Sports fanatics and casual fans have all been there – critiquing coaches and players.
I now return to one of my primary blogging objectives, trying to get over some unresolved anguish experienced in my parenting and coaching athletic experiences. Admittedly, some of the worst involved my children. The most visceral are from “America’s pastime” – which appears to be heading past its time.
Also, I’m “what if’fing” my whole career experiences – like Walter Mitty claiming “I coulda been a contender.” In my parenting years, I learned and advised my children to “play to your strengths” – get A’s in favorite subjects, okay to do okay on the rest (the result of my early education goals of getting all A’s, not learning my natural strengths). If I had started as a low-paid sportswriter in the local paper I had delivered for seven years in school days, and if I had been good enough, I might have gone on to bigger and better things, and caught the success that always eluded me in business life. But, no regrets, that would have meant a different family and extended family trajectory, and my blessings quotient comes out to 100%. Plus, I am sports writing now, albeit after the facts.
I’ll begin on the positive side, before venting on the negative. Also, I will not claim technical expertise in any sport – merely the observations of an analyst who sees repeated patterns of successful or unsuccessful coaching and playing.
Little League – developing teamwork (a blatant brag).
My team didn’t win a championship, until the year after I left, when the new manager abandoned my strategy, but only for the playoffs.
My major rant about youth sports is that we often teach kids they can’t play, instead of how to play. Coaching Little League, I discovered a way to engineer more playing time for younger players.
Back in my day, our team had fifteen players, with no playing time requirements. The less skilled players, theoretically, enjoyed practices and wearing the uniform, from their end-of-bench vantage point.
Now we sensitively specify two innings and one at-bat minimum requirement, and our local teams have only eleven players. The easy math has seven players on field for the whole game, two others playing the first three innings, and subs the last three. A few win-at-all-costs coaches will play eight the entire game, and let the last three enjoy two innings each in the ninth-spot, theoretically enjoying practices and bench warming.
I discovered in the Little League rule book a way to increase teamwork: a player who is taken out of the game can return, in a different position in the batting order, if his sub has played two innings and batted once. The math became more intricate, but resulted in my pattern of having five players on field for the entire game, and six players playing four innings each. Four would start and come out after two innings; their four replacements would be in for the last four innings; and the removed players would replace four who had played the first four innings for the last two innings. Each player would usually get at least two at-bats.
My strategy was to increase confidence in the subs, and help them feel like they belonged, were not just on field for required time. And I did not like type-casting any player as a permanent eighth or ninth batter (e.g., “your aren’t very good!” – which begins now at the age of five or six in tee-ball), so I would have today’s ninth batter be second in the lineup on his next game.
My last year as team manager, we lost the two-out-of-three championship series. The following year, my assistant, Jim Reynolds, managed the team. He was the lowest key, sharpest observer of players and strategy (e.g., “This pitcher has only two good innings in his arm.”). He had the team agree to suspending the five-by-four strategy for seven-by-two for the championship, and the team made a terrific comeback and won the trophy, still playing as a team.
My coaching strength was more confidence building than technical strategy. One of my eight-year-olds on my first team had never played before, and didn’t know whether he was right- or left-handed. His Dad said he was thinking of quitting at week two of practice. I read in a coaching book to have new kids hang a wiffle ball on a string from a tree and practice hitting it. At practice, I would ask him to swing, then try to throw the ball where he was swinging (as most parents do with three year olds), and sometimes the ball would arrive where the bat was. Once I was starting to say “sorry” at a bad pitch, and Michael reached out and hit it. Aha! I think Michael was second on the team with twenty-six hits that year (the leader had thirty-one). On the last game of the season, he hit a long one to the outfield and was half way home for his first home run, when he turned and came back to third. I asked why and he said he had missed third base. I hadn’t even seen that myself, and he would have been safe at home, but it was reinforcing to know he had learned the rules as well as the game. The next year, Michael was on a different team, batting ninth. I went behind the fence when he was batting against us, said hold your bat still, Michael, and he blasted a line drive to the outfield. I don’t think he played after the nine-year-old league. Last I heard, he had gone to Harvard.
Baseball or softball – swinging the bat.
I claim only one technical hitting coaching innovation. For batters (boys, girls, adults) attempting to barely tap the ball to avoid striking out, not taking hard swings, I stand behind the batter, grab the bat and say “swing,” providing resistance to the swing. The bat goes nowhere, the batter gets frustrated, on repetition maybe mad, and starts to pull harder. After several attempts, I realize I had better let go and back off, or I’ll be hit on the back swing.
