The Once and Future . . .

046-the-once-and-futureWhen I started 8U Travel it was meant to be an outlet as I rediscovered baseball through the eyes of my son and as I gained an understanding of what my old man experienced and a backdrop for his behavior when I was a young ballplayer.

What I “discovered” was a world where the kids, you know, the ones actually playing, are secondary to the needs and power trips of the adults.  We all see the headlines every day, everywhere in every youth sport.  And so 8U Travel often turned to attempts to wrap my head around that.

The more I wrote though, the more I came to see there were three undeniable truths which made the writing feel pointless.

It’s Truly Hopeless

We like to believe the crazy behavior we see on the sidelines of our kids’ games is something that has been born out of the explosion of the club/travel scene.  We like to “remember” how much better it was when we were little leaguers.  Well, the nostalgia has fogged our memories.  The behavior has been going on since someone first got the idea to take kids games from the sandlot and organize them.

It’s 1979 and I am ten years old.  It’s my second year in kid-pitched, organized baseball, and I play for the Gold team.  My dad is a coach, we are the best team in the league and I am the best player in the league (I’m not being conceited – I was, but as I’ve said repeatedly being the best at ten means just that and nothing more.  I would have much rather have been the best when I got to college.)  The next best team is the Orange team.  There has been some sort of feud between the coaches since the season began though, at ten, it’s beyond my grasp.  It’s a playoff game and I am pitching and, it being 37 years ago, I cannot remember the details other than there is a play at the plate and I am covering the plate and I get barreled over.  Perfectly legal play, but I can’t breathe.  The wind has been knocked out of me.  I have no idea what is happening and I’m scared.  As my dad is rushing over to me, the opposing coach yells out “We got him!  We got him!”

An isolated incident in a meaningless game in the long history of youth sports?  It would be nice to believe so, but who are we kidding?

It’s the adults.  It always has been.  And the behavior of some has always been atrocious.  We just didn’t have the internet or social media or mobile phones, let alone mobile phones which are mini-supercomputers, to publicize the lunacy.  So we can tweet about it and blog about it as if it’s all new, but it’s been going on forever and it always will.  I ended up going to school with that coach’s kid the next year and we got along famously.

So sure I could have written about the tournament game in which coaches were jumping all over the umpire on every pitch that wasn’t called their way or the four of them who came out to argue with that lone umpire a call on a tag-play at second base or their parent in the stands who berated the umpire in a game we were winning by 15 runs.

But to what end?

As for the fact we’ve gone over the top with “elite” travel t-ball teams and playing 600 games a year.  I don’t agree with so many aspects of it, but it’s hard to deny there are some benefits.  Giving kids a chance to play into the summer as opposed to the “April, May and see you next April approach” is always going to help kids improve.  Moreover, travel-mania is here to stay.  You just have to figure out how best to navigate it and not get caught up in the hype – your ten-year-old doesn’t have to play baseball year-round to “succeed.”

Fast Path to Pariah

As much as I remove names and specifics and anything else I think might give a hint as to the identity of anyone or the location of the events, it’s not too hard for anyone close by to decipher the what, where, when or the who.  I live in a “small town” when it comes to baseball.

046 The Once and Future.pngIt was all too clear I would be calling out more and more people and putting out an even greater “air of superiority” (basically a “my [expletive-deleted] don’t stink” inference) the more I wrote.  I am going to see those very same folks for years to come, our kids are going to interact and I am likely to coach their kids at some point.

There was a post back in the spring which I edited down to the point where it became fairly meaningless as far as I was concerned.  But my wife and a friend a trust both kept telling me the original draft was too much.  Knowing they were right didn’t make it taste any better, but I still don’t like it.

So I could have written about the sublimely comical time an opposing parent told a parent of a player on my son’s rec team before our game, “We know what you do.  We’ve scouted you.  We know you bring Johnson in to pitch the last two innings.”  Leaving “scouting” 9U rec teams alone, Johnson faced 75 batters over the course of the season, getting 72 outs on 71 strikeouts.  Coaching isn’t exactly rocket science when he’s on your team.  But anyone in our “baseball family” could easily discern who Johnson is and which game I’m talking about and instantly know the backdrop.

I’m No Different

Mamma bears protect their young fiercely.  I’m no different.  I am going to do everything I can for my kids and everything I can for my players.  And I’m going to react if I think someone is pushing them around.  I think the same things any parent or coach thinks when there is a bad call or I feel like someone is taking advantage of them.

