Becoming a Ballplayer

February 26, 2015

 

Not sure what lesson I'm teaching here, but this little fellas still playing ball!

Not sure what lesson I’m teaching here, but this little fellas still playing ball!

It is quite fascinating as a coach to toggle between my preschool classes and my work with older kids.

For my very little ones, my job as a coach is to teach them to love the game of baseball.  Find ways to make the basic skills of throwing, fielding, and hitting into something relatable and memorable, so that when the game of baseball gets “real” they will have both the fundamental skills to develop, and the attachment to the game that is enduring.

Once the kids graduate from tickle monster base races and Ninja Hitting, a coach’s job evolves as well.  At first, we just want the kids to love the game.  But when outs start to count, and not everyone gets a trophy at the end, we need to start teaching them to respect the game that they have, hopefully, come to love.

Most youth coaches will tell you that, given the relative attention spans of your average elementary schooler, when teaching a lesson, the key is to KISS (that’s Keep It Simple, Stupid).  For those of you who have read my posts before, you might know that’s something of a challenge for me.  But with the help of my fantastic co-coaches and borrowing liberally from others, a couple of years ago I put together our first set of player guidelines.  Being the Blue Wahoos, we called it “The Wahoo Way.”

The Wahoo Way is a set simple principles were what we expected from our players, and this list was the first thing up hanging in the dugout before every game.  We coaches constantly reinforced that while others may do things differently, we do things The Wahoo Way.  It became a great shorthand both for praise and criticism.

Finding a "Way"

Finding a “Way”

Last summer, I built on the shorthand of our Wahoo Way for my summer Aces 9u travel team.  I did so in two ways.  First, in our “Way of the Ace” instead of giving very simple principles, I instead used the acronym to give buzz words – Attitude, Competition, Effort, Sportsmanship.  And as you can see here, rather than simple sentences, we got more descriptive as to what those expectations were.

After all my players read this, we all, coaches and players alike, signed it.  One of my co-coaches from years past suggested this to me, but last year was the first time I actually used the idea of a signed pledge.  I would highly recommend it to every coach, and I really found that taking the time to discuss the pledge as a team, and then signing as a team brought a sense of accountability and commitment that was a fantastic way to start a season.  Just like The Wahoo Way, our signed pledge was up next to our lineup sheet on the dugout fence every single game as reminder that everyone “bought in” to the way we were doing things.

Hear the book is excellent as well.

Hear the book is excellent as well.

This winter, my 10-year-old’s basketball coach gave each player a copy of an article called Toughness by ESPN’s Jay Bilas.  Despite the fact it was more geared toward high-level high-school and college players, he asked them to read it for discussion at the next practice.

Both the piece itself, and Coach Jones’ request for them to read it were a huge eye-opener for me.  The article spoke brilliantly to what real basketball toughness meant, getting away from the chest-bumping and instead showing all the small ways, physical and mental, that turned a player into someone who really understood, appreciated and played the game right.

But what really struck me is the fact that Coach Jones didn’t simply keep it simple, but challenged the kids to read something more sophisticated, but meaningful about the game.  For there comes a point when if you want to teach kids truly lasting lessons in sports, you need to challenge their mind as much as their body.

After thanking Coach Jones for the great article, I said that I hoped there was something like it out there for baseball.  He responded that if there wasn’t, I should write something given my knowledge of the youth side of baseball.  I thought about it, fiddled with the idea, ran it by my coaches, and finally came up with something that I felt might be valuable and approachable to a youth baseball player as he (or she, no women on my team this year, unfortunately) starts to think about the upcoming season.

A few weeks ago, I challenged all my players to make an offseason fitness commitment.  I asked them to do as many pushups as they could, as many reverse crunches as they could, and sit in a catcher’s squat as long as they could.  Their goal is to be able to do 5 more pushups, 10 more crunches, and sit in the squat 15 more seconds at our first practice than they could when they first did them.

While I thought that was important, it was really the setup for what came next.  For after challenging their body, we sent them this letter and our new “Grinder’s Guide” to challenge their minds  Our central message–it’s time for them to think about the difference between playing ball and being a ballplayer.

We urged parents to read it together with their kids and discuss it, and be prepared to talk about it at our first practice coming up in a couple of weeks. And while I’m sure not every player will understand it all—heck, some may not even read more than what’s in bold—I believe that by not always keeping it simple, but bringing the brain into the game, you give players the opportunity to grow in way transcend the game itself.  To me, that’s really what coaching is all about.

Say it Ain’t So, Chicago

February 15, 2015
My first year--still dreaming of glory.

My first year–still dreaming of glory.

After my seventh grade season was over, my coach came up to me and said, “Scotty, what are you doing this summer?”  Well, I did the same thing every summer; jetting up to New York to be with my father.  Coach pursed his lips and said, “Oh, that’s too bad.  I was going to name you to the All-Star team, but I can only name two players and you need to be available the whole summer.  Why don’t you talk to your Mom about it.”

The All-Star team.

The words reverberated through my very soul.  I had heard about it for years.  A couple of past coaches had said that I had been among their top choices because I always hustled and was good defensively, but there always seemed to be a slugger and pitcher ahead of my curve.

Being a painfully shy, introverted kid, I was not one to even consider rocking the boat.  My parents were divorced and summer was my one big chunk of time with my Dad.  The mere notion of not going to New York in the summer—missing out on my trips to Shea Stadium or being stuffed until overflowing with edible love by my grandparents—those just seemed out of the question.  And so I turned down the offer—as it turns out my only offer—to play summer travel baseball.

baseball-little-league-world-series-west-region-vs-great-lakes-region-850x560I bring up this story because of the difference between what happened to me back then, and what is happening now in the system that produced the summer triumph and winter pain of Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League World Series team.

When the accusations came down about Jackie Robinson West coaches conspiring with state and regional Little League officials to knowingly falsify the borders of their league so that they could bring in those few extra players to help get them “over the top,”, Rex Huppke, columnist of the Chicago Tribune, said what many people were feeling:

There’s a sickness in youth sports in America, lurking just under the surface.  It’s a pathetic need among some adults to live vicariously through the success of children, and that need gets fed no matter what the cost.

The problem with that reaction, one I shared at first blush, is that it speaks to the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself.

Eight_men_bannedIndeed, it is akin to another Chicago baseball scandal of some renown.  For while Major League Baseball immediately addressed the surface issue of gambling and baseball, suspending the 1919 White Sox involved despite their escaping criminal conviction, it would take the game another half century to address the fundamental inequity of the Reserve Clause that gave owners almost slave-like control of their players fates.  It was this that allowed owner Charles Comiskey to treat his players like chattel; creating desperation and resentment that led Joe Jackson and his seven co-conspirators into the arms of the mob.

And, much like the suspending of those eight “Black Sox” was a Band-Aid to address the immediate offense, so too is Little League’s decision to punish the immediate wrongdoing—in this case creating collateral damage in the young men who did nothing but play their hearts out and represent the game of baseball in a way that paid tribute to the legendary name that their league adopted.

If you look more closely, however, youth baseball has a Reserve Clause-like issue of our own.  Huppke’s oversimplification of the problem with youth sports being “those grown-ups” actually does a disservice to a needed discussion, as it implies an, “It will always be this way…sigh.” kind of resignation.

I believe the more fundamental issue here is not jerk parents or jerk coaches.  Instead, it is the structure of youth baseball itself.

When spring rolls around and your local league opens its doors, the expectations are very different from what we are seeing with the Jackie Robinson West saga. Why?  Because everyone who signs up gets a chance to play ball.  That is what youth baseball is supposed to be all about—allowing kids a chance to start a lifelong relationship with our game.

What this often means as a practical matter is that players who might still close their eyes before they swing the bat are paired with kids that will one day play high school, college, or even pro ball.  Indeed, both leagues where I live, Arlington Babe Ruth and Arlington Little League, are constantly looking to tweak their systems to find the right blend between allowing kids to play with their buddies, and making sure that the teams are as competitively balanced as possible.

Many of these kids aren't playing baseball anymore, but I don't know one of them who is not still a fan.  THAT is youth baseball at its best.

Many of these kids aren’t playing baseball anymore, but I don’t know one of them who is not still a fan. THAT is youth baseball at its best.

This creates a special dynamic for youth baseball.  Unlike from what I have seen from youth basketball, soccer, football, or hockey, it is very difficult for a single player to simply “take over” a game.  The star player can’t bat every time to the plate; he or she usually gets up once out of every 11 or 12 times.  Most local leagues place strict innings limits so the star pitcher can’t be on the mound for maybe half of a game, if that.  Mandatory innings played rules ensure that no matter what skill level, players don’t sit the bench for more than one inning at a time.

The result is something that makes youth baseball an incredible experience.  Kids at every skill level learn that they must depend on each other.  They can see right before them that denigrating the weaker players on their team has a negative result that impacts them directly.  At its best, youth baseball teaches empathy, and the value of contributing to the best of your abilities.  It is teambuilding in the very best sense of the word.

Is that always how it happens in practice?  Of course not.  But that is the expectation.  A coach or a parent or a player has to work to make the experience ugly.  It certainly happens—I’d guess anyone who has played or had a child play a youth sport has seen it happen—but that really does tend to be the exception rather than the rule.  In many respects, this part of youth baseball remains very much unchanged from when I was a skinny little kid getting his one all-star invite some three decades (or maybe a bit more) ago.

In the spring, all the kids on that Jackie Robinson West squad played on a local league team, too—you have to in order to be eligible to play in Williamsport.  But when the local season ends, the baseball travel season begins.  And that is an entirely different animal.

Travel baseball flips the whole youth sports paradigm on its head.  No more “everyone can play.”  Instead the concept is that you are taking the best players in an area (or, as in the case of Jackie Robinson West, maybe a little more than an area…) and pitting them against other areas’ best kids. This concept creates an inherently different vibe.  For while the attentive coaches and parents can work to keep the focus on player development, teamwork, and friendly competition, the fundamental premise of travel sports elevates winning to a primary level.

Without a shadow of a doubt, I have seen more poor behavior among coaches and parents in one season of coaching travel ball as I have in all my seasons in local leagues combined.  Coaches that kick their 10-year-old kid off the pitching mound for crying (really, that happened).  Parents threatening to “go get their gun” when an umpire misses a call (really, that actually happened).  Coaches using a typo in our team’s lineup card to take a big hit away from one of our kids, and strutting off the field like they are some modern day John McGraw (I still can’t believe that one happened).

But the issues with travel baseball run deeper than just swinging open the door for hyper-competitive behavior among parents, coaches, and players.  I have also seen what travel baseball has done to undermine the value of local leagues.

When I was growing up, each local league coach selected the two top players on their team for the league all-star team.  This put real value on not only your skill, but impressing your coach enough to make him want to choose you.  This reinforced that “team first” attitude no matter what your skill level, as a talented but selfish ballplayer could get passed-over (and I saw that a couple of times when I was playing).

Last year, when I was put in charge of organizing the “B” summer travel team for my local league, I was told that I needed to have a tryout because everyone who expressed interest needed to have the opportunity, and we had almost 50 kids who were interested and we were taking only 15.  So I tried a hybrid approach in which we evaluated the kids and came up with a preliminary pool, but then consulted with the kids’ coaches to get some honest feedback.  That did make a difference, as several kids who were on the cusp of making the team were left off because of coach feedback about their hustle and sportsmanship.  It was a difficult, sometimes acrimonious process, but in all I thought it was a good one.

That, however, is not the process that my league is using this year.  Why?  Because all the other travel teams in the area were selecting their players for the summer team that previous fall.  This gives these teams a chance to play fall ball together, train over the winter, practice in the spring, and feel like a fully solidified team in the fall.

Finish Strong (and silly)!

Finish Strong (and silly)!

There is no doubt that such a system gives a group of kids a competitive advantage.  My Arlington Aces ended up on a big winning streak at the end of our summer season, and were the first B Team to make the finals of our local tournament.  But it took us the first 2/3 of the season for the coaches to really get familiar with the team, and for the team to feel like they were a team.

