Posts Tagged ‘new york mets’

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…

THONK

…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

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.

Let’s-Go-Mets

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.

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

Coach’s Corner: Teaching Your Players to Whiff

October 24, 2013

“A great hitter makes an out 70% of the time.”

That’s the old cliché that supposedly “says it all” about baseball.  And there is a lot of value in it.  It shows the difficulty of the game (I still contend that the single hardest thing to do in all of sports is to strike a pitched baseball), and the value in learning to deal with failure—or more accurately to help redefine what success is.

Will never forget his "Taming the Monster" in Game 3

Will never forget his “Taming the Monster” in Game 3

That said, there was a wrinkle on this old piece of wisdom that helped me look a bit differently not only at helping kids hit, but on my personal style as coach.  For those that know me, it will come as no surprise that this sage advice came from the mouth of a New York Met.  Bobby Ojeda (aka Bobby O), a 1986 hero and current analyst for the Mets’ SNY network, was examining the approach of Lucas Duda, a burly power hitter mired in yet another slump.  He felt that Duda was losing his aggressiveness and was spending too much time trying to work the count.

That kind of “Baseball 101” commentary isn’t going to win any Emmys, but what he said next was somewhat revelatory for me.  “He needs to swing-and-miss more,” Ojeda said.  “Because a swing-and-a-miss is not a bad thing.  A batter learns from it. He gets a sense of what the pitcher is trying to do to him, and where his timing is.  Indeed, the worst thing a batter can do for his timing is sit and look at a bunch of pitches.

Scorecard KNow, I have stolen a fantastic piece of advice from one of my fellow coaches, whom I heard in a game say to a batter, “The first two strikes are free.”  He meant that a batter shouldn’t get down on himself with a swing-and-a-miss, or a taken strike on the first two.  I’ve spun his advice a bit differently, and told my batters that, “The first two belong to you.”  Same basic idea, but I feel that if the batter feels like for the first two strikes, it is he who is in control of the at bat, not the pitcher, it puts her/him in a better mental position.  And as we know from former Mets manager Yogi Berra, “Ninety percent of the game is half-mental.”

But never in my almost 40 years of baseball did it ever occur to me that swinging and missing might actually be a good thing.  But not only does this make a sense from a baseball perspective, it is a fabulous life lesson for young players.  Whether it is developing a successful swing or successful vaccine, ultimate success is grown from a “test-adjust-test again” method.  So a swing-and-a-miss is not a failure, it is an attempt at success that, while not successful that time, can be learned from, refined, and put to better use.

Yogi always looked best in the blue and orange

Yogi always looked best in the blue and orange

I’ve put this philosophy to work already with my little guys with some really good initial success, as one of our issues in this early kid-pitch phase has been watching third strikes go by.  It’s natural in our league, for when you get to ball four, instead of a walk you get the coach to come in and pitch to you, which is a comforting and usually less difficult task.  So in practice, I developed a “foul ball” drill where you were ALWAYS batting with two strikes, and the goal was to actually foul the ball off, not to put it fair.  I did my best to throw pitches inside and outside so they’d learn to swing at anything close and how to pull the ball foul on inside pitches and slap them the other way on the outside ones.  I love to the kids about how much I LOVE foul balls, as it’s the kind of counter-intuitive reasoning that makes baseball such a fantastic teaching tool.

But, sometimes, my pitches were WAY out of the zone.  And sometimes they’d swing at those, too.  But rather than say, “Ooh…don’t swing at those,” as is my instinct, I instead said, “Great, you learned something with that swing, didn’t you?  Great job, now you know.”  I’ve taken that philosophy into the games as well, cheering for “GWs” or “Good Whiffs.”  For even on a strikeout, there was something learned for the next at bat.

Now, there’s a whiff when your swinging, and a whiff when you’re coaching.  I’ve had more than a few of those.  Next I’ll give you an example and how I took this philosophy to turn an uncomfortable conversation into a home run for teamwork.