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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Poise on the Diamond
By Tom Goldstein

Ten minutes before the start of the St. Paul Midway Little League Double A championship game there was a loud bang in the street running behind the backstop, followed by screeching tires and another loud, crunching noise. I looked up from the scorebook just in time to watch a van careen into my pickup truck, which was parked about halfway down the third base line. When I saw the truck hop, I thought, uh-oh. Then Alec, our starting pitcher, yelled out, "That's my mom," and he and several other players went running toward the accident scene.

Alec's mom was bleeding slightly on her face and shaken up; the other driver, a college student who worked for the youth organization that oversees the league, was fine. Apparently Alec's mom had made a U-turn, something all of us had done many times on the quiet street, but this afternoon there was more traffic—due to a temporary detour on a neighboring road—and she had not seen the other car approaching. Her van was badly damaged; the other car was totaled. My truck is twelve years old, so I wasn't too worried about dents or scratches. I was just hoping it would be driveable, because there's no way I could afford a new one. Thankfully, the damage was limited to the door and extended-cab portion, so I heaved a sigh of relief and went about gathering my players together and getting them focused again on the game before us.

Concentration is always a problem in baseball, from the big leagues down to nine- and ten-year-old kids, the ages of all but one of the players on my team. If you don't follow the ball from the time it leaves the pitcher's hand until it hopefully impacts your bat, there's little chance you're going to end up with a hit. Similarly, if you don't look the ball into your glove, whether tracking a lazy flyball or fielding a hot grounder, you increase the odds of muffing the ball or booting the grounder.

Unfortunately, baseball is a lot like life; you try to keep the distractions at bay so that you can enjoy the moment, but sometimes you fail. Because if your parents are going through a divorce, somebody you love is dying, your dad never shows up to watch you play—or your mom's just been in an accident—it might not be that easy to keep focused on the task before you. That's why sports isn't just about talent and muscle memory, but also the ability to remain confident and poised under the pressure of the situation.

And maybe that's what was so amazing about Alec's performance that day. Although he walked the first two batters he faced and gave up two runs in the first inning on a couple of fielder's choice grounders and an error, he allowed no hits and ended up striking out the side in the third. To top things off, his double in the bottom of the fourth (we play five innings in Double A) knocked in the tying and go-ahead runs, and when our ace reliever (and all-around wizard) Drew came in to close out the top of the fifth with a game-ending strikeout, we had captured the championship and recorded a no-hitter!

I guess behind every championship team there is a storybook quality to the success, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit it felt pretty good to finally be part of a winner a few months past my forty-sixth birthday (because I certainly remember all the championship games I lost as a basketball player growing up). But what really made this season a memorable one for me is what happened in our semifinal game, the culmination of watching a bunch of good-natured kids who really seemed to enjoy one another come together as a team. Winning the championship was the icing on the cake.

I've coached youth baseball for several years now, but most of the time it has seemed like a chore. The skill level hasn't been particularly high among the younger players, and the average attention span even less. Many of the kids don't bother to work on hitting or fielding outside of practice, and when the games roll around they naturally make the same mistakes over and over again. Parents routinely take their kids on long vacations during the middle of the season, and being a coach has often just meant getting enough players to show up for games. Until this year there hadn't been many opportunities to really teach baseball, and with players showing negligible improvement during the season, I was often left wondering why I bothered to invest the time. I'm also not sure that I always gave it my best effort.

But this year was different. For one thing, the kids got to pitch, which meant there were additional challenges as a coach. For another, it was Double A, which meant there was a goal to shoot for—playing in the championship game. At this level, the kids showed up regularly for practices and games, they seemed eager to work on hitting and fielding, and there wasn't a lot of complaining about who got to play which position. Finally, coaching became fun—something I looked forward to each week.

I especially remember one of the first practices when I asked the players who wanted to pitch, and about half of the kids raised their hands. Once I'd seen Alex, Alec, Drew, Sam, and Ben throw the ball, I knew we'd have a competitive staff, but I was also intrigued by Dylan, a tall, quiet, eleven-year-old who should have been playing Triple A but somehow had been bypassed by that level's coaches. When you watch Dylan move around the field, you just see athletic grace everywhere. So I asked him if he'd thought about pitching. He said he was too wild. Would he give it a shot? Okay. I had him throw a few pitches, and the first time he released the ball, I knew he was something special. If Dylan could get the ball over the plate, there was simply no way anybody was going to touch him. At that moment I became giddy, suddenly envisioning the possibilities that stretched out before us in the season ahead.

As a team, we were talented but inconsistent, which is probably typical of most Little League play. In the early part of the season we'd win some games by blowout scores, then manage only a handful of runs in close losses. Perhaps the turning point came about midway through the schedule when none of our pitchers could get the ball over the plate and we'd dropped the first game of a doubleheader by a 9–3 score. In the second game, the other team got five runs in the bottom of the first, and that's where things stood when we came up for our last licks in the top of the fifth. After a walk and a couple of singles brought in one run, Dylan smacked a triple to make the score 5–3. Three straight walks brought us within one, and then Henry stepped in to bat. Henry had played with me the season before and was a good hitter from whom I expected big things. But all season long he'd been in a slump, and along the way he'd lost his confidence. This time, however, he rapped a single, scoring the tying run, and though Seamus, the potential winning run, was thrown out at home for the final out of the inning, we held our opponents scoreless to salvage a 5–5 tie. We lost only once more the rest of the season, and that was a game where about half of our players were absent.

By the time the playoffs rolled around, we'd become a cohesive bunch, and thanks to great pitching, won our first two games to become the number one seed in the championship round. In the semifinals, we faced the Patriots, a team we'd beaten fairly handily in three regular season contests, but in this game they made several spectacular plays and had us down 2–0 heading into the bottom of the fourth. We finally got a run across on a hit batsman, a walk, and a single, but even with nobody out we were coming up on the bottom of our lineup, which usually meant a string of strikeouts. Ryan, a kid I had gently chided early in the season for not running hard on a flyball that he could have caught to preserve a victory, was at the plate, and his bat had been silent all year long. I had talked to him about how a situation would come up where he could redeem himself for the early-season lapse, but just a few games before this one he had been forced out at second on a throw he easily could have beaten. So I wasn't all that hopeful. However, Ryan seized the moment and slashed a single to right field, scoring the tying run, and when I slapped him on the back at first base, you could see his face swelling with pride. Up next was Alex, a good hitter who had been dropped in the batting order because he, too, had been in a season-long slump. Alex's double to left put us ahead, and when Henry followed with a triple clearing the bases and adding several insurance runs, it was as if all at once our team had found its confidence at the plate. Even Murtuza, a kid who'd never played baseball before this season, managed to tap a dribbler to the pitcher and get his first RBI of the season.

Unfortunately, not all of the players on our team had shining moments. My son, Mathew, managed only a scratch single all season long, and teammates James and Chris also struggled at the plate. But in our final practice, a half hour before the championship game, James caught flyballs with a confidence he hadn't displayed all year and Chris, who had to miss the final game because of a vacation, was really torn about leaving.

I know that many of these kids, if they remember this season at all, will do so only because they were part of a championship team. What I also hope they'll remember is that everyone contributed to what we accomplished on the diamond, that what we were individually was never as much as we could be together. That our season resulted in a championship was wonderful, but what I'll remember most is the satisfaction of coaching a group of kids who came together as one. That's the sweetest victory of all.

—EFQ

 

TOM GOLDSTEIN is publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly. He never played Little League baseball as a kid but still dreams about how much fun he would have had behind the plate as a catcher.

This column first appeared in EFQ 21:1, Winter 2004

© 2004 Tom Goldstein

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