So now, both the A and B teams for our league are trying out in the fall as we don’t want to lose the “arms race” to the other league travel teams, not to mention the “club teams” that are independent of any league sensibilities.  For more on that point let me recommend Andrew McCutchen’s brilliant piece Left Out. Once we’ve selected these kids, we of course want to give them every advantage the other teams are getting.  That’s nice for the kids who make it, but by doing this it makes the house league seem like a superfluous requirement that the better players just have to do.

Indeed, I have heard a number of our travel players over the years scoff at the house games as “just practice.”  Having to play for the non-travel coaches and with non-travel players becomes an annoyance, and the best of what local league baseball can give to all players is diminished in the process.  At the end of the day, the players most likely to carry the lessons that house ball beyond the youth level are now, due to the structure of the game, least likely to truly inculcate them.

What those who led Jackie Robinson West did was a symptom of the larger disease that is the increasing “professionalization” of youth travel baseball.  And as one involved in that very phenomenon, this incident has caused me to take pause of what I am doing, how I will be coaching, and how my league approaches travel baseball.  For while I’m very proud that my son “made the team,” I have made sure that he knows that his pals on our Blue Wahoos team are counting on him just as much as his travel team is.

I’m not sure there is any simple solution, but perhaps by understanding the problem a bit better, we can seek paths that better enable the game of baseball to work for our kids, rather than the other way around.

Hit Like a Ninja

December 5, 2014

This is my method to get kids to understand and get the feel for the complexities of the “load” part of a baseball swing.  I’ve used this a number of times now in classes with great success.  Here’s a story about how I integrated it into practice.

NINJA HITTING
 
STANCE
Inline image 1
Begin by holding the bat like this.  For right-handed hitters, right hand goes on top of the left, hands always touching (reverse for Lefties).  Notice how the elbows are up rather than drooping by the sides.  While eventually the front elbow will (and should) drop, this allows them to approach the plate in a balanced position (and makes them feel all ninja).

TURN THE HEAD,  BOP THE EAR, STEP & PULL
 
Inline image 2
  • TURN: Righties turn their head toward their left shoulder (and, again, vice-versa for lefties).
  • BOP: Then we take our bat and bop our ears with our HANDS, not the bat.  This reminds us to keep our hands high, like our Kung-Fu hippo above.  Remind them to keep the hands high until it’s time to swing.
  • STEP: Now we make our ninja step, which is a side step, not a step forward (righties, step with left foot, lefties, right foot).   (a great tip is to put a piece of tape on the floor, and have them practice their side step by putting their toes on the tape and making their toes stay on the tape as they step rather than stepping over or away from it). Also note that a typical mistake is for the kids to move their back foot backward and think they are taking a step forward.
  • PULL:  Again like our hippo pal, notice how the hands stay high, but pull back straight behind the ear.  This Ninja Hippo is ready to slice the bad guys or beat up that baseball!  Note that you can practice the “Step” and “Pull” separately, but eventually, you’ll want the Step & Pull to happen at the same time. Also notice how the ninja sword is straight up and down.  A traditional mistake is for kids to lay the bat on their shoulder, which causes their hands to drop on the swing and come around the ball, rather than straight to it.

Once Upon a Ninja…

December 5, 2014

It was an honest mistake.

Stupid, but honest.

That’s what I was thinking as 10 Kindergarten, first, and second grade students shivered on this gray, dank, 40 degree day. For in my baseball zealotry, I accepted an invitation to teach an outdoor after school class this fall. What didn’t quite compute when I signed on was the fact that there is a difference between the self-selected baseball nuts who choose to play in a fall league, and the youngsters whose parents simply sign them up for what sounds like a fun after-school enrichment activity.

Hard to hit with your arms like this.

Hard to hit with your arms like this.

And so these kids squeezed into their personalized chairs, some bundled so profoundly that I could picture them waddling along with Ralphie’s little brother from A Christmas Story. That image reinforced itself as they wobbled, tumbled, then struggled on the damp grass to extract themselves from their plastic prisons.

