Newsletter 45: Little League Baseball

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from March 2017, when I was about to start coaching my son’s Coach Pitch Little League team. I’ve coached three seasons since I wrote this, and now we’re up to Machine Pitch. I’ve had a wonderful time coaching and getting to know these kids, and on the whole, we’ve been able to keep it fun. The vast majority of coaches and parents understand what it’s about at this age. And we just try to keep that minority at bay as much as we can, with varying degrees of success. Anyway: Thank you, Five Market Realty Athens Little League Machine Pitch, you kids rule.

So I’m coaching Little League again this year. I coached T-Ball last year and couldn’t have had more of a blast. T-Ball is specifically suited to my constitution, because:

  • Nobody can strike out.
  • There are, in fact, no outs at all.
  • They don’t keep score.
  • There are kids as young as four.
  • Everybody gets to bat every inning. You do this twice for both teams, and then the game is over.

My 2016 Heyward Allen Toyota T-Ball team:

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To be entirely honest with you, I believe all kids’ sports should be like this until they are at least nine. No outs. No scores. No winners. No losers. The world is competitive enough, with all sorts of wolves and monsters ready to pounce, that what’s most important is that you learn to have fun with your friends, learn to love the sport and get worn out enough that your parents don’t have any trouble getting you to fall asleep that night. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teaching kids that they should want to win — because you should always want to, and try your hardest to — but the idea that we should pound some competitive sensibility into six-year-olds seems something born more from adult insecurities than a child’s ones. They’re running around in the grass for 90 minutes while playing a silly game. This is all we should want right? At least they’re not looking at their phones.

I am aware, however, that not everyone feels this way. More to the point, I am aware that the average person who decides that they would like to volunteer their time to coach a sports team is unlikely to have the same devil-may-care attitude about scoring, and competition, and winning that I do. And, all told, not even every parent feels that way. A lot of people say they don’t care, that they’re just kids out there, but then when the game starts, and the blood starts pumping in those stands, they tend to act a bit differently. And I get this. You want your kid to do well. You want him/her to do their best, but you also can’t help yourself: Of course you want them to win. I do not think this is a bad instinct, or anything to be ashamed of. But I also think it’s something I need to protect the kids from as long as possible. That’s an adult thing, not a kids one. Life is hard enough.

This year, my son William (and thus I) have graduated out of T-Ball. The game now is Coach Pitch, in which a coach tosses them easy pitches and they hit them and run, with a normal field and a normal game and bases and everything. They keep score, they keep outs, they even had tryouts. (Nobody gets cut or anything; the claim is that tryouts are to keep the teams even.) It’s an escalation, already, even though we’re still dealing with five- and six-year-olds. This raises the stakes, and my personal difficulty of making sure this remains fun. But I’m up for it, I think.

We had our first practice last week, but it’s spring break with most of the kids out of town (including mine), so there were only three kids there. They were all great kids, a little nervous with the new format and the new coach they didn’t know. So we just concentrated on being silly and staying positive. We started practice by racing Coach around the bases — I had an early lead, but they caught up with me between second and third base and secured their victory when I fell down and did several cartoonish flips in the dirt on the way to home plate — and then played catch for about 10 minutes. Then they got to hit. The main goal of batting practice, I’ve found, is just making sure nobody gets hit with a bat. I flipped them easy pitches, and a couple kids struggled with it, so I started throwing them my glove to show that they could, in fact, hit something with their bat. After they realized that, they were able to concentrate on the ball and started hitting those. Then we ran around the bases some more and I fell down and they beat me again. Kids love beating adults at things.

We’ll have more kids at our practices this week, and it’ll get a little bit more chaotic and a little bit harder. But that’s still the same goal: Make them want to keep coming out there and running around like the little kids the rest of us all wish we could be again. I’ve gotten together with some of the other coaches in the league, and I’ve been comfortable with the fact that most of them seem to have the same mindset as me: Just have fun, don’t worry about winning, or batting orders, or anything ugly and grownup. (I’m trying to get them to keep coaching with me as we go up through the system, be the change you want to see in the world, all that.) But I know it’s going to get tougher, and there will be coaches and parents who don’t feel this way, and heck, who knows, maybe I’m wrong. I don’t claim to have all the answers. Maybe you’re supposed to instill in these kids that it’s a hard world and you better get yours because if you don’t someone else will.

But it’s not gonna happen on my team. We’re not gonna yell at the umpires. We’re not gonna stick our worst player at the bottom of the order or in deep right field every game like he’s some sort of lost cause and he knows it. We’re not gonna care if we go 10–0 or 0–10 or 5–5 or any of it. We’re gonna go out and be silly kids and try to enjoy this beautiful game that I love so much and want them to love just even more. It’ll be exhausting sometimes, and frustrating, and even occasionally dispiriting: The world is not always the way we wish it to be. But I still cannot wait. Little League baseball, and my father’s coaching, taught me to love baseball so deeply that, more than 30 years later, it’s still central to my very being. (I wrote an old Life As A Loser column about my father’s coaching.) I don’t remember our records any years my dad coached the team. I just know I loved every minute of it and can, still today, name every player on all our teams. My children are getting old enough now that they are reaching the age where I can recall specific memories, which is disorienting and a little scary. But this is, you know, the point. We’re gonna go out there and have a blast. The world won’t always be so simple and fun. But on this diamond, for 90 minutes, it can be. And it will be.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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