“I am the coach.”
I used this assertion once when my third baseman botched a throw, and instead of quickly retrieving the ball, looked over at his father outside the fence and frowned. I wasn’t upset at the error, but at the reaction – I always preached “Next Play!” and the ball was still in play.
The assertion was handed back at me once, and I respected the coach for taking control. My son was at shortstop in warmups for a teenage-league playoff game, and a ball went through his legs into the outfield. I went to retrieve the ball, and mumbled to him on passing to keep his glove on the ground. When I returned to help with infield practice, the manager said if I needed to instruct a player, let him know, that was his job. Touché!
No lead is ever big enough.
Background: My first coaching experience was an eight-year-old baseball team. After a few weeks of play, the division director got managers together to discuss progress. We had the normal mix of managers – one or two “win big” types, most of us “let’s teach the kids” types. (Happens in all sports.) We “civilized” the division to avoid running up scores – limits on runs per inning, every player bats in order whether on the field or not, players learn infield and outfield, etc. There was peace in the valley… for a while.
A few years later, when I was on the board of directors for the league, the “civilization” had reverted to primal with the new group of coaches. I was watching my daughter’s eight-year-old game – she was one of four girls on the team (the norm was one or two). The opponent had the two biggest players in the league, maybe nine-year-olds because of some irregularity (no room on the eights?; friends of the coach?), and they were pitcher and first baseman every inning. I felt it necessary to approach the opposing manager in the last inning of the game and suggest that he had the game won – leading thirty-five to six – so would he please teach three of his players where the outfield is – each was playing between one of the infielders when the weaker players (of either gender) were at bat.
It’s all about the hitting.
Generally, defensive players are under appreciated, as if coaches don’t realize each run saved is equivalent to each run scored. A hit can precede a rally, but an out can squelch one. This tendency is evident all the way up to professional leagues.
My son in high school was a terrific fielder, right field only because the fastest player in the league was in center. If an opponent hit a screaming liner down the right field line and had thoughts of a triple, he went back to first when the second baseman already had the ball. One player coasting home to score, with his arms in victory formation, was told he had been doubled out at second when my son had made a diving catch of the low line drive (as I was yelling “Don’t!”).
By senior year in high school, his body had grown into the major league swing he had adopted from age eight, he could catch up to fast balls, and he crushed a couple of four-hundred foot home runs. Until then, he was replaced by a pitcher being removed from the mound in tight games. Once, in a playoff game, the pitcher was sent to right field, my son to the bench. The replacement circled a fly ball and let it drop, and the score wasn’t close anymore. (Maybe it was because of the water faucet out there in right field, but I think my son would have drawn a better bead on the ball.)
The ball got past the catcher – go!
One of the coaches in the “Ugly” section below had an instant reaction to a passed ball with a runner on third base, no matter what the situation, or who was running – “GO!” This resulted in one of our players setting the record for most times thrown out at home. From my morale coach position on the bench, I advised the player, who had quick instincts but slow feet, he needed to take six quick steps, then run home if the ball curved around the backstop, or hustle back if the ball bounced right to the catcher. He said he knew that, but the coach would yell at him if he didn’t go, and he’d rather be out at home than reamed by the coach again. Nice strategy, coach!
My bad – assertiveness drill.
On the first day of practice with my nine-year-old team, I wanted to embolden players (and early-assess pitching prospects) by having players introduce themselves while standing on the pitcher’s mound, yelling out their names, and throwing their best pitch. One player was really quiet, and I asked him to repeat a second, and maybe a third time. He was a really good player, especially in the field. A few years later, his parents told me this exercise had been traumatic for him. My bad! He just wanted to play the game.
My bad – a slight preconception – sexism?
After a very successful eight-year-old and an okay nine-year old coaching season, I was “apprenticed” to a major-league coach in his last year. One of my first impressions in the “big time” was in a game against an opponent with a short girl playing second base. I thought, “Doesn’t he know at this level, second base is a very strategic position, because young players don’t usually pull the ball to left field?” Preconception corrected when a batter hit a grounder between first base and second, first baseman went after the ball and she circled behind to back up the play and cover first base, ball deflected off his glove, without losing stride she corrected her arc, turned right, gobbled up the ball, turned left, and beat the runner to first base for the out – one of the best intuitive plays I ever saw in the league! Nora had a successful high school athletic career and became a sports trainer or physical therapist.
