The Speech

November 21, 2014

The coach’s chair

The Redz Bar and Grille at the DoubleTree Suites in Mt. Laurel New Jersey had found themselves a loyal, if slightly malodorous customer.

“Another Old-Fashioned, sweetheart?” said Sally, the been-there-forever bartender with the voice of a thousand cigarettes.

“Please,” I sighed in return.

“Not sure why I even asked,” she replied with a grin, stealing the evidence of melted ice, cherry stems and orange peels from view.

“Get him as many as he wants, and don’t let him pay!” shouted a voice from the door. My co-coaches were wandering in.

“We had a feeling you’d be in here,” said TJ, clapping one of his Hagrid-sized hands on my back. He, Steve, and Mark had popped to their room to wash off a double-header’s worth of dirt from their bodies and souls. Me, I couldn’t wait that long.

“Tough day at the office,” added Steve, ordering himself an Amstel Light and sliding in beside me.

“No doubt about that,” I replied. “I hope the kids are okay. I mean, they’re nine years old, for god’s sake. What the hell did I just do out there?”

For it was not our two wretched losses that sent me to Sally. Yes, we lost by mercy rule twice, the second time to a team we clearly could have competed with. But all these kids here at the “Killer B” tournament had never actually traveled out of Arlington to play. And because at the outset of the summer there wasn’t even going to be a 9u B-Team, we got off to a very late start.

The "Black Attack" who beat my Aces munching on their trophies

The “Black Attack” who beat my Aces munching on their trophies

But this was our second tournament, and after going winless in our first, and then losing to the summer house team who had won the local team tournament I had coordinated (The Duel for the Doughnuts–still love the name!), the fact that this group of boys had still not gelled weighed on me.

I felt like my coaches and I had done everything, kept things positive when we were down, tried to focus on what we were doing right and where we needed to improve. But when the kids pranced out of the dugout after our drubbing in the same happy-go-lucky way they had done in every game before, with their Christmas morning smiles of the impending pool and pizza mayhem to come, my “relentless optimism” needle finally hit empty.

“I have no idea why any of you are smiling right now.”

“You have nothing to smile about.”

Yep, that’s how ole’ Coach Sunshine began. The smiles, as you might expect, faded into wide-eyed silence.

Now, I cannot remember word-for-word what vomited from my brain thereafter, but piecing it together as best I can, here’s how it pretty much went:

Our mantra as a team is “Win Every Inning.” And in every game before this one—win or lose—you worked hard to do just that. Whether we were ahead or behind, you worked your hardest and did your best to get better every inning, to compete every inning, and to help the team every inning.
Until this game.

I know some of you here feel lousy about losing. And do you know what? I’m glad. Not that winning is the most important thing about baseball, but caring about it, wanting to compete, that is right up there at the top of the list.

When we got down early, I didn’t hear anyone try to pick his teammates up. I heard more talking about the pool party than about the next at bat. More teasing and joking rather than yelling and cheering. You didn’t lose this game because that team was better than you. They aren’t. You lost it because they wanted to win and you didn’t seem to care.

We are your coaches, and we selected you out of the many other kids who came to try out. And I’ll tell you now that I don’t regret any single one of our decisions. There is not one of you I’d even think about replacing with another player who tried out. But while we can tell you what it means to be a team, while we can instruct you on how to improve your game, while we can try to get you to understand how winning baseball is played, we can’t get out there and play for you.

The first half of our season is over. Tomorrow is the last game of this tournament, and the last chance to show people outside Virginia what “The Aces Way” means. What we do in the second half of the summer is in your hands. You can either come together, or fall apart.

I believe in you. All of us coaches do. But you have to start believing in what you can do together. We saw today what happens when you don’t.

So go, eat pizza and noodle around like crazy men in the pool. But think about what I’ve said, and decide what kind of team you want to be starting tomorrow.

No team cheer to end things off. I was tempted, but not this time. Just a quiet parting of the ways as the boys lugged their gear off and headed back to the hotel.

And that’s what brought me to the bar. Normally I’d have a beer with the parents and play around with the kids. But I felt that Coach Grumpypants didn’t have a place at that that table. So after stealing away with a couple of slices of pie (by the way, if you’re in the Mt. Laurel area, I can’t recommend Montesini’s Pizza highly enough, ambrosia for this New York slice-deprived Arlingtonian!), I retired to drown my sorrows and question who I really was as a coach.

The next morning, Gunnar and I wandered into the restaurant for the breakfast buffet and saw my kids scattered about.

“Have a good time last night?” I asked Kyle.

“Yes Coach,” he replied quietly.

“Ready to start our second half strong?” I followed.

“Yes Coach!” he replied earnestly.

Beware the egg trough before baseball

Beware the egg trough before baseball

I got the same sort of responses from the kids as I wandered around the room, and when we all got to the field, there did seem to be more of a sense of determination. It did start with my own son, who ate from the “Vat O’ Eggs” at the breakfast buffet and found they didn’t agree with him.  He excused himself, trotted to the garbage can, threw up, and returned to the hitting line.

“Gunnar, why don’t you just rest?” asked TJ.

“No thanks Coach, I’m fine, really!” Gunnar said forcefully.

Love the ole’ Boot-and-Rally.

And we could all see right at the beginning that there was something different about the kids. They were still having fun, but the way they had fun was different. We got down two runs early, and in past games that would have triggered a “here we go again,” reaction. But this time we managed to wriggle out of it, and the team was psyched. We then went from just losing an inning to tying one, as they held us down again, but we threw up a goose egg of our own.

It felt like real baseball.

We all felt it.

And then we exploded.

We hit, we walked, we stole, we hollered and we listened. Three outs later, the score was 10-2 in our favor.

We had been here once before, in the final game of our first tournament when we ran out of pitching and blew a big lead. But this time was different. Yes, we wobbled and they came back. But we tacked on and didn’t allow any inning to get out of control.
14-9 your final.

Aces Win @ Medford

Triumph on foreign soil

16 young boys streamed from the “good game line” straight out to the wailing throng of parents in Center Field, filled to overflowing with their first flush of victory in travel ball.

It wouldn’t be their last.

For the next time we tasted the sting of defeat would be the championship game of our final tournament of the season. But that’s a story for another time.

I’m still not sure if I straddled that fine line you try to walk as a youth coach, or I stepped over it, but I do know that by challenging these kids to expect something of themselves, and each other, there is no doubt in my mind that it impacted their mindset from there on in. Too many times we coaches try to be everything to our players—certainly I may be more guilty of that than most. So by allowing them to realize that this was their team, it empowered them to become more than the sum of their parts.

And those parts were pretty darned great to begin with.

Batting With Your Brain: Spider-Sense

October 20, 2014

My pack of 9-year-old Arlington Aces, the summer B-Team, were going up against the Vienna Muckdogs in our first tournament game. For most of them, it was their first game ever outside the cozy confines of rec league and in the wild world of summer travel ball.

Trying to keep kids focused when pizza and pool beckons--the life of the travel team coach...

Trying to keep kids focused when pizza and pool beckons–the life of the travel team coach…

They were excited.

They thought they were ready.

I hoped they were ready.

They weren’t.

