Posts Tagged ‘Spider-Man’

Summer Camp, Spiderman, and the Social Art of Catching

December 17, 2015

Scott Catcher

Those who know me and my lunatic ways on the baseball field are often surprised to learn about how painfully shy I was as a child.  Many introverts are shy as kids, as we do not realize until later in life that while we can be social, and, yes, even enjoy being social, that it takes a tremendous amount of energy for us to do so.

As a child, this feeling of social depletion often leads to an aversion to and anxiety about being with people.  I remember this being especially hard for me at my one sleep-away camp, Blue Star, a Jewish camp in North Carolina.  In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad camp.  I made a good friend, almost landed my first real girlfriend, and hindsight tells me it had most of the usual activities and idiocies that movies like Meatballs tell me I should expect from the experience.

But I hated it.

I have come to understand that my particularly strong negative reaction came from the fact that you are never, ever alone at sleep-away camp.  From bunks to bathrooms, there is no respite from socializing other than sleep (fleeting as it was with the usual jackass pranks and early-morning bugles).

Those of you who aren’t introverts might think that the person reading the book in a crowded restaurant has that issue solved.  Now that I’m a little more comfortable in my own skin, I can do that and feel energized.  But at the ripe old age of 12, I knew that just made me look like the weird kid.

My one redeeming moment at Blue Star was in the annual talent show (Meatballs, I’m telling ya).  At that time, I was a huge Steve Martin fan; listening to Comedy is not Pretty until the needle wore out, and tacking his “Best Fishes” photo from the album along-side my poster of U.S. Senator John Blutarski.  My counselor refused to let anyone not participate, and told me to “do something” for the Gong Show portion of the competition.

I really can’t remember the routine, as when he literally pushed me on stage, I just kind of went somewhere else.  I remember poking fun at the guy who went on before me (he used a dead frog on a stick to do a dance) and teased the counselors.

I remember laughs.  A lot of them.

And I remember after asking my counselor whether people were making fun of me when they laughed.

“No way, man!” he replied earnestly.  “You were hilarious! Who knew Scott Nathanson was funny?”

In looking back at my childhood, I realize that there were two places “in a crowd” I actually felt energized: on the stage, and behind the plate.

The one unifying factor for both?

I was Spiderman.

That nerdy kid who put on the mask and became the wise-cracking hero.

Whether it was playing King Achashverosh, the drunken regent of Persia for my 3rd Grade Purim play (back by popular demand in the 4th!), or the lout of a husband who gets his just “desserts” in my fabulous filmmaker friend Thom Harp’s Proof is in the Pudding, putting on the mask of another character felt freeing rather than draining.

I felt the same way when I put on a catcher’s mask.  While normally my coaches had issues prying a single sentence out of me, when I caught, it was hard to shut me up.  I talked to my pitcher non-stop.  I urged.  I coaxed.  I may have even taunted the batters just a little, tiny bit at times.  I distinctly remember a few hitters telling me to, “Shut the hell up.”  I would merely shrug, and continue to yammer away.

And despite being born with a terminal case of “Catcher’s Disease”—I’m left handed—I was pretty darned good.  I remember getting validation early on.  I was nine, and our ace Pitcher Wes Winterstein was on the mound.  I was late to the game and arrived in the 2nd to find that we were already down to the Phillies 6-0.  To make matters worse, they had runners on first and second with no one out.  I remember the coach saying, “Thank god you’re here,” and taking out the boy catching in the middle of the inning as soon as I was suited up (not something I would do today as a coach, mind you).

The change in Wes was immediate.  I remember to this day yelling at him, “I’m back, let’s go!”  He stared in, and buzzed a strike down the middle.

The Phillies wouldn’t score again.

It’s funny how in the scramble to help kids find their own path, we coaches – and I think teachers and parents as well – will sometimes shy away from our own stories.  We don’t want to do the, “Back in my day…” thing; feeling rightly that each child and each generation has unique characteristics and qualities.  And as the mercury pushed up past 70 degrees this past Saturday, I organized a special catcher’s clinic for my 11-year-olds.  My main goal was to start working on how to frame pitches and the mechanical skills it takes to move (or not move) the glove.  And I had been watching a lot of videos on technique and found new approaches to framing I had never learned as a player.

But as I brought the boys to the backstop, all those old memories began to flood back.  And so we spent as much time talking about who you need to be as a catcher than what you need to do.  Both are important, but I realized just then that I had been remiss with my catchers in instruction on the former.  I think it’s because that, ironically for an introvert, that was the one part of this very difficult game (and an even more difficult position) that actually came naturally to me.

And so, I have committed myself to working more with my catchers in general, but go beyond just framing, throwing, and blocking.  Those skills make for getting better at playing baseball, but they don’t make for better ballplayers.  In addition, the social art of catching transcends the game itself, teaching empathy, leadership, partnership, along with verbal and non-verbal communications skills that can help a player mature as a person.

