When I walked into the coaches’ meeting, several managers were immediately disappointed, because it meant that Mason was a “coach’s option” whom they therefore could not draft, and they seek pitchers like him. I knew 1/3 of the group. There were several veterans I’d seen around the diamonds, and quite a number of people I don’t know. The Board member in charge walked us through the rules.
Should parents have their kids play in Little League, softball, or school teams? How much is the coach supposed to do? How can parents help children get the most out of the experience?
My kids play Little League baseball, and love it. Oh, not every game; of course they don’t like losing and bruising. But the overall experience is very positive, and they pile up more and more pleasant memories and accomplishments every season.
At first, I thought baseball is good because so many others play it, and it’s good exercise, and demands some skills. Kids learn from winning and they learn from losing. Those are true and relevant, but playing baseball pays way bigger dividends than those. I encourage my boys to play baseball – not so they’ll grow up to become athletes, but so they’ll grow up to become adults. Little League introduces the lessons of life. The situations they encounter in baseball keep recurring all life long! Competition, improvement, winning and losing, making the best of a situation, and a hundred other factors all impress the kids first in Little League, but keep coming up again and again. Little League is fabulous preparation for life!
And even if you (like me) can’t coach baseball’s technicalities, there’s still plenty to help with. Make a baseball season much more than just a way to get kids out of the house. See how to help the kids mature.
Yes, there are some bad characters in Little League, but nowhere near as many or as bad as corporate-media stereotypes show. Several publishing corporations declined to publish this book because it isn’t about the bad characters. If the corporate-media-hyped negativity wasn’t extremely rare, 3,000,000 kids wouldn’t play Little League-type programs every year. You’ve seen other places where corporate-media stereotypes were way out of proportion, and Little League negativity is just one more of those. Most kids and parents in Little League are good people to play sports with, and much like people you’ll meet everywhere else for the rest of your life.
This book’s principles and suggestions should be adaptable to most youth baseball and softball teams, for girls as well as boys, at least up to high school, and somewhat to other sporting situations. Pick, choose, and adapt whatever suits your own situation. Some items might become chats with your player on the way home. Others might become lessons taught to a whole team. Yet others should be things to do yourself, leading by doing instead of talking. And some parts won’t fit in with your ways at all.
Kids play games. There’s no issue about whether they will – they will.
It’s good that kids play games. If they didn’t, I’d think something was wrong. The only issue is which games.
I pondered this when my kids were in elementary school, and concluded that anything that has to do with baseball is likely to be superior to many alternatives. Baseball is a good, socially-approved sport. It’s good exercise. It fosters conditioning and eye-hand coordination. It has a low injury rate, which can be reduced even more with a few precautions, and almost all the injured kids recover quickly and fully. It’s simple enough and complicated enough for any age from 5 to 105. Whenever they want to play, there will be leagues appropriate for their skills at least through age 70. We play some other sports and watch many, but I’m very pro-baseball.
Baseball embodies the American concept of “having a fair chance”: 3 strikes, 4 balls, 3 outs, 9 innings, tie goes to the runner, and so on. Learn that in baseball, and apply it all life long. It’s so ingrained that the enough-is-enough lock-up-felons law is called “3 strikes”.
Baseball permits individual excellence but strongly rewards teamwork: A great catch means little, and a great throw means nothing, unless teammates convert it into an out. Teamwork is a huge life skill.
The equipment is minimal and affordable. I’ve seen baseball played with a stick and a pine cone, and those kids had fun.
Baseball requires thinking ahead, mental calculations, tradeoffs, playing both offense and defense, and a little math. Every one of those is a skill for life.
I pondered those qualities, and then thought about the alternatives. My kids could be playing something else, somewhere else, with other people. Compared to baseball, that usually means playing somewhere less supervised, less cared for, less safe, with people I approve of less.
That’s why I decided that every moment spent in baseball is a moment the kids aren’t doing something that I approve of less. They’ll do some of those things anyway, but I can strongly influence the proportions by making baseball as good an experience as I can. So I support baseball card games, baseball video games, watching baseball games on TV and in person, and anything else baseball. The kids are going to play games and they’re going to spend money; whenever that’s spent on baseball, it’s better than most of the alternatives.
