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Friday, May 6, 2011

Memoirs of a Little League Coach

            The other evening I took a walk around the perimeter of one of our local parks and passed a Little League game in progress. There was a steady stream of adult chatter going on, directed at the players, and it reminded me again of what a thinking game baseball is.
            A decade ago my son put in two seasons in Little League, and both years I was an assistant coach working with the manager. The part of the experience I remember most is how hard it was for the kids to learn the game. It’s not surprising because in every situation there are a lot of options and a good player needs to instantaneously and automatically act out the right one.
            Suppose you’re playing second base with runners on first and second and the batter hits a ground ball. If the ball’s hit to your left, you need to field it cleanly and get the out at first base. If the ball’s hit right at you or to your right, you go to second base for the forceout. If it’s a slow grounder that you have to charge, you make the play at first if you can, but if not, you pull up and hold the ball to make sure the runners don’t advance more than a base. If the ball’s hit to the left side of the infield, you have to cover second base for a force play.
            That’s the way we taught it, anyway. Major league players can do much more than that, but we wanted to keep it simple and make sure they got an out somewhere if at all possible. If your team’s on the field in Little League, an out, any out anywhere, is your best friend.
            In Little League, as in war, things rarely go the way you plan them. The manager and coaches were always yelling directions to the players, and even when the directions were consistent (which, I regret to say, was not always the case), they were rarely followed.
            Take the scenario described three paragraphs earlier. No matter how many times we shouted from the dugout, “Easiest and closest out,” the players generally had a different idea. If the ball was hit to the second baseman’s left, at least half the time he would ignore the easy out at first and instead throw to third base, where the runner had already arrived before the throw was in the air. I don’t recall seeing any such throw that arrived at the vicinity of third base lower than ten feet over the third baseman’s glove — if, indeed the third baseman was in position, which was no sure thing. If the ball came down enough to ricochet off the fence behind third base, it would angle into left field. That gave the left fielder, who rarely got much business, something to do — assuming, of course, that he was following the game and not counting dandelions.
            It was enough to give a coach heartburn, and it was cold comfort that most of the other teams played that way, too.
            Still, the teams did improve a bit as the season wore on and they practiced more. And I suspect it was the kids’ first real exposure to the idea that every situation has options that are right or wrong (or better or worse), and that you have to know what you’re doing. If they took that lesson away from the field at the end of the season, it was a more valuable one than knowing which base to throw to. Just don’t get me started on base runners who forget how many outs there are.