Finding the Game Within the Game

The waitress groaned when I ordered an egg white omelet for lunch–love it!

Well, I’m just back from scenic Blackwood, New Jersey, where Gus and his travel team, the Arlington Thunder, had their last “sleep away” tournament.  Highly recommend the Meadows Diner if you’re in the Southern New Jersey area, by the way.

It, like most of our tournaments, was pretty tough on players, parents, and coaches, where I serve as an assistant this time ’round.  As you might remember, Gus didn’t make the “A” travel squad, but he quickly and happily joined the B-team.  A great number of kids wanted to play, and they ended up splitting things up into two teams, which, while it was great to allow more kids the opportunity to play, did dilute the talent pool—and at tournaments against B-teams that would be able to play with our A-team, this has presented us with a number of mercy-rule games, including three in this last tournament.

The “A” is for Arlington–really!

The first game of this tournament was particularly hard, as the “home team” was an excellent squad that play together year-round.  Indeed, we can often tell by the pro-quality button-down, stitched logo uniforms and personally monogrammed, team-logo embossed baseball bags that, our boys with their gray t-shirts with the Pie-Tanza sponsor logo on the back accompanied by Braves hats might be a little outmatched.  What do they say about clothes making the man?

In the three and a half innings we played before the merciful end, our fellas didn’t manage to hit one ball out of the infield, and we were singularly unprepared for the laser show the opposition put on.  Gus pitched an inning and desperately tried to hold his composure even after our guys mishandled three makeable plays in succession.  I was proud that he kept fighting both his emotions and those big, bad, Blackwood boys, even though he eventually was overwhelmed by both.

After the game, Coach Werfel gathered the guys and did his best to pep them up, but to little avail.  The fun of playing was gone, as you can spin the “joy in playing” speech in only so many different ways.  When you don’t feel like you’re even competing, it’s hard to find the joy in that.

As the coach was getting his lineup together for our second game, he asked me to help the boys work on laying off high pitches by throwing some BP with whiffle balls.  I headed over to the practice field with my bucket and a trail of moping Tweens dragging their bats behind them like a hunting party of sullen Cro-Magnons.

Highly recommended for your kids if you’re in Northern VA

I had fifteen minutes to figure out how to get these guys to find the fun again.  I then remembered what the good folks over at the Virginia Baseball Club, a great group that both my boys have been playing with on the off-season pretty much since they could walk, always did in practice—make each drill into a game.

“Okay, boys, time for a tournament!” I yelled as the last of them crossed onto the dirt threshold.  “Everyone bunts two and hits five.  Bunts and ground balls are worth a point, line drives five points, and you get 20 points if you are able to get a ball into the outfield.  And, for those in the field, five points to any ball you catch in the fly!”  Slightly intrigued, they picked up a step and lined up for me to call out the batting order.  “Oh, and one other thing.  Minus five points for every high pitch you swing at—whether you hit it or not!  Player with the most points gets a treat the snack bar from coach.”  The collective “OUCH!” followed by “OH!” from the team let me know that they were, indeed, at attention.

And so we began our competition, and slowly but surely the silt of the drubbing gave way to the thrill of a new game.  The boys charged so hard after bunts that one pitch hit a fielder in the back (I had to push them a bit further back after that one).  Guys were scrumming for every pop fly, and talking about where they should play based on a batter’s last swing.  Hitters were groaning every time I took away points, and clenching their fist on every line drive.  They were running, tumbling, laughing—they were playing in the truest sense of the word.

When Coach Werfel called the Thunder to get ready for Game 2, the guys that didn’t get a hit complained that they didn’t get a chance.  “We’ll finish up our game tomorrow, not to worry,” I said.  But that’s when it dawned on me, our game didn’t need to end at all.

“You know what, guys?” I barked, getting everyone’s attention.  “This tournament is not over!  It continues right into this next game.  I’ll be awarding points for hustle, making the right throws, and hard hit balls.  And I’ll still be giving you the ‘minus five’ for swinging at high pitches.  So go win some innings and earn some points!”

Still felt a little like this at times

Now, I can’t tell you that we went out and won that game—indeed Lady Mercy came out and whisked us away again.  But I can tell you that the boys did a whole lot better laying off high pitches, and when they made a good play, came in and immediately asked “How many points was that?”  Discussion on the bench now included comparison of points earned, and how many they thought they needed to secure the lead.  It wasn’t a cure-all, but by creating a game within the game, we were able to create a prism for playing that was independent of the scoreboard, allowing competition we could control when it otherwise would not have existed.

Gus’s friend Harry beat him by one point at the end of our little tournament, and ordered up a bag of Swedish Fish as trophy.  As the other guys looked lustfully at that prized possession, I assured them that as long as I was one of their coaches, the games (and games within games) would never end.

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One Response to “Finding the Game Within the Game”

  1. Melanie Says:

    What a great story! I loved reading this. Go Braves… I mean Thunder!

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