baseball game, an ice skating class, and a pre-travel-team-tryouts open practice sandwiched between two soccer games are in the books.  Next week softball gets added to the mix.  I’d like to go to bed, but I finally have a free moment and with three rec games in four days next week, I am making the lineups and field positions.  Or at least trying to.

We’re only playing our third game of the season but I’m already on v13 of the lineup.  Figuring out field positions in rec league is one of the hardest coach’s duties for me.  And the one I dread the most.  Pick your pleasure – balance innings in the field and on the bench, give everyone a chance at various positions but keep the kids from bouncing all over the place like ping pong balls, rotate enough the lineup so at bats are fairly distributed, show not even the slightest hint of “Daddy Ball” or favoritism to the coaches’ kids.  Do all that while putting the kids in a position to win each time they step on the field?  It’s harder than teaching the kids baseball.

There are shortcuts available.  There are boilerplate lineup templates on the internet.  They would be so easy.  A fellow coach has just beta-launched, a lineup generator website.  At least this site has an algorithm created by someone who coaches the sport.  Still, I haven’t tried it.  We’re working with very young athletes and they deserve a little effort on my part.

The lineups are hard because, in the end, they are a judgment of whether am I staying true to the principles I espouse.  Are the kids having fun?  Are the kids improving?  Are the kids learning how a team works?  Am I doing everything I can to put them in a position to win?  A boilerplate or lineup generator can’t do that.

It’s why I am making the lineup on Sunday night.  I make it.  I stare at it.  I make some changes and stare at it some more.  I make another change or two.  I stare at it.  Then I check what the overall playing time and IF/OF opportunities for the season would be if, by some miracle, the game unfolds the way I’ve laid it out.  Then I make a couple of more tweaks and stare at it some more.

I tweak and stare until sometimes it starts to look to me like one of those posters with a 3D image hiding inside if only you could get your eyes not to focus on the poster itself.  Every now and then I do see the 3D image, but even if I can’t, the lineup as good as I will get it.  Then I send it to my fellow coaches who send me back the obvious improvements which I had no hope of seeing.

Three games in four days.  It’s going to be a long night.

Revisit: So Your Catcher Can’t Throw

Spring Break for the kids means a break for me as well so I’m revisiting one of the most popular post on 8U Travel So Your Catcher Can’t Throw.  Its intent was not to imply catchers don’t need to be strong throwers.  A couple of commenters pointed out that regardless of where Hank Conger ranks among his major league peers, he’s still one of the world’s best throwers.  Absolutely true.  Rather the purpose was to say in the grand scheme of things having a catcher who catches pitches well and blocks bad pitchers well will win you more games than the strongest throw can ever hope to (here’s another great article on what a catcher who’s a great framer means to a ball club from a sabermetric point of view.) 

 As a youth coach, it may mean rethinking what you look for in your catcher, particularly in rec ball and at the younger ages where it takes five miracles to throw a prospective base stealer out (the pitch has to not go to the backstop or the catcher has to retrieve it quickly, the catcher has to make a perfect throw, the fielder has to catch the throw, the fielder has to apply a tag all of which means the runner has to be slow or has to have had an extremely bad jump.)  Personally, at this age, I would rather have my strong throwers on the left side of the infield. 

Throughout the winter months, my son’s catching drills focused on ensuring he continued to cement his receiving fundamentals and on improving his throwing.  Each week, after his receiving drills, we focused on first improving his footwork and speed in moving from the squat to a good throwing position with particular attention on making a good transition of the ball from the glove to the throwing hand.  Then we worked on doing it and making a strong throw.  Then we worked on proper footwork to make a throw to third with a batter (we used a chair) in the right-handed hitter’s batter’s box.  If he’s to continue to develop as a catcher, he has to continue to improve at all aspects of catching.  Still, we would never work on just throwing as receiving is far more critical to his success as a youth catcher than throwing.

So Your Catcher Can’t Throw

035 Revist So You're Catcher Can't ThrowWhy the Rays Traded for a Catcher Who Can’t Throw.  The title of the 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:

Baseball Family

I034 Come On Dad 003 played my first ballgame of any sort in 24 years this past weekend.  It was everything I remembered – a mix of adrenaline, fun and a bit of fear, but mostly fun.  It helped that I had a good game (despite not wearing #13 or #23 which were unavailable,) that we had a huge last inning to cap a comeback win and that I’ve got a great bunch of teammates.

My son was begging to come watch, but with a 7:00 p.m. start on a school night and a game-time temperature of 40o with 25 mph winds discretion won out (i.e., my wife said absolutely not and rightfully so.)

One of my teammates did bring his son and the kid was great – no complaining, no getting in the way.  He pretty much just watched and soaked the game in.

That same teammate came up in the top of the last inning with runners on and us trailing by one.  As his father stepped into the box, in a voice barely above a whisper, the son said, “Come on Dad.”  It was awesome and touching, and in that moment, I desperately wished I had brought my kids.  Not for the adoration or accolades but because here was a kid’s love of baseball being further cemented by the reason this game has captured our imaginations for so long: on any given day, at any given moment, our hero might do something magical.  The essence of our love affair with baseball in plain sight, worn on a kid’s sleeves.

Melodramatic?  Maybe.  After all, the kid is still in that phase of life where his dad is a superhero to be idolized and worshipped.  And the kid is clearly hooked on baseball.  Why else would he have been so well behaved throughout it all, especially considering it was a softball game between two teams of middle-aged, tending towards out of shape men reliving their youths on a cold night in April?

But here’s what struck me.  For we baseball families, isn’t this why we teach them the game and all its history and then spend countless hours watching major league baseball with them?  So that they too will come to love this game.  So that they will get chills down their spine when they watch whatever great, unimaginable, unbelievable play unfold in front of them, their version of Nettles in Game 3 or BamTino and “Mr. November” or Jeter being in a place he has no business being to make “The Flip”.  So that they will come to believe magic really can happen.

Isn’t this why we race down to the field every time they ask, not as coaches, but as parents, to throw them 100 batting practice pitches and why we throw ball after ball after ball to them until they learn to catch one across their body?  So that they might have the chance to experience being the hero themselves, at whatever level they top out at, t-ball or rec league or the pros.  So that they come to believe anything really is possible, on or off the field, if they put their minds to it and work their tails off.

Isn’t this why baseball survives despite all the rumors of its imminent demise as a boring and outdated sport?  Doesn’t it hold sway over us because it brings us back to our childhoods when a ball and a broom handle were all you needed to pass those glorious summer months off from school imagining ourselves to be our heroes?  And isn’t it why we pass down its lore until it becomes part of what binds one generation to the next and the one after it?  Isn’t it how my father lives on when my son says, “I’m a catcher just like Grandpa was” though Grandpa died long before my son got a chance to meet him?

“. . . They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.  And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.  People will come Ray.  The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray.  It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. . . .” – Terrance Mann, Field of Dreams

As I’ve thought about the kid, I’ve thought about everything which led to the moment, a journey five years in the making, back to the day of the rec league parade in my son’s first year of t-ball when I found myself standing in the same spot I would be if I were playing first base with a view of home plate I hadn’t seen in a very long time.  Too long a time.  It led me to decide to coach which led me to want to play again.  Then again the journey really started when I was 16 months old and my father put a bat in my hand and then spent all those hours teaching me how to play.  And then again didn’t it really start a lifetime before that for my father had to fall in love with the game and all its majesty in the first place?

Next weekend is game two and my kids won’t miss this one.  We’re a baseball family.

It’s so much better when you hear James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann . . .