Why Utley’s Slide Matters to Youth Baseball

October 11, 2015

WinFor RubenMy older boy was playing a game last week in Fairfax County with his high school JV team.  This being his first experience with this level of baseball, it’s been quite the education for him.  For rather than play in the JV division, his team is playing other varsity teams, meaning big, strong kids with pitchers hurling well north of 80mph.

Gus has struggled a bit at the plate, as has almost every player, but he’s held his own.  And his team was holding a 3-1 lead going into the 7th inning of a well-contested battle.  Gus was catching, and our new pitcher was struggling badly.  He had already given up a run, had walked four batters, and they had the bases loaded with no one out.
When the count went to 3-2, we awaited the inevitable.  Our pitcher went into his stretch, came set, and…


…the lights went out.

10pm.  Nite-nite for this particular field.

The 7th inning ceases to exist, and we win 3-1.

As the gossamer batter threw his shadowy helmet to the ground in frustration, all of us parents looked at each other with a guilty grimace.

“That’s not a good ending for anybody,” said Joe, one of Gus’s former youth travel coaches, whose son is also on the team.

I am reminded of this given the ugly events that happened last night with Chase Utley breaking the leg of Ruben Tejada in the NLDS Game 2 between the Dodgers and my beloved Mets.  While the event wounded my not-so-inner Mets fan, it and the reaction to it hurt CoachN more.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook in an open letter to MLB:

Dear MLB.com you, and the umpires you employ, decided to show baseball-loving kids around the country that, so long as you think you can get away with it, it is okay to try and hurt a defenseless player because the play is so important.

I heard the talking heads on MLB Network talk about how catchers are now protected, so why not middle-infielders? THEY ARE PROTECTED! THERE IS A RULE! It just takes the minimal courage involved in simply doing your job.

This is made far worse by the fact that it was Chase Utley, a Hall of Fame-caliber ballplayer with a history of playing dirty. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Hard-nosed is fine, it is great. But Utley has crossed that line multiple times, and your cringing from the proper course of action is an open encouragement for hyper-competitive players and coaches to think that somehow this is acceptable because, after all, the Dodgers won in the end.

Youth baseball, particularly at the travel level, is plagued by the “Winning is the Only Thing” mentality. It is a significant reason why participation in travel baseball is down across the country, as parents are increasingly wary of putting their children in a system where their values and priorities for their kids, such as fair play, respect for teammates and opponents, and that the competition is as important as the result, are subverted by a concept of the game that prioritizes results over process or even the rules themselves.

Your umpires, and then the subsequent confused, half-hearted, finger-pointing “defense” of what happened by Joe Torre only serves to reinforce this notion.

As a Mets fan, I was okay with losing last night. Not only did we already win one, the Mets have given me a thrilling season win-or lose. What you and your umpires have done by cowering away from upholding the rules damages the game in ways well beyond this game or this series, or even the Major Leagues itself.

As a father, a youth coach, and a fan, I am disgusted by everything that has happened during and after that play. You should be ashamed. I will certainly be addressing this with my players, as hopefully at least someone can learn the right lesson from this event.

With greatly diminished respect,
Scott Nathanson
Manager/Head Coach
CoachN’s FUNdamentals

Utley has now been suspended two games for the illegal slide.  As one Twitter poster noted, “I wonder if Tejada can appeal his broken leg?”  Of course, Utley has appealed, like a true bully refusing to admit he’s done anything wrong.

For while my son’s victory came with a bit of embarrassment to his team, Utley and the reaction by his Dodger teammates and Major League Baseball has embarrassed the game.


October 9, 2015

I just posted this on Facebook:

No offense to my Oxy friends, but...yeah.

No offense to my Oxy friends, but…yeah.

I woke up today and my team is still going to play in the playoffs.

After a (virtual) decade after my 5-year-old was brought to tears (and driven into the arms of the Nationals) by Adam Wainwright’s filthy curve.

After seeing my boyhood baseball home closed with a second straight collapse.

After watching my captain and star player literally break his back.

After meandering through years in the desert of mediocrity.

After sitting at Nationals Park THIS YEAR watching a lineup with four batters…four…batting under .200.

My team is in the playoffs.

And he was happy.


With all respect to fans of other sports, there is nothing in the world like playoff baseball.  This is because the ebbs-and-flows, that languid summer rhythm of the game dissolves.  A game designed to be marathon suddenly becomes like sprinting a marathon; every step magnified as if that will be the very one that wins the race.

Fans standing on every two strike count.

Stadiums literally shaking in the frenzied excitement of the moment (not sure if Citi Field will shake, but lord knows Shea Certainly did).

Even nature itself lends to the theater as the sun dims to darken the theater; the air itself crisping, even ever-so-slightly in the desert air of Los Angeles, to sharpen the flavor of autumn baseball.

It is a rich and unique experience, made heart-wrenchingly, agonizingly incredible when your team makes the most exclusive dance in all of professional sports (even with the two Wild Cards).

For when Jacob DeGrom unleashes his first pitch at Dodger Stadium, I will be seven-years-old, sitting on the porch in the Bronx, my ear pressed to a transistor radio as Bob Murphy prepared for one of the few Happy Recaps of the season. I sat at my Grandmother’s feet as she watched the Yankees game on a black-and-white TV.  She was actually the biggest Mets fan of us all, but got so nervous that she couldn’t watch them, but could always root for the Yankees to lose.

I will be 16, tossing myself over my basement sofa in Atlanta in a feat of gymnastic dexterity I will never attempt again, as Vin Scully chirped, “Around comes Knight and the Mets win it!”

Shea didn't need lights, only that smile.

Shea didn’t need lights, only that smile.

I will be 30, sitting with friends and family, and the love of my life who was carrying our first child, as a portly Hawaiian named Benny sent a 13th inning home run out of Shea.  The next time I would see a glow on her face to match that moment, she would be holding Gus in her arms.

During the pregnancy, we called him Benny.

And I will be 45, breaking out the blue pinstripes just as I did on that porch in the Bronx, yearning again for another Happy Recap, another link in that mental chain that helps to bind the oddities, vagaries, and tragedies of life into something resembling cohesion.

Win if you can.

Let me down if you must.

But welcome back to October, Metropolitans.

I’ve missed you.

15 Minutes and a Big Bag of Crap

September 30, 2015

I’m extremely proud of my big fella for many reasons, but for today, let’s talk baseball (shocker, I know).

That District title t-shirt has gotten a LOT of wear

That District t-shirt has gotten a LOT of wear

He’s used his experiences of just missing making the team not as excuse, but as motivation to make himself a better ballplayer.  This culminated in his making his first “district team” outright over the past summer and having a bang-up season with the bat, behind the plate, and on the mound.

Okay, that was just a little parental chest-puffing, as it’s what happened this fall that really got my attention.

As 9th Grade began, he was again selected to be on the “A” squad for the 14u travel team.  He’s made it—he’s where he has always wanted to be.  But then another opportunity presented itself, as his high-school team has a fall squad as well.  Very few kids who weren’t on the spring JV or Varsity squads ever play on this team.  Indeed, the coach of the team when he invited Gus to work out with them was very careful to state that there was likely not going to be room for him.

Given the amount of baseball rejection endured over the years, including not making the JV team when he tried out last spring, Gus could have easily—and justifiably—just said that he’s going to play plenty of baseball with his other team, and that with adjusting to being in High School, he’d just stand content on where he is.  Indeed, as a concerned parent not wanting him to overwhelm himself, I myself was leaning in that direction.

Sorry Nats fans (not sorry).

Sorry Nats fans (not sorry).

Not only did he accept the invitation to work out with the High School team, but he chose to miss the Mets-Nationals Labor Day game (you know, back when the Nationals were in a pennant race?  LET’S GO METS! Sorry can’t help myself) in order not to miss a single practice, even though he was told that just making one of the three would be sufficient.

In the end, he was indeed invited to play with the team, and is working his keester off to balance his academic demands while playing baseball six days a week.

And the point of all this is?

Gus sucks at catching pop flies.

[Insert sound of record scratching here]

I know, after heaping on all that praise, why am I focusing on what he struggles at?  Am I that kind of coach and father that is simply never satisfied and always picks on the weaknesses?

I really hope not.

But, ever since having his finger sliced open by the stitches of a ball on a pop fly back in 4th Grade (I know!  What are the chances? He needed four stitches), Gus has struggled with infield fly balls.  And whether it’s learning how to lay off a high fastball, stay in front of a sharply hit grounder, or, yes, get the right break on a pop fly, every single ballplayer, no matter how accomplished, has weaknesses in their game.  And practice is the time to focus in on those weaknesses.

But what kind of practice?

Indeed, after Gus had a fantastic game with his “A” squad a couple of Saturdays back, going 3-3 and having a great defensive day behind the plate, he still missed a foul pop fly at first base.  His coach complemented his overall game, and noted that his struggles with popups made him “look like a bad player” even though it is clear he is a very good one.

That’s when his coach sent him this video, one I think every player and parent should watch:

This video speaks to an essential truth, it is very difficult to become a better ballplayer just practicing those couple of days a week that even most travel teams do.  For my 11u team, it is especially difficult, as we’re limited to only one practice per week in the fall.

But this shouldn’t apply to my big boy, right?  I mean, he’s practicing or playing five or six days a week.  So he should be covered, right?

Again I say, not practice, but what kind of practice?

The one issue that video didn’t cover, and I think a crucial one, is that when teams come together to practice, it is so they can get better as a team.  In 90 minutes with a dozen or more kids, you simply don’t have the time to break down swings, do detailed mechanical analysis on fielding, or correct every single player’s release point on the mound.  Getting leads, hitting cutoff men, defending the bunt, situational hitting—all those and many more take priority over the individual—they have to, because it is a team sport.

So while a player will get some individual instruction during a practice, the only way to really work on getting better is to find time outside of the team practice to focus on the areas in need of improvement.

Now you might be saying, “But my kid spends every waking moment in the back yard practicing.  It’s getting him to crack a book that’s the problem!”

Again I’ll say…

What kind of practice?

Players of all stripes, but I’ve found this to be true especially of the talented players, tend to shy from working on the areas where they are weak.  It’s natural to want to improve on strengths, so good hitters love to swing and good fielders love to play catch.  To my big boy’s credit we were out last week for a full hour taking popup after popup, and he’s yet to miss one in a game after that.

Why is my wife the greatest woman in the world?  Exhibit A

Why is my wife the greatest woman in the world? Exhibit A

But for others, the myriad responsibilities and opportunities of modern youth call them away from the diamond or even back yard.  Other sports, homework, and, of course, those rectangular black holes of time and space often win out for right or for wrong.

While I agree to a certain extent with Coach Antonelli’s lament regarding the rigid overscheduling that often besets modern kids, these are the times in which we live.  So rather than fight the tide, I am trying a new system where I am giving my players a discrete, 15 minute task every day we’re away from the field.

To me, doing practice outside the team is about trying to build a routine—something that can help kids gain self-discipline and organization skills.  Yes, it helps them become better ballplayers, but it really plays into my mantra as a coach to try and make youth baseball about something that transcends the game itself.

Here is my Arlington Aces Fall 2015 Practice Chart.  It focuses each day on a different aspect of the game; including the mental and physical conditioning they’ll need to step up even more during the winter.  While I have no doubt that many coaches may have different—and perhaps better—ideas for their players, I believe this to be a solid template of drills designed to keep kids motivated but not overwhelmed.

Now, as to that motivation, I know that kids are also, well, kids, and I know that even the baseball-loving guy or gal might submit to the siren song of the boob tube.  But there’s another thing I know kids like.


They like to say the word because it’s rude without being profane.  And despite all those electronics, a piece of candy or a little squirt gun is still a huge draw.

A world of pure imagination.

A world of pure imagination.

And so I have created CoachN’s Big Bag of Crap (patent pending), filled with candy, chips, and cheap little toys I get on clearance.  In order to earn a pull from the magic bag, they need to do one of three things:

1) Turn in their weekly practice sheets with each day signed off by their parents;

2) Win our weekly “Grinder of the Week” t-shirt—an award given to four players who showed exemplary grit and determination irrespective of statistics;

3) Have a perfect team warmup.  We have a relay play they must do 10 times perfectly.

I have had some issues with kids focused more on the BoC rather than the practice, it is easy to turn the conversation back to the matter at hand by simply saying, “If you’re talking about the bag, you’re not getting anything from the bag.”  And the resounding “BAG-OF-CRAP” chants that delight the kids and make parents ever-so-slightly uncomfortable is worth the fairly insubstantial investment to stock it.

I hate you.  No, I love you.

I hate you. No, I love you.

So whether it is for love of the game, or love of crap, finding the ways to get kids thinking about practice as more than just showing up to a field will help them mature both as players, and as people.

And, yes, I do filch a treat now and again.

Stupid delicious Swedish Fish.

House Rules

September 29, 2015
Just happy they chose soccer...

Just happy they chose soccer…

While I was recently interviewed in Arlington Magazine for an article on the ups-and-downs of travel sports, my feeling is that some of the greatest lessons for kids of any talent level can come from being a part of a house team.

Indeed, it is why I find it a shame when parents of elite-level youth players tap their fingers and roll their eyes during the house ball season, impatiently awaiting the end of league play so their child can go play “real baseball.”  Some go a step farther, pulling their kids out of league ball and shelling out the big bucks to go exclusively with club teams all year long.

What the “club kids” miss out on is truly precious.  For in hockey, basketball, soccer, and even football, one star can dominate the show.  But particularly due to the pitching restrictions put on teams in league ball, the big fish is still small compared to the whole pond.

There is no “rover” or “center” that can patrol the whole field.  There is no opportunity to take the shot every time.  It’s the kid with the runny nose and thick glasses—the kid who dreams just like the jock of someday feeling the soft rustle of major league grass underfoot—that may have the ball hit to him (or her) in that crucial moment.

“You’re never going to win at everything,” says Arlington Babe Ruth baseball coach Scott Nathanson, who’s been coaching for more than 20 years. “I try to equate baseball with joy and bring the life lessons that baseball teaches to the fore, rather than focusing on winning or losing.” — From Arlington Magazine.  Couldn’t have said it any better myself.  Oh, wait…

Indeed, in what was unquestionably my Aces’—the “B” travel team I coach—best game of the season, I had the opportunity to actually show some strategic smarts (not my specialty area, admittedly) and prove that very thing.

Two years ago, my big fella’s B Team, the Arlington Cardinals, headed to a great little tournament up in Frederick and upset the host team in the first round.  We were probably about evenly matched, save the coach’s son, who was an absolute monster.  That was a huge day for my own fella, as he both started, and much to the protest of the players on Frederick, came back in the game to get his own save.  I remember it well because my wife almost had a heart attack when we brought him back in.

My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades

My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades

Flash forward to this summer, and my Aces are playing a Frederick team much the same, this time with a kid we called “Fish” because his last name was some type of gilled animal, though precisely which one now eludes me.  This young man looked like he could swallow my skinny fella whole, and yet was faster than anyone on my team.  I was told by one of my players that he was a friendly sort, coming up to our dugout during our 2nd round game and saying, “Hi, I’m [Fish].  I’m the best player on my team.”

And, of course, the most humble.

Come the semi-final, we were locked in a 1-1 game in the 3rd, and my pitcher who was dealing but clearly running out of steam had just induced a groundout with runners at 1st and 2nd got get that second out.  Now, with two runners in scoring position, the big Fish swam to the plate, his shadow encompassing the entirety of the left-handed batter’s box.

I looked out to my guy, a wiry young thing named Tony, and you could see the look in his eye.  I call him “La Tigre” not just for the Frosted Flakes connotation, but because he’s a kid who loves a challenge.  But you could tell that he was running on fumes, and Fish was ready to reel him in.

I sat there on my bucket, wondering what pitch to call that might do the least damage, then something in the recesses of my brain crammed somewhere between Tickle Monster Base Races and Fuzzy Flies from Outer Space decided to spark.

“Tony, step off!” I yelled to my hurler.  He looked at me blankly, finally complying on my third request.  I called time, and jogged to the edge of the backstop where the tournament officials were scoring the game, and huddled with them and the umpire.

“What are the rules on intentional walks?” I asked.  “Do I need to throw four balls, or can I just put him on?”

