A Little Faith Restored

041 A Little Faith RestoredMy son’s team played a game this past weekend which reminded me why it has always been important to me my children play team sports.  It wasn’t the result (they won) or how my son played (not his best game) or how the game unfolded (a tight battle until they slowly pulled away).  It was the fact the adults got out of the way and let the kids play.  And play they did.

The pitchers pitched.  Not pitches resembling something out of arc league softball but actual pitches.  And while there were lots of strikeouts, a funny thing happened with the better pitching.  Kids on both teams swung the bat and made more contact than we’ve seen all year long.

And then they made plays.  Not all the plays, they’re only nine-years-old after all, but a lot of plays.  Their third baseman made an over-the-shoulder backhand grab on the edge of the outfield of a ball my son hit with the bases loaded and two-out which would have blown the game wide open.  And another kid on their team dropped a pop-up but still had the wherewithal to pick it up and throw it to second to get the runner who was on first.  And we made plays – a two-out bases loaded come backer to get of a jam and a 5-to-4 get the lead runner play to shut down another inning.

And when the potential for controversy reared its ugly head when our first baseman dropped a ball thrown to him after making a great stretch which the umpire missed, it was over before it could even start when the opposing coach yelled out “nice play!”  Hats off to him.

In winning, my son’s team clinched first place for the regular season and to watch them emulate their heroes with the pitcher and catcher jumping into each other’s arms to celebrate and then quickly stop and lineup to shake hands was to be reminded about all that is good about youth sports.  Because isn’t one of the things we cherish about them playing is that it teaches our children about winning and losing and how to handle both.

The other coach is a good friend who played baseball in college.  We often discuss the crazy things we’ve seen this year and debate whether having played in college provides a perspective that makes it a bit easier to remember they’re just little kids playing a game.  The thing we always agree on is knowing the game is pivotal as a coach.

I knew he wouldn’t react to the out call on the dropped ball at first.  And I knew that meant that the coaches could get out of the kids’ way.

To paraphrase Skip, they threw the ball, they hit the ball and they caught the ball.  The game was a pleasure to coach and an even greater joy to watch.  It’s amazing what can happen the kids are just left to play ball.

Know the Rules

040 Know the RulesI am done with rec baseball.  I love my players, and how I do love this great game, the greatest game, of baseball.  But much like the shine of a new baseball is dulled by Lena Blackburne mud, this season has made going to games something I dread.  A general lack of knowledge of the rules invariably leads to misinterpretation which invariably leads to one team thinking the other is taking advantage which invariably leads to tension which invariably leads to escalated episodes.  And it’s all [expletive deleted] nonsense.

What I want to be thinking about tonight is all the hard work my son has put in and the minor adjustments he’s made to his swing over the last week to get out of his hitting funk, hitting buckets of balls, hitting off the tee and soft toss.  What I want to be thinking about tonight is that hard work paying off when he turned on an inside pitch and launched one, his first legitimate homerun and a grand slam that put us up for good at that.

These are the moments I coach for and, let’s face it, I coach for me and what I get out of it even if I’d like to believe I do it for the kids and to teach them the game.  These golden moments are what my players give to me.  It’s why I was high-fiving my travel ball player who was playing for the other team last night after he made two ridiculous catches against us, one of a ball of the bat of my son, because I couldn’t be happier for my travel ball player or prouder of him.

Instead, I am thinking about the play that ended the game, a game that was already over because of the league’s inning-run limit rules, and the episode that followed.

Again the particulars do not matter other than it involved a coach sending a runner, in what amounts to an attempted steal, in a situation where our league rules clearly state it is not allowed and the runner being tagged out on his way back to the base.

So to be yelled at, called an [expletive deleted] and told I’m not teaching sportsmanship . . .

Ten games into a twelve game season, everyone should know the rules.

The best advice I ever received when I started coaching was to know the rules, especially the local league rules.  If you are a coach, you owe it to yourself, to your players and to the other coaches to know the rules.  When you don’t, you cause conflict, emphasis on you, with other coaches and you set the worst possible example for the kids.