I even strongly supported playing the “MLB Showdown” card game in school. That was a clever commercial card game, matching batters’ and pitchers’ skill ratings, as randomized by the throw of a cool 20-sided die. The school principal was quite startled that a parent would back such a thing, let alone as vehemently as I did. I sold it to her as actually a math game in a baseball motif. That’s true: listen to kids play MLB Showdown, and they mostly talk numbers. My appeal worked. The principal creatively interpreted school rules to permit it. Kids will play games, and spend money on things I don’t value, anyway. But with Showdown, it’s math and baseball, and in my opinion most of the alternatives are less valuable – many of them dramatically so.
[As I wrote this, my 13-year-old was planning which new Showdown cards to buy. He set up a spreadsheet on the computer, entered a lot of data, colorized categories, had the computer compute values important to him, and showed him what factors to optimize. I don’t think the baseball cards he buys have much intrinsic value, but the educational experience of designing spreadsheets, and milking them for those data, is worth way more than he spent on the cards. And then he played baseball with friends with the cards.]
So I don’t balk at buying each season’s new baseball cards, and I encouraged playing MLB Showdown with friends and neighbors – we even made that the theme of a birthday party. Alas, that game is no longer sold. I enroll my kids for all the Little League and PONY League and Fall Ball and anything else they want that I can afford. The alternatives are almost always less appealing. And the kids end up happy and successful.
Our old swing set was great! When the kids were younger, they swung endless hours on it. They chinned on the rings and climbed the ladder and slid down the slide. They loved it.
The swings and rings and ladder and slide still work fine, but the kids have outgrown that toddler stuff. Now they’re into sports. Baseball and football and golf and so on. And they can’t do much of those in our yard. The balls soar over the fence, usually lost and gone forever.
Yet the nearest park isn’t close enough, and the kids want to do sport stuff around home.
I keep teaching the kids that what matters isn’t what you have, but what you do with what you have. So I went back to our old swing set. I wound the swings and rings around the bar they hang from. For $8 I bought light, tough, UV-resistant “bird netting” from a garden store, and tied it 2/3 of the way around the swing set frame. I left enough open on one side for swinging a bat or golf club.
My first try was downright dangerous! I had tied the net taut. Balls bounced back hard, as from a trampoline. We could barely dodge them.
So I re-tied the netting to hang limp and billowy. The billows take all the energy out of the hit balls, and plop them politely at the bottom. I left the netting longer than needed, and curved the bottom end back toward the open side, so the balls roll a bit back toward the hitter. With contrasting string, I outlined a strike zone for pitching practice, and a bull’s-eye for football passing.
Our swing set is big enough as-is, but if yours isn’t, you could lash on some extender poles of PVC pipe. They’re long and strong enough to hold the netting, flexible enough to use with kids, and cost about $1 each.
So my kids have their own baseball batting cage and their own golf driving range and their own placekicking cage. Bats and golf clubs are a new kind of swinging for the old swing set. The kids loved it … for a couple more years, and then grew out of that.
Getting what we need out of the resources we have takes some thought and some cleverness. When I don’t have the money to buy everything new and ready made, I have to make what I do have, work. That’s the same principle with which I made a computer cubby (where I wrote this book) out of one side of a closet.
So, as 2005 began, I was getting my kids ready for another baseball season.
This narrative makes more sense if you know how our league plays baseball.
Our league operates T-Ball for kids as young as 5; AA Division, using a pitching machine, for ages 7-9; AAA, with live pitching, for ages 9-12 (though 12s aren’t allowed to pitch), and Majors Division, highly selective and political, ages 10-12.
This book takes place in AAA Division. Games last 6 innings, about 2 hours. No team may score more than 8 runs per inning until the last inning. Every player bats, whether they’re on the field or on the bench that inning. All players must field at least 3 innings per game. Substitutions are not limited, except that once a pitcher is removed, he cannot pitch again in that game, though he can play any other position. Pitchers during the 16-game “regular season” can pitch no more than 3 innings per game, 6 innings per week. The double-elimination tournament that follows rewards pitching depth by permitting pitchers to pitch 6 innings in a game, but they may not pitch at all in the next game. Umpires are usually 13- and 14-year-olds who had played in the league. The winners of the division and the tournament then get to play the northside’s leading teams in a single-elimination playoff for the city championship.
Coaches’ meetings are held in a local pizzeria.
We’re in a mild climate on the west shore of San Francisco Bay, just south of San Francisco Airport, just north of Silicon Valley. Rain falls only from October through April. Spring and summer afternoons are afflicted by the same icy Pacific winds that make Candlestick Park so uncomfortable.
Me: Norm Sperling, single dad, astronomer, editor of the science humor magazine, The Journal of Irreproducible Results. Very little baseball knowledge beyond rooting for my hometown Washington Senators as a kid, and much later for my adopted-home-team Oakland Athletics.