Now, to my fellas’ defense, we had only been together for 3 practices before it was time to hit the field, where the Vienna team had been together all spring long. That said, the 19-0 drubbing was well beyond what anyone had expected. But, counter to what you might think, it was not the 19 that was the major concern.

The Muckdogs hit fairly well, and we were still getting to know our players on the mound and in the field. There were some jitters, some errors, and a whopping 12 walks in 4 innings. But all of those were predictable under the circumstances.

The fact that these kids, all among the top hitters in their spring league, managed one hit and only three other balls put in play for outs was another issue altogether. The Muckdogs had one flame thrower after another, and we were completely unprepared for the new pace of the game.

Yes, we weren’t the big, bad Arlington Storm (our league’s “A” team), but, still, over 40 players actually tried out for the Aces, so the kids who made it felt like they were still among the best the county had to offer.

What I realized in watching these kids against elite-level pitching (and, I have to say, what that team was doing in the B-level of this particular tournament is a bit of a question mark, but I digress…) was that most of these kids relied on the old “See The Ball, Hit the Ball” philosophy that works really well for talented athletes at the rec level. This means you see the pitch, recognize its speed and location, then react with a step-and-swing.

This is one of the very hardest things for coaches and players alike to recognize and change, because that is the natural way to hit. But there comes a point where kids throw hard enough, and then even start to change speeds on purpose where that kind of reactive hitting simply doesn’t work anymore. That game against the Muckdogs was our Exhibit A.

As we dragged ourselves to the next field hoping for better, I struggled to find a way to quickly explain to 9-year-old kids how to think differently not just about the mechanics of hitting, but the mentality.

Almost hard to tell if she's going to pitch overhand or underhand here.

Almost hard to tell if she’s going to pitch overhand or underhand here.

What came to mind at first was this amazing Sports Illustrated article, an excerpt from the book The Sports Gene. It explains why the most elite hitters in Major League Baseball, including all-time home run king (place an asterisk there if you’d like) Barry Bonds could hardly manage a foul ball off of softball superstar pitcher Jennie Finch.

As it turns out, the way great hitters are able to adjust so well to great pitching is that they have developed a sort of “precognition.” They begin their approach to the ball before it is ever released, having developed a sense of release point and angle of attack so that they “pre-act” to the pitch, then adjust based on what is delivered. Fascinating I know, but a little complicated to get kids to think about in the 5 minutes of warmup swings before a game.

And that’s where being a baseball nerd came in very handy.

When the word “precognition” came up, it immediately made me think of its use in Sam Rami’s first Spider-Man movie. As I’ve noted in my castigation of the reboot, Spider-Man is my absolute favorite Super Hero.  So it was a natch to remember that this was was the term the scientist in the lab used to describe reaction time so fast it bordered on seeing things before they happened. “A… spider-sense,” she concluded.

So when my kids came running out for pre-game BP, I told them to put their bats down. We needed to talk before we hit.

“Who here has ever heard of Spider-Man?” I asked.

As expected, first a confused pause, then all hands raced into the air.

“Great.  Now, what super-power does Spider-Man have that might have to do with the way you hit fast pitching?”

A much larger pause. Then a couple of cautious hands crept upward.

“Well, uh, he can climb walls, and stuff,” said John.

“Well, yes,” I replied, “but are we going to climb the backstop in order to hit fast pitching?”

A head shake.

“Well, he’s super strong,” Brian chimed in.

“True, but there are some very, very strong people out there who can’t hit, right?”

A nod.

At that point, they were all done guessing.

Spider Sense“So, has anyone heard of Spider-Sense?” I queried.

I was met with only the blank stares of ignorance. Poor children, I thought. Being denied an essential education in the classics.

“Spider-Man’s most important power (as proven when he took on Venom, a creature with the power to dampen that power, but I digress…), is his ability to actually sense danger before it actually happens. By knowing something is coming, he is able to be prepared to react to what he sees even before he sees it.”

“Oh yeah,” responded Jack.  “That’s sweet.”

“Yep,” I continued, “but do you know what’s sweeter? The fact that the very best hitters in baseball use Spider-Sense.”

The stares of anticipation after that comment told me that I had them. I went on to explain the Sports Illustrated article, and that the only way to hit good pitching is not to react, but pre-act. The process of the swing must begin before the ball ever left the pitcher’s hand, seeing the strike first, then adjusting to what actually came out of the pitcher’s hand.

Now, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we got whupped 14-2 by the Northwest Reds in the next game. But “Spider-Sense” and “See the Strike” became the team hitting mantra and philosophy throughout the season. As the lesson sunk in, I saw player and player begin to lift that front foot before the pitcher ever release the ball. And these kids who had their bats crossing the plate well after the catcher caught the ball started to find their elite-level timing.

While we never faced that Muckdogs team again, we did get another shot at the Northwest Reds in our last tournament of the season.

The result? We scored 13 runs, and became the first B Team in tournament history to win our bracket with a perfect record.

Not bad for a bunch of web-heads, eh?

Bossy on the Baseball Field

May 23, 2014
IMG_1331

That tickle monster wasn’t about to touch Tenley!

She stood there, pink pool noodle held aloft like a light saber, just awaiting her opportunity. The boys were trying to whack me silly as I dashed, darted, and tried not to think about the plantar fascitis that’s cropped up since I started trying to keep up with the preschool crowd. Sometimes I’m not sure if this whole coaching thing is keeping me young, or making me fully feel all of my middle age.

After a few cursory bops, little Tenley decided to hang back, her eyes fixated on the small black bag that dangled over my shoulder. For inside was the cornucopia of Fuzzy Flies I would occasionally toss in the air. For in my “Super Silly Sluggers” game, bopping me with the noodle was worth one point, but if you could take a real baseball swing and hit a fuzzy when I tossed it in the air, it was worth 10.

Tenley didn’t want to play. She wanted to win.

And that’s the way she’s been since I met her. Verbal, intense, and always wanting to let you know what she thinks about baseball, stuffed animals, her vacation plans—you name it.

This little girl is the poster child for the #BanBossy movement started by Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.”

She is also the poster child for why that movement is wrong.

BanBossy-ButtonOther than its alliterative quality, the attempt to ban a word is about as good an idea as trying to force a verbal and intense child into becoming a quiet, good little girl. It doesn’t work, as this excellent piece by the LA Times explains, and ends up reinforcing all the negatives rather than channeling the power of that word (or child) to become its best self.

A few weeks before, we had played a different game with our puffer ball friends. “Hustle!” she implored as Andy casually ambled over to pick up the evil, alien fuzzy fly he had vanquished by allowing it to bop off his nose “Go put it in the box!” she pled, her little pink shoes darting up-and-down anxiously.

Again, Tenley was dead serious. The Kinhaven Preschool Sparkling Stars had to save the world. And Tenley was darned well going to make sure they made it happen.