Now there are a million great catching videos out there (I’m quite partial to the Touch ‘Em All series, and this GameChanger blog has a nice compilation) that go into the mechanics of the position.  But for those interested, here are my tips that look at the skills you need behind the mask.

CoachN’s Social Skills Catching Drills

  • “Talk” with the umpire: A catcher is having a game-long conversation with the umpire, both verbal and non-verbal.  Remember that you want it to be a friendly conversation, not a debate.  Introduce yourself to the umpire at the beginning, and make him feel like you’ll do your best to give him the best looks at the pitches and protect him as best you can.  Then continue that conversation with every pitch you receive.
  • Your #1 job: be your pitcher’s best friend:  The best friend a catcher has on the team is whoever it is on the mound at that moment.  Your job is to make him feel comfortable and confident no matter what the situation.  Talk to him, point at him, take the blame for wild pitches if he’s having trouble even if it’s really not your fault.  Plain and simple, the pitcher is the center of the action and driving the plot, not you.  Your job is to try and get the best out of him you possibly can.  To geek-out a bit, he’s Luke, you’re Yoda.
  • Be positive: About the worst thing I have ever seen a catcher do is call time out, go up to the pitcher, and tell him that he stinks (and yes, I have seen that).  If you think that is a good move for a catcher, it’s time to find another position to play.  A catcher should be relentlessly encouraging to his pitcher, giving him fist-pumps and thumbs-ups on good strikes and close pitches, and little encouragements and the occasional pat on the keester if he’s struggling.
  • Be honest: If the coach comes out and asks you how you think the pitcher is doing, be honest with the coach.  You have the best view of the pitcher, and if you are focused on him, should be able to get perhaps an even better sense than he has as to whether he has anything left in the tank.  If you think he does, go to bat for him, as that buys you considerable cred with your pitcher and will pump him up.  The coach will make the final call, but you can definitely help him, the pitcher, and the team by being honest.
  • Speak like Spiderman: Chatty, competitive, and a little funny; just like you see the catcher in movies from The Sandlot to Bull Durham.  So talk all the time, not just when you have a conference on the mound.  While you need to feel out if this is working for your pitcher or the umpire, these are the good base traits for a catcher.  A chatty catcher will sometimes engage and sometimes annoy hitters.  Either way, they are thinking about something else other than the pitcher; that’s a good thing.  Chatty catchers help keep the umpire engaged and develop a relationship.  Getting a grin out a pitcher in a stressful moment helps to relax him.  Chatting also helps keep you focused and not falling asleep behind the plate.
  • The catcher/pitcher relationship does not end on the field:  When an inning is over, players tend to go find their buddies on the team and hang with them.  Remember, no matter what the case outside the ballpark, the pitcher is a catcher’s best buddy. Unless you’re getting ready to hit, spend the time in the dugout talking about the last inning—what was working and what wasn’t.  Go to the coach together and give suggestions (particularly if the coach is calling pitches) as to what pitches and locations seem to be working or if something is making your pitcher uncomfortable.  If it looks like a new pitcher is coming in the game, bring that pitcher together with the last one to share information.
  • Talk catcher-to-catcher: Talk to the other catchers on the team during the game.  You may not catch the whole time, but the catcher who was in the game should be giving information to whomever is coming in about the umpire, the pitcher, and anything you’ve seen in the hitters.  That information is vital and you do no favors to the next guy by having him come in cold.
  • Frame a ball, tell a lie: Umpires will know a clear ball if they see one–it’s usually anything more than 2-3 inches (that’s not much) outside the strike zone.  Any pitch you jerk from far off the plate is a lie you are telling to the umpire and your pitcher.  It makes both of them less trustful of you.  Just catch that ball and quickly throw it back to the pitcher to keep him in rhythm.
  • Move a strike, lose a strike: This is about the hardest thing to do at the same time that you are learning to stay outside the borderline pitches and catch the ball with a slight movement toward the corner of the plate.  If a strike carves the outside corner and you move it toward the middle, you are telling the umpire you think that pitch was outside.  If you catch a pitch crossing over the middle of the plate and you simply follow it as it finishes inside, you’ve turned a strike into a ball.  Same goes for a pitch at the top or the bottom of the strike zone.  For any pitch anywhere in the strike zone, the less movement, the better.  This may be a skill, but it’s also part of the conversation, as by holding a ball in place, you are telling both your pitcher and the umpire to, “check out that beautiful strike.”  Now that’s framing.

Now, you’ll note that this list does not include anything on the “field general” end, such as calling out plays and cuts and such.  I’m just starting that with my catchers, and really want them to get comfortable with the pitch-and-catch aspect of the game, as most coaches will tell you this aspect is about 75% of the job.

Until next time, True Believers!

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?

Why So Serious, Superman?

August 7, 2013
Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades.  Click the pic for the link.

Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades. Click the pic for the link.

As some of your know, I’m currently working to get my own take on the Super Hero story, The Adventures of MightyDove, out into the public eye.  Of course over the past decade, the likes of Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and company (though it still frustrates me that Wonder Woman can’t get off the ground) have hit the big screen running, and have fought their way into the mainstream.  Being a guy who remembers comic conventions being nothing but white boxes in the back room of a cheap hotel, it amazes me to see nerd culture firmly established a primary driver of pop culture.