The tournament orchestrator seemed taken aback a bit by the question.  “Well, uh, whatever the rules say…”

“I believe we’re playing by Cal Ripken rules,” I quickly interjected, given that was something I actually knew.  “At this level, I can just put him on.”

“He’s right,” the umpire said.  “That’s the standard 46/60 rule.”

“Allright then, do what you want,” said the official with a courtesy masking just a hint of frustration.

“Okay big fella, head on over to first,” I said, giving the umpire the point of the finger.  “That’s my tip of the cap to you.”

We were all grinning after the big win.

We were all grinning after the big win.

The grin on La Tigre’s face stretched like the Cheshire Cat.  He nodded, and it was like I had gone to the mound and given him a B-12 shot.  Fish was on first just long enough to watch Tony strike the next batter out on 3 pitches.  We ended up winning that game 3-2 in 8 crazy innings (inclusive of the boys spontaneously starting to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in our 7th inning huddle, an amazing memory in itself).  It was perhaps the best youth game I’ve ever been a part of, win or lose.

And that’s it.  No matter how good you are, baseball is designed to be a truly team game, by being a definitively individual one.  That’s what makes it such a great teaching tool.

That, “It’s not always about you” life lesson, and the feeling of self-enlightened empathy is even more heightened in house baseball, when you have travel-quality players mixed with those who struggle just to put the ball in play.

For while the “Fish” moment was fantastic, to me, and even more cinema-worthy scene came in our final spring house league game, a consolation affair after a tough, rain-shortened playoff loss.

My Blue Wahoos were locked in a good battle with the Hot Rods, one of the better teams in the league who also got upset in the first round.  We had lost to them earlier in the season in a game where we were defeated before we played, as the chatter of “they have five travel players on their team!” got squarely into my kids’ heads.

In the rematch, we were playing our game, and we were winning.  A tight contest was coming down to the Hot Rods final at bat.  And the game would come down to a kid we called, “Mr. Clutch.”

Yep, felt just like that.

Yep, felt just like that.

This little second-sacker, younger than most, smaller than most, loves baseball with an undying passion.  He earned his moniker by being able to tap the occasional grounder at the big moment and running it out for a hit, and I got all Mr. Miyagi-like when earlier in the season he lined one up the middle off a pitcher on the 9u “A” travel team.  “You just got a hit off a Storm pitcher!” I said after the inning.  “How does that feel?” I asked as he beamed.

On the defensive side, M.C. worked his keester off to make himself a solid defensive player.  But popups were still his bug-a-boo.  Indeed his Dad told me during the season that Clutch would demand they go into the yard and do nothing but practice popups, dropping them time-and-time again.

In that moment—two outs and the tying run on base—a high pop fly floated over his head.  No one else had even a remote shot at the ball—it was his or it wasn’t.  And in that moment, every Wahoo was invested in him and him alone; knowing that the smallest guy on the team was the only one who could come up big.

Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team.  His Dad says even in a different uniform, he's still doing things the "Wahoo Way."

Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team. His Dad says even in a different uniform, he’s still doing things the “Wahoo Way.”

Had anyone else made that play, it would have been sweet, but the explosion of joy that erupted from the entire team when that ball rattled and stuck in Mr. Clutch’s glove turned that memory into something so much more than that both for him, and for us.  Indeed, both the Hot Rods and Wahoos among my Aces, and they still talk about that catch.

Now I do understand the pull of high-level competitive youth baseball.  Talented players should have the opportunity of playing with and against other talented players to help them learn to play at a higher level.  My concern is, however, that Club Teams are the pricey siren song that allows talented players to shed core experiences that make baseball something bigger than the game itself.

So if you have a talented kid who is simply just better than the rest, think twice before pulling the plug on house ball.  I’ll also add that it’s equally important to disabuse those kids of the notion that house league play is just practice until “real” baseball starts in the summer.  Kids who do this disrespect the importance and efforts of those kids whose only season is the house season might are missing out on what the game is really all about.

So to all you are-or-would-be travel parents, do remember that your young star isn’t likely on a path to the big leagues.  It is the memories he makes and the lessons she takes from “Mr. Clutch” moments may well be more important in the long run than anything that happens in that summer travel tournament.

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.

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).

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?


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