This “Fuzzy Flies” drill, which begins the Spaceball! section of my FUNdamentals class, is one of my absolute favorites. It really combines so many great aspects of baseball. This game is ostensively about introducing kids to catching fly balls. But for many kids, it is much more than that.

lizard brainIt’s about learning how to face our fears. For allowing a ball to bop you in the nose challenges that “Lizard Brain” that makes you want to turn away from what might be dangerous rather than to stare it down. And turning away from a fly ball is the very best way to be hurt by it. I think there’s a metaphor in there somewhere…

Of course, I have to don pair of those googly alien antennae on top of my cap, because, well, I just have to. Then in my best retro-1950’s alien voice, I begin.

“Greetings Earthlings! From deep space, an army of lethal Fuzzy Flies are descending. If 10 of them land on the ground, they will multiply into millions and take over the world! There is only one way to deactivate them, and that’s to bop them with your nose!”

Tenley, as usual was a star. But she knew she couldn’t do it alone.  So she was ready to take charge and make sure the job got done. And then when we played “CoachN Says” she made sure that when others might be going for one of my clever tricks by being extra silly, that the goofy guys on the team didn’t take the bait.

Leaders have to be bossy—by nature they tend to be “idea people” that are thinking along with whatever is happening, and volunteer their opinions quickly and forcefully. It is a great trait to have.

Baseball, however, is a team game, and what I’ve noticed about kids like Tenley is that they by nature feel like they know what they’re doing and want to be in control. Neither are bad traits, indeed they are great ones. But, much like the word “bossy” they can be expanded beyond their traditional notion.

With Tenley, it all started with, “The Tale of Gus & Coach Grumpy Pants” (yes, I will write that story here). The notion being that by clapping and cheering for your teammates and making them feel better, you are helping the whole team, and therefore, yourself. And with every game we played, when she started to get a little anxious for her turn, I reminded her that there was no way she’d get the sticker for her hat unless everyone contributed.

I saw all this manifest in Tenley near the end of our first session. It was our very last fuzzy flies game. This time the kids had the balls and were throwing them at me, gaining a point for every hit. When I yelled “FREEZE!” the kids had to use proper form to throw it at me. I gave them a choice of 2, 5, or 10 point throws, and I move to an appropriate distance back to let them have at it.

As per usual, they managed to win the game, and we were at the end of our time. But as I was running to get the star stickers to adorn their hats, I heard Tenley’s voice. “Coach-Coach-Coach!” she yelled anxiously. To be honest, I was tired, and really wanted to dole out the stickers and go home. I turned around about to tell Tenley that we needed to get a move on, when I saw Mark standing cross legged, bottom lip quivering. “Mark never got a turn!”

Of course, I apologized to Mark, and gave him a couple of extra throws to bop the old coach, but I gave Tenley the biggest high-five his preschool shoulder could handle, knelt on the ground, looked her straight in the eye, and said, “Now that is what being a teammate is all about.” She smiled as if she had just scored the winning run.

It was then I knew what her nickname would be—the only nickname I’ve given to two different players—Cap. For while one of my captains feared competition at first, and the other started wanting to do nothing else, both of them found themselves as leaders, using the best of what they are to make themselves and others better.

To me, that is the best of bossy. And both that attitude and that world should be celebrated.

So if Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t like bossy, she can send it over to me on the baseball field any old day.

What’s in a Nickname?

April 23, 2014
Rapture at 99 cents a pop.

Rapture at 99 cents a pop.

Now that I’m “coaching for a living” so to speak, I’ve adapted one of my favorite traditions—the post-season party—to a post class celebration where every player gets a certificate of achievement and a prize (usually a “fuzzy fly” puffer ball like we use in class to learn how to keep our eye on the ball by letting it hit us in the nose).  Throw in some juice boxes and bunny crackers, and you’ve got yourself a gala affair.

But what I’ve found most fun is a new wrinkle on the post-season award; giving them something they really need as a ballplayer—their first nickname.  Before this became an official part of the program, the nicknames I gave to some of my players just came out organically.  As my players and parents will tell you, I’m a bit of a stickler for getting my kids to cheer for their teammates from the bench.  I find it keeps them focused on baseball and on the team while they’re waiting their turn, and, as I’ve told my kids in, “The Tale of Gus and Coach Grumpy Pants” (a tale I am writing up and will post here), when you cheer for your teammates, the whole team really does get better.

But simply cheering “BO-BBY!” and “SAR-AH!” over and over can get a bit tedious, so to mix things up, some of our players had natural nicknames.  There was “LU-CKY-LUKE!” “GUN-NAR-MAN!  “SWEET-PETE!” and “GO-GO-AN-TO-NI-O!” to name a few.  But, as a history nerd on top of a baseball one, my very favorite of all time is “TIPPECANOE-AND-TYLER-TOO!”  For as long as he was on the field with me, he became known as “Tippe” rather than Tyler.  It’s always fun to call a kid by a nickname, see her or him turn around, and know that it’s stuck.

Of course, in the case of many of my students, this nickname may well be the first and last time that they hear it.  And, for that reason, I actually spend a little more time than I probably should thinking it out.  Some come pretty naturally as they just roll with the name like Sweet Pete.  But, in this case, I want to make sure that each nickname actually says something about the player, trying to reinforce something positive I saw in them not only as players, but as people.

I can’t say each one is a home run, but some of my faves have included :

  • “Rock”: Strong and solid at every skill, always listening, and someone you can depend on to be there and do his best every time.
    “Whip”: Yes, a great arm, but she’s also always thinking, looking to answer my questions, and help others understand what we were doing in competitions.
  • “Dream”: She plays like a dream, but she is so joyful about everything (“Oh, that sticker is just SO shiny and new!”) that she lives life like it’s a dream.
  • “Magic”: My resident skeptic who chided me when I went to get stickers from my “magic bag of tricks” that there was no such thing.  I told him that I saw magic each and every time he focused and showed me what he could do.  The best kind of magic is baseball magic.
You knew I had to get a Met in there

You knew I had to get a Met in there

Yes, sure, I realize that these may be one-and-done, but there’s something about a nickname, especially a resonant one, that seems to capture the imagination in a way very little else can.  Whether it’s the joy of “Say Hey” Willie Mays, the singular talent of Stan “The Man” Musual or the importance of Tom “The Franchise” Seaver, a nickname is often worth well more than a thousand words.

Indeed, when I went to pick up my son at extended day right before spring break, I ran into two of my former students.  When I quickly made the mistake of calling them by their given names, they were very fast to correct me.  “No coach, call me Dash!” one said.  I made my humble apologies to Dash, and traded fist-bumps with “Great Nate.”  In turn, they reassured me in clamorous unison that they were, “STILL PRACTICING BASEBALL!” and regaled me with so many details of their spring teams that I needed to drag myself out of there to get my guy to his practice.

No doubt, those are the moments that make coaching worthwhile.  Especially given one of those kids really had some trouble staying focused in my class, and on several occasions I needed to discipline him and sit him out for a bit.  To me, that’s proof positive that, as I noted in this post, you can combine discipline with fun, and even the kids that you feel aren’t “getting it” may be getting it more than you ever expected.  But I think that nickname helped to cement all the positive aspects of his time in my class, helping to reflect back on what he did with pride and fun.

And all with just one word.

I think as a coach, there’s real power—power I didn’t expect to have—in that.  This makes it a very interesting and potentially effective tool for every coach to help reinforce individual, positive attributes about the player very quickly, while keeping within the context of teaching a team game.

In my next post, I’ll return to nicknames with the story of the only two players who got the very same moniker—“Cap.”

The Forever of Opening Day

March 31, 2014

We trundled to school today side-by-side, hands in pockets.  The whipping wind still trying to push us back into our heavy coats and the doldrums of a long winter’s hibernation, but little G and I instead embraced our windbreakers, basking in the high sky and sun that beckoned toward warmer days…

…and baseball.

The two of us were indeed a sight to behold.  Gunnar shrouded his freshly-laundered Bryce Harper jersey with the traditional navy jacket of his Nationals.  He didn’t seem to mind at all that his Dad looked more like he was headed to the Breakfast Club, the shimmering satin blue of the vintage 1987 Mets jacket shimmering garishly in the early spring glare.

And so we smiled and shivered knowing that this illusion of forever, this connective tissue of our family moving into its fourth generation, was our reality once again.  So with our fist bump and kiss, we separated, but this time knowing that our pattern starts once again.  Knowing that when I see him after Math Club, the question “How was your day?” will not be replaced, but merely substituted, as “What was the score?” in our family means pretty much the same thing.  It is the beginning of that maze of conversation that may lead in endless directions: school, girls, politics, friends, girls, climate change, girls—on and on.  But that binding agent, that common ground that grounds our relationship—it always starts “What was the score?”

And that is what is so beautiful about baseball—a game that mimics life.  It’s seemingly endless schedule.  It’s leisurely pace.  It’s a game that’s doesn’t proffer the pompous grandeur of the Super Bowl or the spectacle so insane it can only be termed March Madness .  It’s a game that, if you allow it to, permeates into the fabric of life.  It’s astounding beauty and it’s background noise.  It’s spectacular moments and it’s 6th inning naps.  And it’s there, every day, offering the possibility of something new couched in the comfort of the familiar.

It’s there, of course, until it isn’t.  Until the cruel autumn winds come to sweep the game into slumber once again.

But the winds today are that of spring, and the game once again offers the promise of a forever stretching in both directions.  I’m eight years old sitting in the tattered wood seats at Shea, eating grapes as my Granda Lou correctly predicts the home run Neil Allen will give up to Dave Winfield to lose yet another game, continuing a winless streak for the Nathanson clan in Flushing that stretched from 1977-1983.  Yet at the same time I’m a grandfather, sitting with my two sons and their kids, explaining how their favorite first baseman is good, but there will never be another one quite like Keith Hernandez.

And it all begins again today.

“Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.” – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind

The Giving Tee

March 6, 2014

Baseballs go from soft foam to hard leather.  Kids outgrow their gloves and helmets and bats.  But even as our kids change and the game changes along with it, there’s one piece of equipment that can go from first swing to game 1 of the World Series—the batting tee.  A tee can be a piece of living memory for coaches and kids alike, not dissimilar to Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree.

Hello, old friend

Hello, old friend

Behold my Giving Tee—one I’ve had since my 12-year-old graduated from BlastBall.  It squeaks when I carry it around as the handle has rusted a bit from forgotten nights out in the rain.  It’s black plastic body hides a multitude of scars as numerous closed-eyed, spinning swings have taken their toll.  And the tee itself isn’t even the same one that originally came with it.  That heavy-duty, spiral rubber top managed to survive about seven seasons, but was ultimately overwhelmed by the power-sans-control of my 10-year-old Grays.  But I brought it back to live using the tee tube of one of my numerous other victims, using a carrot peeler to slim the tube down enough so it could move up and down and still be secured in the shaft.

I love this tee.  And when I see it sitting there, holding my boys’ bats, waiting anxiously for another season in the sun, I feel like it loves me right back.  This tee makes me especially excited to be going back to coaching t-ball, as it gets the chance to start over with yet another group of kids playing, laughing, and learning.

Okay, yes, I cried at the end of Toy Story 3.

But whether you’re a nerd like me turning a tee into a family heirloom, or perhaps because I’ve convinced you (or you already knew) that tee work is important at every level of baseball, I hope you’re going out and adding a batting tee to your baseball equipment must list.

So let me give you a quick guide to purchasing, protecting, and using your tee.  Tear-jerking personification is entirely optional.

BUYING A TEE

There are four general tee categories that I have experience with.  Let me give you a rundown:

Bucket Tees: The concept of these are simple and fantastic.  The tee and the bucket are one piece, allowing you to keep your balls and tee together, which is extremely convenient.

Try throwing a few batting donuts in the bottom to help keep it from tipping

Try throwing a few batting donuts in the bottom to help keep it from tipping

I’ve either used or seen three different types of Bucket Tees.  First is the Easton Bucket Tee.  This baby will run you about $50 and has 30 whiffle balls included, which makes it a pretty darned good bargain.  The key is that this one is made almost entirely out of rigid plastic, so it’s not overly durable.  It uses an elastic band to allow the tee to collapse down into the bucket and be sealed.  This one is best suited for the foam bat set, but could be used for t-ball and early coach pitch batting practice. If the mechanism to raise and lower the tee breaks, an easy fix is just to jam a key in as a wedge.  Worked like a charm for me.

My Giving Tee is a bucket tee made by the Virginia Baseball Club.  It costs around $40 and is much more durable.  Unfortunately they don’t ship, so you’d need to be in the Northern Virginia area to score one of these (they’ll even build one for you at a discount if you bring your own bucket).  This tee isn’t the greatest for first swings, as the lowest it goes is 2 feet high.  Also, the tee cannot go into the bucket, so it does not seal up.  But it does have a weighted bottom which keeps it from tipping over.

Osborne Bucket TeeFor those who like what they see from VBC but aren’t in the area, there is the Osborne Bucket Tee, which is available for about $80.  Like the VBC tee, this one is also weighted at the bottom, but puts the tee tube in the center of the bucket, and the tube is fully removable which allows the bucket to be sealed (and used for sitting for soft toss—a nice feature .  It looks like the tubes are replacable for around $20 a pop.  It also has a 2 foot minimum height, so may be better for the 8+ set rather than for first swings.

Rubber Tees: These are the tees most folks think about.  Usually fairly thick black rubber where the tee shaft fits into a molded raised hole in the base.

Now, for about $20 you can find a perfectly good basic rubber tee like this one.  The only issue with many of these is that while they fit in the molded hole, one good whack anywhere on the tube and it comes tumbling off.

5-tool batting teeSo if you are looking for a tee like this, I’d suggest you look for one that doesn’t just insert, but actually fastens in.  The most solid one I found was this Rawlings 5-Tool Multi position batting tee for $60, which has the advantage of actually having two tees that can either be linked or separated.  The downside to tees that fasten in with a screw, however, is that the kids can beat on them enough that the hinges that hold them together actually break.  Once that happens, time to head back to the store.

If you get this particular one, I would suggest NOT using the connecting piece and just use the two tees as needed.  So when one tee is hit, the whole tee will fall over—that give will keep the screw and bolt system from bending and breaking.  Then flipping the tee back up is far faster and easier than reinserting the tube itself.  These tees and almost every basic black rubber tee start at 20’’ instead of 24 or 25, which makes this perfect for t-ball work.

Note that many of these tees have replacement tops and tubes.  So when you buy, you may want to just Google your product and see if yours have replacement parts easily available.  Especially for the more expensive items, it’s good to know that you might be able to replace parts rather than the whole tee.  For coaches, having a replacement tube or top on hand is a great way to ensure that drills can continue even if there’s a mid-practice malfunction.

One last thing I’d note is that you’ll see a whole variety of tees that have tubes that can move from location to location on the plate.  I’d suggest you don’t spend the extra money for that.  Instead, use a simple throwdown home plate for your location, and simply move the tee so the tube is at your preferred location on that plate.  It ends up being faster than moving the tube around.

And a toy surprise inside every tee.  Just break and find, kids!

And a toy surprise inside every tee. Just break and find, kids!

Cheap Plastic Crap Tees: Okay, I guess I’m giving myself away here.  Tees take a beating.  So whether you have a little one wielding foam or an all-star softball slugger with her composite bat, learn from my failures and just stay away from the “My first tee” kind of stuff.  The MLB Foam Teeball Set was great—for the foam bat.  The tee lasted about 20 swings.  Then I thought I’d get clever as I saw this anti-tip batting tee.  Well, as good as its name as it didn’t fall over, the middle of the tube snapped off after about, yep, 20 swings.  Note that both of these products carry the MLB logo.  The only think I’ve been able to surmise about this is that any youth baseball equipment with the MLB logo is roughly equivalent to a product being approved by Krusty the Clown—don’t assume quality.

The one tee of this ilk I had any success with is the SKILZ 360 tee.  The claw top was a bit more durable and the “anti-tip” base actually withstood some significant thumping.  And when the claw top came off, you could still place the ball on the tube itself, so I ended up get a solid couple of years out of this one.  The tube, however, is not adjustable, so for the money, I’d say you’re still better off going rubber.

Professonal Quality Tees: Not much to say about these.  This $80 Tanner Tee is one of the standards you’ll see and there are a number in the same price range much like them.  They are easily adjustable, the tops are well made, and they stay quite stable.  I would not recommend them for young t-ball players using metal bats, as the tubes can be bent and dented so they’re really for more advanced players.

PROTECTING YOUR TEE

How tape can save your tee (see top) and what happens when you don't use it (see everywhere else)

How tape can save your tee (see top) and what happens when you don’t use it (see everywhere else)

The most important part of any tee—Duct Tape: Why, you ask?  Because whether you’re using a foam BlastBall bat or a cryogenically frozen carbon composite big barrel $3 jillion dollar special, tees take a serious beating.  At the early levels, kids hit parts of a tee you would never expect as they chop and twirl and close their eyes.  For more advanced hitters, even a great swing is going to strike the tip of the tee as the bottom of the barrel will brush the tee as the ball is struck directly on the sweet spot.  And because the default mistake most hitters have is to drop their hands below the ball, it is more likely that the tee is going to get whacked than a harmless swing over-the-top.

So do yourself a favor and give it a good wrap in Duct Tape.  For most tees, you can get pretty low on the tube itself without lessening the ability to move it up-and-down, but really build the tape up around the hitting area from the top down about 8 inches.  I usually go around a good 5-10 times.

For bucket tees, especially with younger players, it’s a great idea to actually give the top 4 inches of the bucket itself a wrap if it doesn’t hurt the ability to place the cover back on.  The Easton bucket especially is not of the best quality (mostly because no one expects you’ll ever hit them).  So even a foam bat can take a chunk out of the bucket, and you have a potential safety hazard as well as having the bucket itself not serve a purpose anymore if the crack is large enough for balls to spill out.

MY TOP TEE DRILLS

In my last post, I noted the “Pedroia Drill” which both my boys do as often as weather and homework allow.  But there are a few other great drills I’ve learned that I think really help maximize the value of working off the tee.

Two-Tee Drill: This one is my absolute favorite, as one of the most common issues for hitters from t-ball to the Majors is dropping the hands under the ball, rather than bringing the hands directly to-and-through the ball.  Placing a second tee about two feet behind the one the ball is placed on is a great way of getting players to really feel that loop in the swing and correct it (though, be warned, it can be hell on that back tee).

Testing this drill over time, I tend to like that back tee to be an inch or two lower than the front, as a slight uppercut is not the worst thing.  Having the back tee higher tends to teach the player to chop at the ball, so I’d avoid that. But pretty much any other tee drill can be supplemented with great efficacy using the two-tee approach.

Small Bat Drill: Here’s another Major Leaguer, Todd Frazier, with an interesting approach to hitting off the tee.

I pulled out one of my boys’ old t-ball bats which worked very nicely for this drill now that they’re bigger.  But another great tool for this drill (I’ll talk more about it in a future post) is “The Spatula.”  The actual name for it is the Insider Bat, and it is a wonderful way to help teach kids the right hands-to-the-ball approach as the only way to strike the ball is with proper hand position.

Belly Button Drill: I recently learned this one and love it, as along with dropping the hands, the “long swing” – i.e. swinging around the ball rather than directly through it – is one of the most common issues young hitters need to work out.  For this drill, you can use a screen, a chair, or a second tee, but you set up a barrier just off the outside corner of the plate.  The batter places the end of his bat on his belly button, and places the end of the bat so it touches the barrier.  Now, as the batter hits off the tee, the goal is to strike the ball without hitting the barrier.  It works well with soft-toss as well, but I’ve seen very few drills that so quickly teach players to keep their hands inside the ball rather than sweeping around it.

Well, there you go.  Hopefully enough (and more than likely too much) for you to go on.  Me, I think I’ll head over to ole’ Buckety and take a few cuts.  She’s looking a little lonely…

To Tee, or Not to Tee?

February 28, 2014

“But Coach, I can hit a pitched ball!”

DSC_0544This is the clarion call of the t-ball player, desperate to shed that kid stuff and start playing some real baseball.  And, of course, when Mom or Dad go out in the back yard and see that little Suzie can crank one onto the roof of their house (use whiffle balls around the house folks, as let me tell you from personal experience—and expense— even tennis balls can do some damage), they are ready to kick the tee to the curb and get their little slugger into coach pitch ASAP.

And that may well be the worst decision you can make for your young one’s development as a hitter.

What I say to both my kids and parents alike is, “You know who hits off a tee more than he does off live pitching? [INSERT FAVORITE MLB PLAYER HERE] does.”  And while that might be an exaggeration in some cases, it isn’t by much.  Tee work is a cornerstone of pretty much every major league hitter out there.  Why?  Because it allows a hitter to place the ball in exactly whatever part of the hitting zone he or she wants, and focus on the approach rather than trying to make contact.

Don’t believe me?  Perhaps Dustin Pedroia might be able to convince you:

But as important as the tee is to MLB hitters, it’s even more important to the kids just starting out.  This is because a baseball swing is a very complicated piece of physical mechanics.  Every part of the body has a very specific and important role.  Teaching proper head, hands, and feet positions is very difficult in itself.  I’ll describe some of my methods on how to break a swing down piece-by-piece to make it fun for the beginner in future posts, but safe to say that a child will have a LOT of moving parts to deal with just dealing with their own body.