“Teamwork? Who needs teamwork in baseball?”
(Pre-script: My team was once beat in the last inning by a number nine batter, who jumped in the air and golfed a low pitch for a double. Unusual, but I give some credit to the coach.)
If you were coaching a team of eleven ten- to twelve-year olds, with three of the league’s best five pitchers, two tallest (six-foot) players, seven very good players overall, and repeatedly enjoying a 16-1 lead after two innings of a six inning game, what would you do? Some would give their younger or lesser players more playing time, especially develop reserve pitchers. A few wouldn’t.
I was the “morale coach” on this team, in the dugout with the scorebook, fourth in the pecking order, with no input on team strategy, trying to bolster the eighth and ninth batters – my toughest coaching assignment ever. The slaughter rule was in effect – game shortened when a team has a ten run lead after five innings – so the team hardly ever played the full six. The team’s catcher was the only player other than the “big three” to pitch – only four innings the entire season.
Two excruciating memories from the season: twelve-year-old Pat, permanent sub and ninth batter, standing on second base, raising arms like Rocky Balboa. Manager turns to me and asks how he got there. I respond (words not thoughts), “He hit a double.” Later Pat begs to play infield for once, manager asks where he could put him, I volunteer – “My son”; so Pat makes his big infield play, my son loses time.
Playoff time, championship game: Opponent is pesky, fast team, first two batters are twins, the other two of the top five players in the league. Each team wins a game. The third and deciding game is postponed for weather for a couple of days. Two pitchers on each team have used up their pitching eligibility – six innings per week. Score is tied in the last inning. Our #3 pitcher, who just pitched his sixth inning, is on third base, with one out. The better of our “twin towers” is at bat. The air is still heavy, the ball is waterlogged from residual moisture. Tower #1 slugs a high fly, sure home run in dry conditions, but the ball hangs in the air, easy catch for the centerfielder. Runner on third tags up, slides home – well, not quite home – his slide ends about six inches from the base, and he lays there, waiting for safe call, while the catcher retrieves the ball and applies the tag.
Uh, oh! Extra innings. We move catcher (#4 pitcher, with four innings experience) to the mound, first baseman (Tower #2) behind the plate, center fielder (Tower #1) to first base. New catcher groans, “We can’t win this game”; adult plate umpire comes to dugout to tell our manager he’d better get the new catcher out of there. Twins lead off the extra inning. Twin #1 draws a walk. Twin #2 bunts, twin #1 sprints around second to third, bunter sprints to second on the late throw to third, twins now on second and third. I don’t remember if one or more runs scored, but pitcher #4 for opponent, having pitched every week, confidently takes the mound, retires our side and championship hopes. How did that happen?
Final negative from this experience: Team party, seven players attend, four subs absent. Scored the most runs ever, played for most underachieving group ever, never made it to “team”.
I lost it one time.
It might have been the stress. In the previous game, 1) my wife had told me she was being hospitalized on bed rest with two weeks to go before our last child’s birth; 2) my centerfielder son crashed into the fence (before the fences were capped) and came away with a ‘V’ brand barely under his eye; and 3) after the game my batboy son pulled the top drawer of his dresser out and it landed on his foot, resulting in an ER visit.
Next game, 1) centerfielder tried a shoestring catch of a low line drive, it eluded him for a triple, with me responding “nice try,” but him returning to dugout when the inning ended moaning “I can’t play this game”; 2) pitcher over-throwing and walking eighth and ninth batters; 3) all twelve year olds making some kind of misplay; and 4) game ending when third base coach (c’est moi) telling runner “Go!” – “Stop” – “Go” – a sure prescription for an out at home. For the post game review, I told younger players to go home, and took all twelve-year-olds to task for their errors, and the example they set for the younger players.
Next morning before school, I called the twelves and apologized. Two favorable results followed: One parent called to compliment me and say he had never heard of anyone offering a retraction of a harsh critique. Then, for the following game, the assistant coaches benched me, said they could handle the base coaching, and I added to the benching by sitting through the game with two handkerchiefs in my mouth, to keep my personal stresses from billowing onto the field.
Post-script: My older brother had better stories than mine of managing baseball and players, but I can’t remember the details.
Apologies for the brags. My only championship was the eight-year-old team, but, I usually was a contender.