Moments like these are pivotal as a coach. When the natives get restless, that attitude either becomes infectious and you get an hour-long chorus of, “Are we there yet?” or you find a way to turn things around.

And my salvation lay in a recycled Halloween costume.

“Okay everyone. So who here knows what a Ninja is?” 

The grumbling stopped immediately, and rapped attention and “Ooh-ooh-ooh!” hand raises leaped into the air.

So maybe you can tell me, but what is it about the word “Ninja?”

Say “Samurai” and you may get a few nods. Say “Jedi” and you’ll get a good 50 percent return rate. But there seems to be something almost prenatal about children’s reaction when you talk about ninjas. It’s supremely cool at the molecular level.

Minion Ninja?  I think my son's head would explode.

Minion Ninja? I think my son’s head would explode.

No longer able to contain themselves, the kids formed a discordant chorus of Ninja love.

“They wear black and have swords!”

“They leap on buildings and can do flips!”

“They are super awesome fighty dudes!”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about kids, it’s that one of the very few things that trump personal discomfort is the power of their imagination. My kids will play in a snow fort until their feet fell off, if it were up to them.

“Yes, that’s all correct,” I responded. “But why in the heck am I talking about Ninjas? Aren’t we supposed to be learning how to hit?”

Oh, yeah. This was supposed to be about baseball. They came down off of their swordplay-induced high and began to shiver as the blood rushed to their brain in the effort to fuel an answer.

“Ninjas jump around?” Benji ask/answered.

“Well, yes they do, but do we hit like this?” I jumped and kicked and made swoosh noises. The kids giggled and shook their heads.

“Okay then,” I continued, “So what’s more important to a Ninja, being super strong or super quick?”

As the kids noodled the answer, the normally demure Kindergartener, Charlie, leapt out of his seat. Well, kind of, as he leaped up and the seat leaped with him like some kind of vestigial tail.

“I know, I know!” He said as he danced. “The need to be quick, and the bat is like a sword!” He made his own swoosh and swung his shadow sword with a passable resemblance to a baseball swing.

“On the nose, Chuck!” I bellowed. The response reminded me to hand him a tissue as he was dripping like a broken faucet. “While it helps to be strong, if you try and swing hard it actually slows down your swing. Swing quick like a Ninja, and it will fly!”

Each and every one of them were now swinging their own air swords—I had ‘em on the hook.

“Now, ole’ CoachN isn’t the best guy to teach you how to teach you how to hit like a Ninja.” As I said this, I began to unzip my own winter jacket, which I had on less for protection and more for performance.

“It’s time for…Coach Cobra Kai!”

Sweep the leg.

Sweep the leg.

At that, I ripped off my jacket and revealed the costume I had worn when my little guy was seven and wanted to go as the Karate Kid. I did the only thing any self-respecting father could do, and dressed as John Kreese, the immortal evil sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo.

They couldn’t contain themselves anymore, leaping out of their chairs to inspect the sweet fist in front and cobra in back. With my black shades on, I was seriously, seriously ninja.

“Now, who is ready to learn to hit like a Ninja?!?” I rasped in my best Martin Krove.

Hook, line, sinker.

We handed out their ninja swords (pool noodles I cut in half, a little thick for small hands, but spongy and safe yet firm enough to take a real swing with), marked their top hands so they remembered how to hold it properly, and played a game of “Ninja Says” where they had to follow my pattern as I intermingled the correct swing technique steps with a little silly (yes, I did the crane kick).

They were focused. They were following. There wasn’t a shiver in sight.

Once they had conquered Ninja Says, it was time for battle. My assistants and I ran around while the kids chased us, but they would only get points for bopping us with the proper technique. Then I would yell, “FREEZE!” and each of them would get a pitched ball to try and hit.

And guess what? Every kid hit the ball on their last try.

When time was up, not a single kid wanted to escape the cold, and, of course, weren’t too keen giving up their noodle swords. But they had won their battle.

And I had won mine.

If you’re interested, here is my Ninja Hitting guide. This part focuses on the swing preparation part more than the swing itself, as I’m of the “early step” school, especially for young hitters. Hope it helps your little sluggers!

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…


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 67 other followers