Now, if you try to add a moving ball to the equation, most of the time proper swing mechanics just go out the window.  Indeed, often a young player will have more initial success hitting a ball with poor swing mechanics than with good ones.  Whether it is swinging off the front foot, spinning around in a circle, or chopping at the ball like it’s a piece of wood, what comes most naturally to a child is their body mechanical wheelhouse.

lizard brainThat’s their body’s default position, so when the Lizard Brain instinct takes over in a young player as they want to do anything possible not to fail, you’ve got a recipe for more short-term success and long-term issues.  That’s because you and your kids’ coaches will be spending more time down the line helping them to unlearn the poor approach that worked well enough at the beginning.

So both in terms of practice and league placement, don’t be in too much of a rush to ditch the tee.  The tee can allow coaches to do several different hitting drills at once, and because there will be less time spent on swinging-and-missing, kids will get more strikes at the ball and less time waiting their turn.  All while the coach can focus on good form from the very beginning.

Now if I’ve convinced you on the value of a tee, let me just give you fair warning before you go rushing out to the sporting goods store.  I have spent more time than I’d care to admit gazing upon scattered shards of plastic littering the ground: a brand new tee pulverized beyond recognition after a single practice.  In my next post, I hope to help you benefit from my dubious history to find a tee that works right for your players and your wallet.

Is Competing Bad for Kids?

February 13, 2014
Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

“Coach, we have a crier!”

The voice rang out from Tommy, my first-grader, and it wasn’t the first time.  Over the first three weeks of my first ever CoachN’s FUNdamentals class, this same little boy had made the same call each week as his Kindergarten teammate had become teary-eyed.

In my rush to make sure that the class continued, the first two times it happened, I zipped right past Tommy and right to Kyle, seeking out the source of the problem.  “Are you hurt, big man?” I asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.   A sleeve swept at the wet on his face, more successfully smearing rather than cleaning.  A simple shake of the head indicated that despite his frustration, he really, really wanted to play.

On the third occasion when we divided up into 3 teams for our Gorabigator fielding competition, Tommy once again unleashed his clarion call.  This time, however, I thought ahead.  Before talking with Kyle, I went to a knee, put my hand gently on Tommy’s shoulder, and said,

It's all about being a teammate.  I'll explain the Thor hat later.

It’s all about being a teammate. I’ll explain the Thor hat later.

“Tommy, what’s the most important thing about being a baseball player?”  His big brown eyes lit with the recognition that, perhaps, I wasn’t going to give him an approving pat on the back.

“Uh, being a…uh…team…sport,” he mumbled.  Close enough to run with.

“That guy over there wearing the same hat as you?  That’s Kyle.  Remember that he has a name, and it’s not Crier.”

I knew I had his attention, but I also knew I’d have it for about 10 seconds more—and that was all I could spare to make sure I kept the drills from lapsing into chaos.  “So while I know you’re just trying to help me, do you really think that’s respecting and supporting your teammate?”  Tommy shook his head slightly but definitively.  Point made.

Kyle was, of course, watching this from the wings.  I decided not to say anything to him at that moment other than, “Kyle, let’s go—glove to the ground.”  He slurped, sniffled, and fielded a grounder cleanly.

After the drill it was time for water break.  And I caught a break, as I had hoped that in coming to his defense, Kyle would open up a bit.  He came up to me and said, “Coach, do we have to do another game today?”

The question was a curious one to me, as I’ve found one of the key ways to keep kids interested in doing drills was to make the drills into competitions.  By splitting the kids up into two or sometimes three teams, I was able to keep them in the action while providing an incentive for the players to cheer for their teammates.  That’s what all the coaching books told me, and for years it’s been the perfect recipe.

So what gives?

“Why don’t you want another game, Kyle?”  I asked, seeing tears starting to well up once again.  He bravely kept his emotions from overwhelming him, and croaked, “I just don’t want to lose!” I responded with my standard line born from a million competitions-induced tears before:  that competition wasn’t about winning and losing, but striving to get better.  He reluctantly accepted my sage wisdom, and went onto be one of my biggest hitters of the day.  As we gave out star stickers for our hats, I have Kyle a big gold star for “comeback player of the day.”

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Problem solved, right?  Coach Scott’s great!  Give us the chocolate cake! And so forth.

But the next day, I was walking home from school drop-off with Kyle’s mother Yvonne.  “I heard that Kyle started slowly but finished strong yesterday,” she said.  I noted that I found out that Kyle was worried about losing, and talked to him about why we compete.  She sighed in that most parent-like of ways, and responded that Kyle was like this with anything that was competition oriented.  He was afraid to watch his favorite team play baseketball because he couldn’t handle seeing them lose.  He was always worried about his school work being all right because if it wasn’t, he felt like he had failed.  He even said, despite his obvious passion for baseball, that he didn’t want to play on a team because he was afraid his team might lose.

I empathized with Yvonne, my boys having had plenty of on-field meltdowns themselves over the years.  But when she was talking about Kyle, I flashed back to the competitions we were having over the past few weeks.  “What’s the score?” the kids would beg me over-and-over again.  But, no, most of the time, it was actually different than that.  It was “how much does the other team have?”  While that worry was more pronounced with Kyle, it was clearly present with all of the kids.  They were so preoccupied with what the other team was doing, so focused not on winning, but not losing,  that it took away from the team-building that I told all these kids’ parents was at the core of what I was trying to teach.

This wasn’t Kyle’s problem.  This wasn’t Tommy’s problem.  This wasn’t any of the kids’ problem.

It was mine.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game?  I have, too.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game? I have, too.

To put it in conflict partnership terms, the competitions I created became almost entirely power over focused, a “win-lose” scenario that split the kids apart rather than bringing them together.  And I realized that when kids get a little older, as I’m a bit more accustomed to with my boys being 9 and 12, they can more easily separate friendly competition with teammates from “do-or-die.” But for younger children just emerging from the cocoon of constant parental validation where first steps and first poops in the potty are fêted with World Series glee , they are really just starting to learn what competition actually is, that’s a hard distinction to make.

So, how to fix something like this?  Make sure every competition ends in a tie?  That doesn’t really take away the in-game issue, as they don’t know the game is rigged.  Remove competition entirely and go with the “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy?  I have to say that irks me as a coach.  Competition does test players, and helps them to get better.  It does teach essential cooperation and team-building lessons that help build better ballplayers, and people.  And it is simply more fun, as it brings urgency and goals to the table.  And, yes, it is a part of life kids need to learn how to deal with.

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills.  Safety first!

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills. Safety first!

The next week, I donned the Thor helmet borrowed from my son’s Halloween costume and began our “Hit Like a Hero” lesson.  As I did the week before, I broke the kids up into two groups, and gave them the arcane scoring system for mechanics and result.  I looked at Kyle, and could see the nerves already building up in his intense, earnest face.

“This week, we’re doing things differently,” I said.  These two groups are still one team.  Your goal is to get to get to 200 points.  If you do that together, everyone gets a star!”

I could see it on Kyle.  I could see it on Tommy.  I could see it on everyone.  There was no one in the room that could beat them.  Either they would win the game, or not.  They’d work hard, but not have to worry that anyone else in the room was better.  This was still competition, but it was a power with rather than power over exercise.

“Ready to play?”

“YEAH!” they bellowed.

The dynamic of the competition could not have been more different, even though the words were the same.  “How many do we have?” they queried constantly.  Then they’d run back to the other group to see how many they had.  As they approached the 200 point mark, the kids were screaming their support for each other.  And when the barrier was broken, it was a giant hurrah and high-fives all around.

That night, I got an email from Yvonne.  Kyle had decided that he wanted to supplement the team hats that I gave all the players with home-made jerseys because, she said, “it was something to show that he was a good teammate.”

The new uniforms weren’t quite done by our last session (I can’t wait to see them, but I’ll have to wait another week because of this darned snow) where we started using our “Green Arrow Throws” to start working on improving accuracy.  When I again broke up into two groups for a game, Kyle immediately came up and said, “Is this another points one where we’re together?”

“Absolutely, Kyle.  You’re working as a team.”

“Awesome!” he said, pumping his fist, “I love those!”

So do I Kyle.  So do I.

Your Child’s First Baseball Glove: When, Why, and What

February 10, 2014
And yes, they LOVE the honking base

And yes, they LOVE the honking base

I remember it well.  Gus was four, and signed up for his first year of BlastBall!, the hilarious version of America’s Pastime filled with scrums for the ball, dirt castles in the infield, and those first sparks of love for playing ball.

I wasn’t the coach yet, having agreed to assist Coach Brown’s Nationals, but unable to get over the betrayal I felt in my heart putting on the colors of one of the Mets NL East rivals, (“Sorry Dave,” I said, “it just makes me feel dirty.”)  But I distinctly remember one game when we corralled the heard of cats enough to play a team that I only remember as “The Grabbers.”

I’m sure they had some Major League team name as did we, but I will only remember them by that name because of their coach.  As we were warming up before the game, their team manager came running up to me and said, “You know, you aren’t doing those kids any favors letting them wear gloves at this age.  We have all our kids play barehanded and it is much better for them.”

So, first, let me just say to everyone out there who is or is even remotely considering being a youth coach—don’t do this.  I’ll get to some on-the-field etiquette when it comes to coaching in another post, but, unless what the other coach is doing creates some kind of unfair situation within a game, leave it alone and remember that there are many ways to be a successful coach—not just yours.

Given I was just tossing the kids a few grounders, and really had no experience coaching kids, I was a bit taken aback by the forcefulness of Manager Know-It-All J. Moose’s convictions.  “Oh, okay.  I blurted in response.  “I’ll let Coach Brown know.”  When I went back and told Dave about it, he shrugged his shoulders indifferently—the appropriate response, I do believe.

I swear they were in perfect fielding position!

I swear they were in perfect fielding position!

When the game began, it was the usual maelstrom of cute.  But one thing I did notice is that when a ball was hit near one of our fielders, they by-in-large attempted to use their glove like a spoon to scoop up the grounder; albeit our gals and guys spent more time chasing after the ball after it squirmed around or through them than they did actually making the play.  The Grabbers, however, were actually doing a actually stopping more than they booted, much to the satisfaction of Coach K-i-A.  That said, almost to a player, they would  stop the ball by squating down and grabing the ball as if they were plucking a flower.  They would then quickly apply the same skillset to the resident Dandelions.

It was at that moment that I really began to inculcate one of my baseline coaching mottos: for young players, technique is far more important than result.  For early success doing things the wrong way will lead to far more issues down the line than a few more botched BlastBall blasts.

And so if you are just getting your little one into the game, my strong recommendation is that you get your gal or guy a glove.  The strength of my recommendation is that fielding a ground ball is really the opposite of our instinct when we look to pick things up off the ground.  We are, by nature, grabbers.  When we see little Billy’s stray Lego threatening to transform into a late-night landmine, we don’t put both hands down and scoop with one hand and secure with the other.  We reach down and pick it up.  Because that’s natural, it will in the early stages of baseball clearly lead to a better early fielding percentage when those big puffy balls come tumbling forward.  But to my mind, it reinforces a habit that will not benefit them in the long run.

So that’s the when and the why of gloves—now onto the what.  Let me first start by recommending that you do not buy your four or five-year-old a nice, leather glove.  For the most part, the very small leather gloves tend to be stiff and even if they are not, they’re fairly heavy.  The key I’ve found is that you want to make sure that young kids have the sensation of the glove without it being cumbersome.  While some young kids can handle it, for beginners, it’s more like putting a giant mitten on their hand and then telling them to go do something athletic with it.

So save your money and go with the cheap stuff to start out with.  In that regard, there are three types of gloves I’ve tried out for the first-time players.  Let me give you the skinny on those:

foam gloveSoft Foam Glove: These are the gloves you’ll mostly see available at Target, Toys-R-Us, and at some sporting goods stores for youth players.  You can find them in more standard designs or in anything from Spongebob to Dora.

  • Pros: Most of these have a Velcro outside closure that makes adjusting and getting the glove on and off quite easy (so look for the ones with the Velcro).  The glove opens and closes more easily than with most leather gloves.
  • Cons: The foam tends to keep the glove in the open position, unlike a real glove that when broken in will fold naturally.  Not a terrible thing, but keeping the hand open does make squeezing throws and fly balls a little more difficult.  For those with sensitive fingers, the glove can be irritating.  For small hands, the glove can still feel a bit too big and clumsy.  Not available in left-handed throw.
  • Best For: Older 4-year olds to young 6-year-olds.  Very solid t-ball glove.

Easy Catch GloveEasy Catch Glove: This is the quintessential beginner’s glove that you probably remember from when you with a little one.  Again you can get this in about any color and go Spongebob to Strawberry Shortcake.

  • Pros: Very soft and malleable, this glove goes on very easily and kids can open and close the glove without issue no matter what their hand strength.  The glove is small, and I see that as an advantage at this age as while it gives the kids the sensation of having a glove on and reinforces wanting to “scoop” rather than “grab”, to secure the ball in the glove really requires two hands, which is very helpful to reinforce good overall technique.
  • Cons: While some may find it a pro, I don’t like the Velcro that is in the glove which allows the ball it comes with to stick in the glove.  I’d ditch that ball unless you’re using the glove with a toddler.  I’ve been using unpressurized kids tennis balls with my students and they have worked fine without sticking in this glove.  And, of course, if you are using a safety baseball or a BlastBall, you’ll have no problem there.  Durability is also an issue as this is definitely not made to be a keepsake.  There’s every chance you might end up needing to buy more than one over the course of a season.  No left-hand throw.
  • Best For: 3 to young 5-year-olds.  This is, to me, the best glove for the pre-T-ball set.  If you are just starting your child out at home, or starting her/him at the BlastBall or Slam Ball level, this to me is the best glove to use.
Here with my penguin tape addition

Here with my penguin tape addition

ItzaMitCatch Glove: Now, here’s one that’s a little outside-the-box.  Designed for water play, I’ve had several kids try this glove out and it is definitely something worth considering.

