Score One For Club Baseball

IndoorBaseballRecently, I had the fortune of observing an indoor practice of a Division 1 college baseball team. While I would have been happy just watching the simulated game they were playing in the cages, I found the uninterrupted 45-minute Q&A with the head coach quite interesting.

He had a wrinkle on the one-pitch hitting drill which I will incorporate this season.  Instead of each pitch being live, you put a runner or runners on and the batter gets three swings; the first is live for the defense and the runner(s), the second is a straight-forward BP swing and the third is live for everyone including the batter. It’s tailor made for the smaller roster sizes in youth baseball/softball.

He described their running philosophy. The runners are taught to keep going until they are stopped by a base coach. I knew I’d be using that as soon as he said it as it keeps the runners aggressive and decisive by eliminating the need to think along with the coach.

He likes hitting heavy balls (I don’t because I think it tends to make younger kids fly open in an effort to drive the ball) and he also said he would always take a catcher who was a better receiver over one who had a cannon for an arm something I came to believe early on. (I’ve written about it here).

The most intriguing part came when someone asked him what kids entering the program lacked. Base running and the ability to play off the ball were the answers. And then he said something along the lines of “The kids don’t play enough. They’re all better technically than we were back when we played. But they lack game sense. But they don’t know what to do when ball isn’t hit to them. I know what many people think about club baseball, with the number of club teams out there now. But I like club baseball. They need to play more games. They play more games when they play club ball.” I’m not sure what the reaction in the room was given he was speaking to a group of town rec and travel coaches.

My reaction was a bit “aha” and relief mixed in one. You hear so much about practice reigning supreme for development, and I had always been in that camp. That started to change last year, when I had a team play in a spring league and saw how much better the kids who played in the spring did when we got to the summer. This year, when my town program wouldn’t get behind a town team in a spring travel league, I had my son tryout for some club teams specifically so he could get more game time.

Am I putting my kid on a club team because I think he’s going to play in college? He’s 11-years-old; I don’t even know if he’s going to play next year, let alone high school or college. But he loves to play and compete and he got a lot better last year playing more than he had ever before. And his club will give him the opportunity to do that again.

We can denounce club teams all we want. They start too young, there are too many of them, they’re just interested in your money, etc. But when a college coach says he likes club ball, it’s worth taking note. Score one for the club teams.

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When It Really Was Just a Game

Take a close look at the picture below.  Closer.  I’m the batter.  It’s from a game played in 1981.  It might as well be a picture from the baseball’s Dead Ball Era compared to what we see today.

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What struck me immediately was that I’m not wearing a helmet.  Then I remembered the catchers didn’t wear any equipment other than a face mark.  Though the ball we played with was rubber ball which is what they used in Japan (we were playing a team from Tokyo), it was still a hard ball so I don’t know how we got away without wearing any equipment.  What really got me laughing though was the umpire.  He looks like he  came off the set of The Richard Simmons’ Show.

This wasn’t some minor little baseball game out in the back of beyond.  The game was played in Central Park.  It was the opening game of the Nanshiki Baseball Games, a.k.a., the Friendship Series, five games played across the five boroughs that pitted a team of 11- and 12-year-old all-stars from New York City against a team of all-stars from Tokyo.  There was news coverage – John Tesh, he started out as a TV news sports reporter, gave me two of my 15 minutes of fame when he interviewed me for the nightly news  – and some congressman made sure we were mentioned in the Congressional Record.  You’d never know it from the picture though.

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With NYC Mayor Ed Koch at Gracie Mansion

Today we seem to get rankled if there aren’t two umpires with 15 certification badges on their uniforms at an 8U tournament game or if the field isn’t in pristine condition or there are no batting cages.  Every kid has their own bat, two usually, batting gloves, an infield glove, an outfield glove and a first baseman’s mitt.  My kids are no exception.

I’m not saying it was better in 1981 and I’m certainly not intending to minimize youth sports injuries.  It’s a little nuts they let us bat without helmets, rubber ball or not.  But when we treat the players like mini-major leaguers and we expect the fields to be mini-major league stadiums and we expect the umpires to be major-league umpires, we start looking at the games like they are the World Series.  We lose sight of the fact the games really don’t matter.  Worse, we start to teach the kids the trappings are important rather than “just go out and play.”  Second game of our summer season.  As the visitors stroll in to our admittedly horrible fields, one of the kids turns to a teammate and says, “These dugouts don’t even have roofs.”

Sure, we took the games seriously and our coaches coached hard and they coached to win.  But take another look at the photo.  No one is asking the people behind the plate to move as if somehow they will have an effect on the game.  The bat I’m using was one of four we had for the entire team, and in a million years I never would have thought of asking my parents for batting gloves.  And then there’s that umpire who I can’t help but think was fished out of the stands.

None of it detracted from the game or made us play any differently or made a difference in the game itself – we won though the series ended 2-2-1.  It was the most fitting outcome, and one I couldn’t imagine being allowed to happen today.

Teammates

Beacon Jewelers Little League, Spring 2016. - Photo by Schram“Batting 4th, #13!”

A simple comment which brought with it a flood of memories of games and escapades long gone.  It was social media response from a high school teammate to birthday wishes I had sent him.  I had used his nickname from when we played together.  In the intervening years, I’ve neither spoken with him nor seen him, and if not for social media’s having made the world tremendously small, I doubt I would have had reason to think of him (I’m sure the reverse is true.)  Yet 30 years later, we still remember each other by things ascribed to us on a ballfield.

When you stop playing the meaningful games, not the adult, beer can stuff, but games you believe are important at a time when the majority of your years are still ahead of you, no one tells you it is the last time you’ll truly be part of a team.  It’s the last time you’ll ever being willing to go through a wall for another person simply because they wear the same jersey you do.  I’m sure in some walks of life the team is the single most defining element, but for the majority of us, nothing will ever approximate the feeling of being a teammate.  It hit me hard when I started my first job out of college.  My colleagues and I worked hard together and had lots fun, but at the end of the day we went our separate ways.  We didn’t share the same experiences and “live” in the back of a bus the way teammates do, so how could I have really thought it would be the same?

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When I look back over my son’s travel seasons and my daughter’s just completed first softball season, I’ll always remember their accomplishments and feats, both the good and the not-so-good.  But what seems to always come front and center are the moments they first started connecting with another kid as a teammate, those precious moments in which what any one player did didn’t matter, but what they did collectively surely meant the world.  They probably don’t even recognize it yet because they are at the stage where the games are important to them and they have so many more moments ahead of them.  But this is where it starts.

It’s the championship game of our summer league playoffs.  It’s clear during my pregame spiel (I gave them the Herb Brooks’ “Not this game.  Not tonight” speech) they are nervous.  My son is nervous as he’s getting ready to hit.  Sensing it, his teammate, a nine-year-old kid, pulls him over and says “You’ve been doing it for us all year long.  You can do it.”  It loosens my son up immediately and though neither of them know I’ve heard their exchange, I know coaching these boys has been worth every minute and all the effort.

Sports transcend the playing field.  That’s a simple truth, and if you don’t know that you’ve never played.  It’s a powerful feeling to belong to something bigger than you just as it’s a powerful lesson to figure out how to get along regardless of your feelings for the individual occupying the uniform.  I don’t like every guy I ever played with, but I’d sit down and have a drink with any one of them any time.  The bonds you make with your teammates are as eternal as they are strong.

I can’t think of a better reason for my kids to play team sports.

Will We Ever Put Development Ahead of Games?

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(c) Liz Zenobi Photography

No sooner had the folks at TeamSnap posted “Do We Play Too Many Games?”, an article I wrote about the erosion of player development as youth sports schedules are increasingly loaded with games, than I received my daughter’s 8U fall travel softball schedule.  In an eight-game season, seven games where packed into the first 15 days.

We play in a self-billed developmental league, but I’m not really sure anyone really knows what that word means.

DEVELOPMENTAL

1 a:  of, relating to, or being development; broadly:  experimental 2   b:  serving economic development

2:  designed to assist growth or bring about improvement (as of a skill)

Source: Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary

I was able to reschedule one doubleheader, though doing so was torture.   Upon settling on a date and time with the coach of one of the teams who also didn’t want to play a doubleheader, I contacted the league to let them know.  After agreeing to pay the umpire (though the umpires are paid for by the league and I wasn’t adding a game I was just moving a game I figured it was easier to agree to pay) and supply game balls (also included in the league fee), I found with these gems in the final email from the league “allowing” the game to be moved:

“Double-headers at the 8U level are the norm, not the exception. . . . Just wanted to make sure you were aware of all the angles.”

Angles?  It’s an 8U fall softball game, not game seven of the World Series.  No one is losing TV or advertising revenue, but some seven- and eight-year-old girls playing coach-pitch softball for the first time just might have a better experience and not come to think of softball as a nonstop chore.

The real issue is the thinking that doubleheaders make sense at the 8U level in the first place.  The trend of jamming game upon game into the schedules of even the kids just starting out is troublesome.  Players get better at practice not in games.  You have to play games because they are fun and there has to be a carrot for the practices.   But in a game, particularly a coach-pitched 8U softball game, a player might get to the plate four times.  What’s that going to amount to, seven swings?  If she’s lucky she’ll have two balls hit her way in the field.  That’s simply not enough “touches.”  Plus, games are not an occasion in which you can really stop and teach or make real corrections.

Leagues and programs need to understand the need for a tiered schedule.  Not every age group needs to play the same number of games.  The younger they are, the fewer games they need.

Parents need to recognize they are putting their kids on the fast track to burnout if the kids’ first taste of a sport is playing four to five days a week.  Sometimes less is more.

We made it through our schedule, which, if not for one rescheduled game, would have included an 11 day stretch between games seven and eight.  Then we waited 14 days after our last game for the playoffs to begin.

Are Travel Teams Right for Your Young Athlete?

The folks at TeamSnap published an article I wrote for them on the TeamSnap blog.

It’s a question that swirls around in parents’ heads the way midges swirl around the pitcher’s mound at Progressive Field. In today’s manic, ultra-competitive youth sports culture, some parents fear their children will fall behind if they don’t play on a travel team.

Soccer Ball ParentsOf course, there are no have-to’s or cookie cutter approaches to youth sports. So, no. Your child doesn’t have to play travel.

But the reality is if your child has enough talent and has the desire (their desire, not yours) to play beyond recreational leagues, travel sports are in their future.

Click here to continue reading on the TeamSnap blog.