Know the rules.

We Don’t Do Social

039_We Don't Do SocialI don’t post game results or highlights on Facebook.  I don’t tweet them either.  I keep stats manually because I think they’re an invaluable tool for any coach, but I don’t use an online app to keep my book.  I never share the stats with the players or their parents.  I think TeamSnap and the like are fantastic for organization, but I will never stream a game.

I’m not technology-adverse.  I’m a CTO in my day job.  I simply believe in the incessant posting and streaming, we are getting it wrong.  We are putting the focus squarely on the outcome and forgetting the journey is what it important.

I won’t stream games because to me the beauty of youth sports as a parent is watching your child experience everything that comes with playing the game.  “Watching” the game as a series of blips on a screen puts all the emphasis on where the blip ends up.  Suddenly it is becomes really important the blip ends up on the other side of the fence and not as a backwards K when the reality is neither really matters at this age.  I recognize not everyone can juggle schedules and be there and there is no judgment or condemnation here.  A blip on my screen isn’t a substitute though.

I also won’t stream games because of the stats-myopia it encourages.  The stats are meaningless.  No one should care what Dante’s batting average is or how many doubles he’s hit or how many RBI he has.  The stats are important to me because they are a confirmation or refutation of what I believe I am seeing on the field and in practice.  And I don’t look at any batting average or doubles or RBIs to inform my thoughts.  I don’t want the kids obsessing over them and I don’t want the parents obsessing over them because what really matters is Dante getting better.  Is he swinging the bat better than he did before?  Is he making contact better than he did before?  Is he hitting the ball harder than he did before?

I won’t post to Facebook about our games or our team because there’s a kid on the other end of every post with the ubiquitous video about some 9U pitcher blowing it by the hitter.  Do we post a video when that same hitter tattoos the ball the next time up?

And I won’t tweet because no kid deserves to be publically shamed no matter what the offense.

He’s a twelve-year-old kid who made a mistake, a bad mistake, but the only people who should know or care are his coach, the opposing coach, the umpires and his parents.  The rest of us should even know it ever happened.  Yet we do.

And I won’t post to Facebook or tweet because what does “the best 9U team” or the fact you won the “XYX 9U tournament” or that your kid did X really mean (and on occasion I’ve been guilty of that last one which I have promised myself to never do again)?  So did 100,000 other teams and kids on that same exact day and time just in a different place.

I feel bad when I mention my son on this blog.  He didn’t ask or consent to be showcased for better or for worse.  He simply said, “I want to play baseball.”  It’s not his fault his old man has stumbled and bumbled blindly into the teeter-totter world of youth baseball.  It’s also why I will never use anyone’s name, kid, coach, umpire or otherwise.

In our need to show our “friends” and “followers” how great our kid is, and by extension, I assume how good we are as well, we have forgotten the fact the vast majority of our kids will only play for an ever-so-limited time that does not include college let alone being paid to play.  We’ve forgotten their enjoyment is paramount, their accomplishments now matter not one iota other than for the joy and pride those accomplishments bring to them, emphasis on them, and if they want to keep on enjoying playing this game, their improvement from one day to the next is what we should be worried about.

I understand it.  When I am coaching my daughter’s t-ball softball and have to miss my son’s rec game, I wish someone was streaming it and I wish my fellow coaches on my son’s team would text me periodically with the score and what my son has done.  But then I think about the conversation he and I are going to have when I get home, about how Timmy did this, and my son did this and the umpire made this call and then my son did this.  And I’ll listen intently and picture it all in my mind and know, no matter what he did, hero or goat, he’ll need a hug and for me to tell him I love him and an affirmation that “it sounds like an amazing game.  I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to watch you play tonight.  I’ll be there next game.”

You Have to Smile

038 You Have to SmileA little over half-way through the Minors rec season, here are a couple of things which have made me chuckle.