My big fella, now twelve, has discovered the series Smallville, a show full of intrigue and teen angst wrapped up in a Superman package—perfect for an imaginative pre-teen.  While Smallville became something of a wildly uneven show after about the 3rd season, especially after losing Michael Rosenbaum, who was to my mind still by far the best Lex Luthor ever depicted either animated or live action, it did a nice job jugging the very delicate balancing act needed of the genre.  You don’t go 10 seasons without doing something right…

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

With their “No Flights, No Tights” axiom, they endeavored to seat characters who felt real into the unreal world of Superman.  While sometimes redundant with the “freak of the week,” they always managed to capture the sense of almost comic bewilderment when the wild and wacky happened.  It always gave you that small edge of the tongue-in-cheek that allowed you to feel amused at the situation even as the world—or at least Clark and Lana’s relationship—were put ever in peril.

Yet as much as Gus is currently obsessed with Smallville, he didn’t really love the latest Superman iteration, Man of Steel.  Indeed, he and I both came to a similar conclusion after we took in the movie.  Great effects, thin plot, and absolutely no joy.  We both came out feeling that the failed reboot that was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (interesting to note that it gets a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, far higher than the 56% for MoS) was actually more entertaining because, despite its many flaws, it felt more like, well…Superman.

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Of course, Mr. Hippie Nerd here had a very difficult time with the climax to Man of Steel.  [SPOILERS] Indeed, I was actually a bit heartened to learn that producer and Dark Knight Trilogy director Christopher Nolan actually vehemently disagreed with Zack Snyder’s decision to have Kal-El snap Zod’s neck.  Not only has Superman always been about finding ways not to kill the enemy (see the animated movie Superman vs. The Elite now streaming on Netflix for a great example), but the film actually set up a perfect device (the terraforming of Earth to make it Krypton-like) to defeat Zod without resorting to death.  Snyder seemed to go out of his way to make sure that the man who stands as an example of what humanity should aspire to would be pulled down into the abyss of, “Sometimes you’ve just got to kill the bad guy.” Nolan wasn’t the only one to express dismay over Snyder’s decision.  Grant Morrison, a well-known comic book writer whose titles include the All Star Superman series, had this to say:

“It’s a credible Superman for now. But I’m not sure about the killing thing. I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying Batman should kill the Joker and, yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our super­heroes to do that?”

[END SPOILERS] Indeed, this trend to pull Super Heroes down to “our level” is in no way limited to our favorite Kryptonian orphan.  Iron Man 3 took our wise-cracking Tony Stark down a dark hole of addiction and PTSD.  Captain America: The Winter Solider, is already being billed as “darker” – more of a 70’s noir feel.  And even the most comedy-laced mainstream hero there is, Spider-Man, was so angst-ridden, so humor-free in his latest incaration that even star Andrew Garfield admitted that it was a problem with the first film.

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see!

Increasingly, the whole genre seems to be suffering from Dark Knight Disease.  Not that the TDK trilogy wasn’t excellent.  It was.  But so was Thor, the Avengers, and Sam Rami’s first two Spider-Man films.  Not to mention The Incredibles and Megamind, both of which were successful even venturing into the realm of pure comedy. And did I mention all those films made a load of green?  So no excuses to be found there for always taking our heroes down the dark path.

My greatest fear of this “hyper-realistic” trend is, by removing the joy from Super Heroes, they are extracting the most essential element of the genre: imagination.  Not that you can’t create a serious yet imaginative Super Hero film.  But for the audience, the genre is removed from that dreamlike, aspirational quality.  Super Heroes may have powers, but they cease to become super.

In the urge to make these heroes more like us, we lose the wonder that makes us want to be better, to be more like them.  And I think that is a genuine loss to our kids, who despite the mainstream audience and grown-ups engaging in cosplay, should still be who we make these stories for.

With the announcement that The Dark Knight Returns author Frank Miller is consulting on the new Batman vs. Superman film, my skepticism deepens that much more.  TDKR was a seminal comic book series, turning Batman into a gothic, noir struggle where each and every hero—even the sainted Superman—had feet of clay.  But it was the opposite of inspirational: a desperate slog through a dystopian future with only the faintest glimmer of hope at the conclusion.

Okay, I don't NEED the Batusi, but...

Okay, I don’t NEED the Batusi, but…

While I don’t need Batman dancing the Batusi to be satisfied, I urge the stewards of Super Heroes to remember that the entire genre is predicated on the fantastic notion of what could be.  That is what sparks the imagination of children of all ages to strive to be more than we are, to want to do something to make the world a better place, just like this amazing Mother told her young son after he discovered that Superman wasn’t real.

So when it comes to saving Super Heroes, I think the best advice is to relax and don’t take it so seriously.   Just imagine all of them in their underwear.  That always seems to do the trick.