My older son, Lumin, 13, played T-Ball, AA, and AAA Little League, and graduated to PONY League. In addition to baseball, he loves bowling, the latest hit songs, and computer and Play Station games. He’s sharp in math and origami.
My younger son, Mason, almost 11, also played T-Ball, AA, and AAA, and was hoping for promotion to the Majors. He, also, loves baseball, bowling, and computer and Play Station games, and likes playing the trumpet.
The bad news is that Mason wasn’t drafted for Majors, and will therefore be stuck in AAA-level Little League again this year. Mason and I think he’s borderline-qualified for Majors, where he’d be a middling player. In AAA, he’d be one of the better players. Here in San Mateo, Majors is a lot more competitive, while AAA is a lot more fun.
But Mason wasn’t drafted for Majors. Neither was his teammate from last year’s AAA Brewers, Nick Miguel. That means that Nick’s dad, Don, will manage Nick’s AAA team again this year, just as he did last year. The Brewers were very successful – went all the way to the city playoffs, and once beat the dominant team. And they had a great time.
The son of last year’s coach was drafted, which means that he’s no longer available.
So Don phoned me this Noon to persuade me to be his coach. He needs Mason to be a mainstay pitcher. He likes my dependability and my scorekeeping; I try hard and am pretty good at both. I reminded Don that I don’t know technical baseball and never played the sport myself, and therefore can’t coach stylistic details – I don’t know which way to point your pinky when batting with runners on first and third, for example. All that’d have to be his domain, assisted by family volunteers. That doesn’t bother him; he values what Mason and I can do, much more than he’s worried about what I can’t do.
I discussed the coaching possibility with Mason as soon as I picked him up after school. He’s only mildly disappointed not to be in Majors; AAA is indeed more fun, and he’ll play a lot more innings. He thinks that it’d be great to have me as coach – so all this is the good news – as long as I don’t turn unusually harsh at him, the way he’s seen other dads bark at their own kids. He doesn’t think the team will miss too much baseball technique; last year’s guy didn’t coach a whole lot of that himself. He was a great fitness and flexibility trainer, though.
Lumin also thinks I should say yes. It’ll bump his PONY League team to second-priority, but it’s highly unlikely that PONY coaches would want me to do much for them anyway. Lumin thinks I’d enjoy the job – he’s right – and while it decides every schedule conflict in favor of Mason’s team, Lumin’s not really losing much attention.
Privately, I’m ecstatic. Being invited – even because the coach wants Mason, rather than really wanting me – marks the pinnacle of overachievement for an utter non-athlete like me! It’s an enormous compliment. I’d love to do the baseball stuff, and Don will lend me his coaching videos, from which I hope to learn at least a little. So I accepted.
Don Miguel is an expert in refinishing furniture. He played baseball incessantly as a kid, and softball incessantly as an adult. He’s coached lots of Little League teams. So he knows baseball and he knows kids. His wife, Bonnie, works in advertising. His older son, Donnie, went through Little League but now concentrates on swimming. Nick, 12, is a fine all-around player, who can adapt to any position instantly. Don’s littlest son, James, 4, is the youngest T-Baller in the league.
The Saturday tryouts were very long and nearly a bore. A few well-known players didn’t show up, at least one having been alienated by the ingrown Majors Clique that runs the whole league. The guy ought to get other chances to play baseball, even if he’s soured on our league. Perhaps something like a nearby private, heavy-coaching program.
Don rated the player-tryout numbers in his established way; I mostly kept written notes. I asked my boys what indicators to look for in the critical hunt for pitchers; they immediately said to watch how the players throw from shortstop and from right field. I did, and noted several potential pitchers. Also, Mason wanted to watch the entire afternoon tryouts after lunch, so I set him up with a clipboard and paper and a pen, and he made special notes about potential pitchers, too. He also knew a kid who was a behavior problem in school, and we aren’t eager to invite a behavior problem onto the team. (Of course there can be larger circumstances to be alert for. Some kids just need a man to be with, and won’t give us trouble because they’ll be with us. There can be other circumstances, too, like a kid who’s motivated to earn something, and we stipulate good behavior as part of the price.)
I expected to have lots of chat time with Don, but that didn’t happen. The coaches at adjacent tables heard everything we said, so I quickly clammed up. Other kids were also in easy earshot, so we couldn’t say anything confidential. So we scarcely spoke. I’ll bring a passel of papers to Don at work next week and we’ll chat there.
I checked a bunch of baseball books out of the library.