  • Pros: It’s reversible!  Out of all three of these options, this is the only one that will fit a lefty, the thin foam just pops the other way and it pops right on either hand.  This is especially helpful if you’re still not sure whether your child is left-handed or right-handed (which can be different for baseball than it is for other things, as my big guy is a righty all-the-way in baseball, but lefty in all other things). It’s also a good value as you get two gloves per set.  Because the fabric is so thin, it is very flexible so easy to open and close.
  • Cons: Because it’s reversible, it needs to be able to take the thumb on either side of the glove.  That makes it a bit wider than a normal glove and a bit clunkier.  Like the foam gloves, they also don’t close on their own.  Like the Easy Catch gloves, they do have a large Velcro patch in the webbing.  It’s tackier than the Easy Catch and so tennis balls will stick to it.  I solved that problem by just layering some colorful duct tape over both sides.  It is now my “penguin glove” and the kids often request it because it’s fun.  One other thing to consider is that the design of the glove leaves it with very little pocket, so the ball does not sink into the glove as readily as it does the soft foam variety.  Also comes with a hard, heavy ball that should be chucked or given to the family dog.
  • Best For: Little lefties!  Maybe a bit too unwieldy for the youngest players, a solid bet from ages 4 to 6.

Shut up and tell me about real gloves, Coach!:

9 inch gloveOkay, okay, I know a number of you really want to get your future gold glover a real glove, or perhaps your guy or gal balk at getting a glove that doesn’t look like the one their big-league icon wears.  Here are a few tips that might help you make that first glove turn out just right:

  • Size: So the soft foam gloves are 8.5 inches.  For your first glove, you don’t want to go too far beyond that.  There are a number of 9-inch youth models to choose from that range from $10 to $60.  Remember that you want to reinforce a two-hand catch and field early on, so getting a larger glove can actually lead to counter-productive habits.
  • Fit: The softer the better.  What you want more than anything is a glove that opens and closes easily.  Hand strength varies with kids, but it is not often a major asset.  While a glove breaks in over time, the more pliable it is when you buy it, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
  • Comfort: I’ve had any number of kids complain about how the glove hurts their hand, especially when putting it on and taking it off.  We’ve got busy little ones that often get scrapes and sores on their hands, which can make the process that much harder, especially because these youth leather gloves are rarely of high quality, smooth material.  There is one pretty easy solution to this problem—buy a batting glove.  If they get used to wearing a batting glove on their fielding hand, the fielding glove can slide on-and-off quite comfortably.  Lots of pros do it, so you can tell them that they’re doing it just like a big-leaguer.
  • Breaking it in: Okay, there are a gazillion ways to break in a glove, so just Google it and you’ll get plenty of ideas.  Also note that during the baseball season, a lot of sporting goods stores have their own glove steamers now and for $10 or so will break in your glove on-site to your satisfaction.  Note that I did say steamer.  Yes, water is actually your friend when it comes to breaking in a glove—don’t be afraid it.  I’m a big fan of the microwave technique; putting your glove in with a small bowl of water for a few minutes, removing it while piping hot and soft, and then using a mallet to whack at it all over, banging it closed and then slapping it in the pocket and webbing.  Lather-rinse-repeat until the glove is as broken in as you like it.  For the really cheap gloves, I would not suggest whacking it with a baseball bat to soften it (something that works well with a well-constructed glove) as the stitching might not hold up to the punishment.

So there you have it.  I hope my trials-and-errors will help you find the perfect fit for your young one to help get the grab out of fielding.

MLB Players: Give Back to the Community by Using Your Head—Literally

February 4, 2014

One of my younger son’s best buddies, I always call him Big Ben, is just getting over a concussion.  The incident, like that of my own big boy’s, was more a freak accident and not sports related, but it spelled the end of his basketball season.  It’s really too bad, because despite Big Ben’s relatively small size, his natural athleticism made him a big asset to the 3rd Grade team.

IsoBlox_0128_Demo_640x360I thought of Ben when MLB made the announcement that they were going to allow new protective hats for pitchers in games for the first time this year.  After Gus’s concussion, I did some research and found The Halo, a protective insert that MLB had tried out before ultimately deciding on isoBlox, and after some struggles with size, were able to find a way to make it work to the extent that Gus was comfortable.

I just offered Ben’s parents the chance to see if they could make our Halo work for him, as the big fella’s an even better baseball player than he is a hoopster, and I know every parent who has nursed their child through a concussion wants ever protection this side of bubble wrap to help give both them and their child every reasonable protection upon reentry.

In an ESPN interview, the isoBlox CEO Bruce Foster said that pitchers that tested the new hat didn’t feel much of a difference, but, he admitted, the look will take some getting used to.  “It will look different until it doesn’t look different anymore,” he said, noting how the goalie-style catcher’s mask now seems just as normal as the traditional variety.  It does look like they have a youth version – it will weigh 5-6 ounces and cost $60 (about the same as the Halo).  Here’s hoping it won’t take a XXL hat to make it fit correctly.

I was watching the MLB Network the other night, and Al Leiter (ah, the memories of the 99-2000 Mets— our only back-to-back playoff appearance—warm the heart) and Dan Plesac were discussing what percentage of pitchers actually wear the hat.  The highest percentage estimated was 50%, but the cynic in me thinks that is rather high.  Note that about 200 of the 750 Major League players used the Rawlings S100 batting helmet when it was first made available in the single-earflap version in 2012.  Rawlings continued to refine it because of “the look” and all players began using 2013 when it was made mandatory through the agreement between the league and the players’ association.

Mets Rockies BaseballSo why did so many players resist? Vanity, I believe, first and foremost.  For while they’re not the “Great Gazoo” helmet worn by David Wright after coming back from his severe concussion, the 2012 model did ride a little higher than what we are used to seeing.  And when that oddity is for extra protection, the instinctive athlete “macho” often comes to the fore.  The “man” doesn’t want to appear weak in the face of danger.

Now, that was just for a tweak to batting helmets, something we’ve understand is a protective device.  A hat, however, has never been seen as anything else but decorative, perhaps with a smidgen of sun protection.  And that’s exactly why it is even more important for Major League pitchers to step out of their comfort zone and use the new pitcher’s cap.  For there is no place on the field a player is more vulnerable than after she or he has released a pitch.  That’s one of the reasons I personally chose the Babe Ruth system over Little League, as I want the older boys to have the extra four feet (50 rather than 46) of protection from those line drives back to the box.

So here’s the rub.  Many Major League baseball players have set up charitable foundations to help those in need.  But what has made them into role models to children in America and around the world is what they do on the field.  And so when  Clayton Kershaw tried on that new hat and said, ““I’ve actually tried one of those on. I’ve thrown with it.  You don’t look very cool, I’ll be honest… But technology is unbelievable, and it really doesn’t feel that much different once you get used to it,” perhaps it was because he looked in the mirror and saw not himself but instead kids like Ben and Gus who might be spared a significant injury because their MLB hero holstered his machismo and donned the poofy protective cap, as it opens the door to real discussion about this kind of protection at the youth level.

So from this youth baseball coach and Dad, my kudos to every single pitcher who decides to wear “the hat.”  It  may very well be the best service a baseball player can give back to his community.


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