Monday, June 12, 2006

Screwing up a kids' game...

The following story is true; only the names have been changed for the protection of the innocent, the guilty, and, of course, the Curmudgeon.

The Bluejay Park Pony Reds had a make-up game last night in West Pond against the West Pond Pony White Sox; we rescheduled the game some weeks ago after an early season rainout.

Things haven't gone well for the Reds this season: We have a losing record. OK, we have an abysmal record. Coming into last night, we had won only three games -- and lost many, many more.

Part of the reason for our lack of success is the coaching: I love baseball -- but I never played the game at any organized level. I was a baseball fan, never a player. Other fathers teach their sons how to throw; I taught mine how to keep score. I'm a couch potato and a sci-fi geek. At one point in my life, I could actually use a slide rule. The good news is that I'm not trying to live out my athletic fantasies through little kids. I've seen people trying this and it is always ugly. And when it happened to Youngest Son, I was self-employed, and able to foolishly do something about it: I volunteered to coach.

When Youngest Son was 9, it was OK. My job was to carry the bag, put out the bases, and speak in reassuring tones to the over-concerned parents about their sons' blossoming talents. Nobody knew I didn't know anything; even when I told them I didn't know anything, they didn't believe me. I had the shirt and the hat; therefore, I was the wise old coach. And I could throw batting practice slow enough for the kids to hit. Of course, I couldn't throw any harder if I tried. (And sometimes I tried, so I know.)

But by the time kids are 13 and 14, they steal bases; they look for signs. They want to know who should take the throw at second. They want you to explain what is and is not a balk. I've known this day was coming, and I've been trying to quit for two years now -- but the good fathers in the Bluejay Park Baseball Association keep asking me to take another team. I'm in so far over my head that all the kids know just how little I really do know... and even the parents are finally beginning to suspect.

Fortunately for me -- and more fortunately for the kids -- I have an 'assistant' coach who actually does know a lot about baseball. And who can, and does, teach it well. He's happy to be the 'assistant' coach because he already coaches the grammar school team -- and, this way, he doesn't have to take or make the phone calls from the kids, nor does he have to keep the bag at his house. And he can play golf on Tuesdays, whether we have a game or not, because he's the 'assistant.' It would be an understatement to say that I defer to his better judgment on all occasions.

So -- despite my shortcomings -- coaching is not the sole reason for our sorry record. Part of it is that we're not too big. And what we lack in size, we lack in speed as well. I think all of the kids on the Bluejay Park Reds want to play baseball -- but most of them don't really want to work too hard at it. And some of them really would be happier as couch potatoes.

But this would be true, I suspect, of any random group of 13 and 14 year-olds who come out for baseball. And ours is a recreational league: Every kid, no matter how uncoordinated, must play for three innings in every seven inning game. Truth be told, I'd rather play a completely clueless and uncoordinated kid than a kid with a bad attitude. The uncoordinated kids will get better by playing, or hurt themselves trying. The kid with a bad attitude makes everyone around him worse. And nothing is his fault. Ever.

(You may think I have someone in mind as I write these words. I'd rather not admit that -- but there was a kid who, in our last game, missed an easy ground ball at his third base position -- so easy that one of our least coordinated kids would have had a better than 50/50 chance of picking it up and making the throw. And this kid blamed the third base coach on the other team for the error.)

At Bluejay Park, we take 'em all. The tall, the short, the skinny, the fat. The kids who want to play and the kids who want to play around. The kids who support their teammates and the kids who have a bad attitude. We have a draft, so to the problem children are, in theory, divided up equally.

But there are only three teams in our Pony Division at Bluejay Park.

There are six Pony teams at Gitche Gumee Park. They're supposed to take all comers, too.

But they never seem to have fat kids, or really slow ones, or kids who look like they may hurt themselves swinging a bat in the on-deck area. I tell our kids that these guys from Gitche Gumee Park drive themselves to the games. And they bring their own kids. And I tell myself I'm kidding -- but we had a game a couple of Saturdays ago, where we held off one of those Gitche Gumee teams for six innings before they finally punched through at the end. And when we lined up at the end of the game to shake hands, there were four kids taller than me on that other team.