I think it is insane to spend anything north of $100 on a bat let alone $280 for a Mako, yet there is a Mako on its way to my house as I write this.  I got it cheap enough for sure, but it’s still a Mako when I sincerely believe a kid who can really hit can hit with a broom handle.  The bat doesn’t make a difference and if it does the kid isn’t that good a hitter to start with.

When I coach, I am going to use every inch of the rule book bound only by what I believe is fair play for the age level.

In a rec game, an opposing third base coach sent his runner home on an overthrow on a steal of third which is not allowed by our league rules.  As the runner was slowly making his way back to third, I had my shortstop tag him.  The umpire called the runner out, game-over and that set off the aforementioned post-game incident which I watered down when I wrote about it.

I’ve thought about that play a lot in the intervening time and whether I did the right thing.  And every time I ended with the same conclusion: I would do it exactly the same way if we did it another 1 million times.

So I’m no different than anyone else though perhaps I’m a bit better at keeping my mouth shut.

And the point?  The point is it’s been a huge drag knowing I am only going to continue to witness and to have to deal with the insanity of youth sports as my kids continue their journey wherever it make take them and for however long they can or choose to stay on the ride.  But it’s also been a drag not writing about it.  So despite knowing it’s a losing battle and knowing it’s a battle I have to not lose within myself, it’s time to start writing again.  After all, just because it’s been going on forever doesn’t make the world in youth-sports-ville any less surreal.

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Do We Play Too Many Games?

The folks at TeamSnap posted an article I wrote for them on the TeamSnap blog: 

045 Baseball-Pitcher.web_My son’s baseball team, which I coach, just wrapped up a summer travel season in which they played 19 games over eight weeks—really seven if you consider the five-day moratorium over the Fourth of July holiday. 

During that same span, we only managed eight practices. Do the math. It’s too many games and far too few practices.  Sure, games are important. They’re important because kids have fun playing, because practice has to be building towards something and because kids learn a lot from executing under pressure.

But young athletes do not get better by playing games. They get better by practicing. 

Click here to continue reading on the TeamSnap blog.

Back to 8U Travel

044 Back to 8U BaseballThis is my first blog in quite some time, though that is not the reason for the title.  Upon the conclusion of an enjoyable baseball season coaching my son’s team (seasons if you count rec ball and the ensuing travel season), my daughter declared she wanted to try out for the travel softball team.

With her having only played t-ball where fielding is done as a scrum and no one makes an out, she and I did what I imagine everyone would do in the same situation.  We practiced when we got up and we practiced when I got home from work.  We threw, we caught, and we hit and then we did it all again.

She got a-whole-lot better over the two weeks though in the end there were enough girls to form two teams.  Two teams means two coaches.  I’m the newly minted head coach of a girls fall travel softball team.  I’m headed back to 8U ball and thus the title of this post.  I do so with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.

On the plus side, I get to coach my daughter (yes, I coached her t-ball team, but really that’s not as much coaching as it is herding cats.)  If it’s anything like coaching my son, it will be an amazing experience for me.  Hopefully for her too.  And this is coaching actual games, with outs and defense albeit coach-pitch but still . . . And it’s coaching girls who want to play, who asked to play and tryout.  The teaching is always easier when the pupils want to be there.

But there’s a catch with going back to the 8U level.  One that has me worried.  One of the more enjoyable aspects of coaching the 9U baseball team was not having to teach the rudiments of the game.  With a year of travel baseball and a second rec season under their belts, the boys had a foundation upon which I could introduce more concepts and plays.

As an example, I installed a bunt defense this season.  It was a simple one, designed with as few moving parts as a bunt defense can have while keeping the bases loaded.  We used it once until the final game of the season, it happened to be the championship game, in which the opposing coach bunted against four times (including leading off the last inning) trying to take advantage. (I’ve always been clear on my disdain of bunting at this age level).  My boys nailed it three times of the four, only an error at first kept them from a perfect record.  It was one of those moments I will never forget as “the coach”, as much for the statement it made to the other coach (at least in my mind) as for how proud I was of my kids.

Now, with the 8U girls, it’s back to the basics, especially with a group who has mostly played only t-ball before this.  There won’t be any bunt defenses to install.  And that worries me.  Having advanced beyond the simple stuff once, will I have the patience to start all over again?  Will I have still the ability to break down the game into understandable, bite-size chunks?  Will I be able to hold the attention of eight year old and seven year old girls to not make it boring?  Will it be boring for me?

Frankly, I found coaching t-ball this past rec season tedious, almost as tedious as my daughter found playing it.  And I think that’s what scares me the most.  In some ways, the pressure is no different than pressures I feel coaching any team; am I doing enough to help the players improve, help them have fun and put them in a position to win some ballgames?  Yet the real difference is me and starting from scratch and whether I have the patience to truly teach the game, every aspect of the game.

Can you ever go back?  I don’t know, but I am about to find out.

Too Much Baseball

043 Too Much BaseballI’m not sure there is such a thing, but it sure feels like I’ve hit it over the past week and a half.  At a minimum there has been enough baseball to keep me from having time to write a post last week and just enough time to write this excuse this week.

The weeks have gone something along the lines of three rec playoff games last week including the championship game on Friday night, followed by a travel practice on Saturday morning, followed by the rec All-Star game on Sunday morning (not sure a 9U All-Star game makes a lot of sense, but we had one so we coach), followed by a travel team practice Tuesday ahead of our season opener last night (Wednesday) which is followed by games today (Thursday) and our Cal Ripken District opener on Saturday.  And of course we have a practice on Sunday because we have two weeknight games next week and two more CRT games on the weekend.

The only question I have will all of these games is when do we expect the players to get better?  Because it isn’t happening in the games and all the games leave little time for practice.  And I won’t turn baseball into a five- or six-night-a-week job for 9-year-olds.

We’re in the league for the first time this season, but afterwards, I’ll sit down and think about what’s best and if there is an alternative to 12 games over 6 weeks.  It’s too much baseball even for me.

The Rules Really Do Matter

042 The Rules Really Do Matter 001A team in Majors 60, the next division up in our rec league, was short players and my son and another player from my rec team were asked to fill in.  We met the head coach, and he and all the coaches (I went to college with one of the assistants and it was only 25 years later we found out we live in the same town) were exceptionally nice and treated the two younger boys extremely well.  I set up shop deep along the left-field line figuring I might enjoy a game in which I could just sit back and watch my son play baseball.

The boys played well enough and were on second and third with one out when a player from their host-team hit a pop-up to short.  My immediate thought after the umpire yelled “infield fly” was, “This is going to be interesting.”  I knew the two younger players had no clue about what happens on an infield fly other than perhaps knowing the batter was out.

On cue, the shortstop missed the pop-up and the two boys took off for home and third, both reaching safely in the way that can only happen in a game of young players still learning baseball (my son was perhaps three feet from the shortstop and standing on second when he made his mad dash for third.)

“No harm.  No foul,” I thought, only to hear someone yell to the catcher, who had the ball, to touch third base.  When he did, the umpire called my other minors player, who had scored, out.  There was a brief discussion among the coaches and the call stood.

042 The Rules Really Do Matter 002

My view for the night.  First time it’s not been from on the field.  Can’t say I like it, but the host coaches were great.

Every nerve in my body save one was compelling me to get up and make sure my son’s host-coaches understood the rule.  The one nerve won out.  Then a parent walked over two other parents I was sitting by and explained the call was the kid hadn’t tagged up as per the rule.  I simply asked, “How do you tag up on a ball that wasn’t caught?”

In between innings I strolled over to my classmate and the head coach to say the ump didn’t get the call right, but I thought they had handled it beautifully.  Though the game got out of hand later, it was a close game at that point and they handled it without a fuss.

I’d like to believe I would have handled it with the aplomb they did.  Hats off and all my respect to them.

I’d also like to think I would have made sure the call was reversed – I cannot stress enough this is in no way a knock on my son’s host coaches.

I would have wanted the correct call made not so much because of the possibility of a win (though I’ve always been clear I believe it is the coach’s job to put the players in the best possible situation to win and that means coaching to your best ability in all situations) but because it was another valuable teaching moment lost in a season where I’ve seen too many lost already.  In the aftermath of the blown call, there are at least two young ball players who were involved in the play still with no clue about the infield fly rule and while I don’t know about the Majors players, I’d guess quite a few of them are in the same boat.  You also have a young umpire (our rec league uses umps as young as 13) who does not understand the rule.  Worse still, the same group believes they now know the infield fly rule.  Unfortunately, what they “know” is incorrect.

While we were getting an ice cream after the game, I asked my son what happens on an infield fly.  His response, which included something about tagging up, made it clear he really didn’t know anything other than the batter is out.  I told him that was on me because I hadn’t taught it to him yet.

We have a travel team practice tonight.  I’ll be teaching the infield fly rule.