The movie, “The Bad News Bears,” really set unreasonable expectations for under-qualified little league baseball coaches.
For one thing, letting the children smoke and drink beer is even more taboo now than it was in 1976. For another, teaching children how to do anything requires extraordinary patience. Teaching them to lean into a pitch that, despite what you hear, definitely hurts when it hits you? That’s something else entirely.
This summer I was called up to finish the season as the assistant coach of my son’s team. My predecessor was a muscular CrossFit enthusiast with a perfectly sculpted beard. He and his son got too busy with lacrosse, a sport that involves running for more than 30 seconds at a time. So, one day, the kids were stuck with me as first base coach. I suspect they weren’t impressed, and I certainly wouldn’t blame them.
I’ve written before about my youth baseball career. I was a relief right fielder with an .000 batting average and the fielding prowess of a large bag of sand. When my son Doug went into baseball I feared the worst, that I would have to watch him suffer the same fate in real time. However, to my surprise, and in defiance of genetic probability, my kid got to be pretty good — enough that it was assumed that I must have something to do with it.
I really don’t.
But I can hit grounders for drills and throw passable batting practice (see last week’s column about my resulting injury). It took me a few weeks to learn all the cliche things to say. Kid takes erratic swing at a bad pitch? “Look for a good one now.” Does he nervously leap out of the box at the sight of a strike down the middle? “Stay in there now.” Eventually I got to be functional.
Mostly, my job was to stand just behind Frank, the head coach, and nod a lot when he was talking. This part was pretty easy. Sometimes, when we were down 12 or 13 runs, Frank would ask if I thought he should change pitchers. I would say, “Gaaaaa, I don’t know. Maybe one more?” After a bases-clearing triple, Frank would change pitchers.
As I mentioned, I was assigned first base coaching duties. If you know anything about baseball you know that there are coaches stationed at third base and first base.
The third base coach signals for steals, tells runners to hold at second or third or run home. The first base coach retrieves batting gloves and says how many outs there are. Again, I excelled at this. Not a single kid lost his batting gloves this season. And I only forgot how many outs there were two or three times, a marked improvement from my playing days.
You might think that in a competitive sport like youth baseball that your opponent is the other team. That your job as coach is to prepare your team to defeat the other team. You would be wrong.
We confronted many opponents on the field. Sure, the other team. But don’t sleep on passing airplanes or grandmas in the stands. An obsession with sunflower seeds rivaled that of autumnal squirrels. We once started an inning without a centerfielder because he was still in line at the concession stand. When our team decided to play baseball we were a formidable squad. And we did so at least 12 or 13 innings throughout the season.
Somehow, despite a season run differential well below negative 100, we wiled our way into the championship game. We faced a team that had crushed us all five teams we played them. My son wore two lucky shirts underneath his uniform. It was too hot for that, but I really couldn’t argue with the logic.
Apparently the movies got it wrong. Not being as good at baseball as the other team is a critical weakness in this sport. Plucky charisma can’t stop a grounder from rolling into the outfield. But it can bring a team together even when we lost.
I ended the season thinking of all the things I would teach the kids next time I make the big show. Things like fielding techniques, batting stances, and situational base running.
All I have to do is learn how to actually do those things myself.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).