The Mound

“The mound is off-center.”  I look up to see all the other coaches huddled around the mound in the middle of the bottom half of the second.  We’re at bat.

Our fields have artificial mounds so we can change field dimensions between 46/60, 50/60 and softball as necessary.  The problem is the mounds weigh 8,000 lbs give or take a pound so precision placement is a hope more than anything else.

I take a look from behind the mound.  It is off center . . . by maybe an inch.  I feel compelled to remind everyone that given our mounds, we will most likely spend more time trying to get it perfect than we have to play the rest of the game, but move the mound we do.  Then the back is not lined up perfectly to second base . . . by maybe a half-inch.  Making sure I am out of earshot of any player, I gently say “Totally agree it stinks we don’t have better fields.  I’m not so sure the fact the mound was a quarter-inch to the right is why the pitcher is hitting the top of the backstop.”

The Catcher’s Glove

My son has a brand new set of catcher’s gear which no one else is allowed to use.  Same goes for his catcher’s mitt.  Those are my rules.  Say whatever you like, but there is a rationale.  Last travel season when everyone used his old gear, every time he went to put it on, it fit like an outfit picked up at a rag tag sale.  His new set is set up perfectly for him.  And I was taught, your glove is your glove.  Treat it well and respect it.

I bring his old gear to games as well which also has catcher’s glove so there’s always gear for anyone who catches.

An opposing coach asks if we have a glove a catcher can borrow.  I flip him the team glove.  After the half-inning, I have to go and ask him for the glove back.  Repeat process in the next inning.  So in the third, I remind him before I give it to him that I would like it back after the inning.  I don’t get it back because he is warming up his next pitcher with it.  Let me write that again.  He is warming up a 9-year-old pitcher with a catcher’s glove – and a kid’s glove with the smaller finger stalls at that.  Later I learned he had an issue with having to “share” a catcher’s glove because we had more than one.

Mound Visits

Eight mound visits in four innings; three in the first inning alone (our league allows three visits in the Minors during the month of April).  I’m not sure there are three things you could tell a nine-year-old who is struggling with location during a game period, let alone that require three separate visits.

Catcher Mound Visits

In the same game, the catcher must have gone out to the mound another four times.  They probably had a mix-up on the signs they were using.  “One means fastball.  Two means fastball.  Three means fastball.”

During a game last travel season, my catcher started to go out to the mound after my pitcher threw a three pitch strikeout.  Before he took his second step, he got this from me, “Hey, what could you possibly have to say to him right now?”  He just threw three strikes.  I’ll worry about him.  You go back behind the plate and worry about catching the pitches.”

No Cheering

The other team is cheering as my pitcher starts his delivery on the first pitch of the first inning.  He’s shaking his head “no” the whole time.  I won’t say I knew what was coming next, but I knew he didn’t like the cheering.  He gets the ball back from the catcher and asks the umpire to tell the other team to stop cheering when he comes set which the umpire does.  The other coaches stare at me with the “what the [expletive deleted]?” look.  Technically, my pitcher is correct.  It’s a rule in our league.  And while I don’t agree with the rule, good for him for standing up and saying something.

Team Meetings

I always have a short post-game meeting.  I think it’s important the kids hear from the coaches after a game and we have to give out the game ball.  I usually hold it in the outfield so the kids aren’t fussing with the gear.  But on Saturdays, when games are stacked back-to-back every two hours, the first thing we do is clear out of the dugout.

So I did interrupt another team’s coach delivering the Gettysburg address to his team while their gear was still strewn across the dugout like a tornado ran through.  Our game was already past its start time and there were another two games on the docket behind outs.  Interruption #1 didn’t seem to do much, so I interrupted again.  Maybe I was being an [expletive deleted].  Maybe not.  But I don’t think it’s too hard to be cognizant of our surroundings and the impact of our actions particularly when we’re talking about baseball for nine-year-olds.

Seven games into what promises to be a 30-plus game year between rec and travel.  No doubt, I’ll be smiling some more.