They're supposed to be 13 or 14 years old. And I'm 6'2".

This brings us to last night, at West Pond. After our last humiliating defeat at the hands of another giant Gitche Gumee team, I told the kids that West Pond only had short kids, and fat ones, and kids with wooden legs. I was making it up, yes, but I wanted them to have some hope coming in.

So Youngest Son and I pull up to the park last night and there are kids taking infield/outfield on the diamond. And every last one of them was six feet tall.

"You told us they were midgets, Dad!" Youngest Son yelled.

I hadn't gotten entirely out of the car when I was met by one of the moms from our team. "Don't bother getting out the equipment," she said, "we probably won't play."

The good news was that the giants on the field weren't the team we were supposed to play. They were a Colt team -- 15 and 16 years old, and they were supposed to be bigger and taller than our kids.

The bad news was that the Colt team was scheduled to play on that same diamond at 8:00 pm, just as we were.

The West Pond Pony coach found me a few minutes later. The temperature was around 55°, but this guy was wearing a torn, sleeveless White Sox shirt, the better to show off the fact that he still lifts weights. Or moves boxes or cases of stuff for a living. And he had an earring.

Coach Earring was friendly enough, and apologetic: He would talk with the Colt coach and see if he could get him to relinquish the field. He told me if he couldn't talk the other coach off the field, he'd give us a forfeit. He said that the Colt coach had been at his house at 5:30 pm -- just a couple hours before -- trying to get the Pony coach to switch his game -- our game -- to 6:00 pm. If we all had beepers and helicopters we couldn't have arrived in West Pond in time. So Coach Earring had wisely rejected that plan.

As Coach Earring moved off to discuss real estate possession issues with the Colt coach, I gathered our troops and briefed parents as they arrived about our situation. One of the other moms came over with her younger children, pointing to the youngest, saying that they had to move because they were standing too close to the discussion between Coach Earring and the Colt coach, then ongoing, and the youngest child was learning too many new words. I resolved that, in the event of fisticuffs, I would advise our people to run away as fast as possible.

But violence was averted, and Coach Earring returned in due course: We had the field. Our kids stretched out and took infield practice; his kids started loosening up in left field. I didn't count their noses; what mattered to me was that we had 10 of ours ready to play. I made out a line-up and figured who'd sit the first inning. We gave them a pep talk; the 'assistant' coach had a good story about a game he played in high school, on a team that was better than its record showed.

It was then that I realized it was after 8:00. I wandered over to find Coach Earring and exchange line-ups. He was standing at the backstop. The Colt team was still hanging around, too, down the left field line -- and the team they were supposed to play was milling around the parking lot, waiting.

Coach Earring was unhappy. He only had seven kids, one of them a move-up. League rules require him to have eight to start a game, and he was minutes away from having to forfeit. A kid I took to be Coach Earring's son -- another one who was easily six feet tall -- was asking Coach Earring to call everyone on the team again. Apparently one kid on the team had showed up early -- and had been run off by the Colt team. When Coach Earring called the first time, the kid's mom said he wasn't coming back. Two kids on his 10-man roster were in Washington, on their 8th grade class trip. The whereabouts of the 10th man were unknown. "Who can I call?" Coach Earring asked.

Coach Earring asked if I'd agree to let him play with seven and take the two outs at the bottom of the order; I looked at the two Colt teams hovering just offstage and thought that my consent might be irrelevant. The umpire dashed Coach Earring's hopes about playing with seven shortly thereafter.

So we won by forfeit. And our kids seemed happy about it -- a win is a win. The parents seemed of two minds: They were aggravated to have come so far for nothing, but they, too, seemed happy to take away a 'victory.' I didn't mind getting home earlier than I expected -- but I also wanted the kids to play. I had set aside the time to be there.

As I was packing our bag to leave, Coach Earring came by and asked if maybe we could reschedule this rescheduled game and avoid a forfeit that way. You don't have to do that, he said, which even I already knew. I looked around at the rapidly departing Reds. "I don't think I can," I said. I'm afraid the parents might stone me if I agreed, I thought to myself.

Homework assignment: What would you have told Coach Earring?

No comments: