Wednesday, May 9, 2007

How To Succeed In T-Ball

Ya can't expect the kids to pay attention at all times. . . .

The spring season of son E's T-ball league is just about done. This is the third year he's played t-ball, starting out in a summer YMCA league that stressed touchy-feely goodness above everything else (in 100 degree heat--never again), then a fall "developmental league" stint in our local "Youth Baseball Association," followed by this spring's full-blown schedule in the same organization where scores and statistics are maintained and even posted on their website for all to see. Folks are very intent about baseball in these parts.

I never fancied myself as an athlete, and don't wish to impose what I missed out on to my kids. I hope I never become one of those parents who yell at the coaches and wrap myself too tightly into the notion that perhaps this t-ball league is the springboard to a future Major League career for my sons. I played two years of pee wee football when I was a kid, and looking back 35 years I remember mostly the stomach crunches, the endless laps around the field, and what assholes the coaches were. And what an inept player I was. Even back then, my expectations were being dashed, setting me up for an early realization of what life really will be like. Who says sports doesn't prepare one for adulthood?

So, now we're into three cycles of t-ball. The organization E is playing in is pretty well established, has a big complex of fields and a regimented organizational structure with bylaws, officer elections, and a fundraising structure. Never being one to enjoy the spectacle of parents whoring candy bars and cases of soda to coworkers in order to raise money for their kid's sporting leagues, I opted to just pay an addtional $25 bucks up front to be done with any expectations that I'd make an effort to participate in a fund-raiser (teams that don't contribute 100% to the fundraising are docked victories, essentially punishing the kids and coaches for the failures of the parents).

One has to get comfortable. .

E's team is a make-up first-year team, with mostly first-time players and coaches (when we registered E and I mentioned I'd be interested in "helping out" the coaches if needed, I was called by the league the next day and asked if I wanted to coach. HA! I wouldn't dare subject myself on these kids. . . I'd ruin them for life--see:Walter Mattheau in "Bad News Bears."). The established teams and coaches from previous years "draft" the players they want; the new teams are filled out with first-timers to the league. Thus, E's team, the Tigers, has a first-time coach and lots of newbie kids. It took E's team a while to get their stride. As a first-year team, the Tigers got last choice on where to practice, so instead of using the nice groomed fields of the Organization's complex, we're practicing on bumpy, weedy school lot. And coach was still feeling his way around how to get this bunch of 12 4- to 6-year-olds interested, engaged, and motivated to learn this wonderful game of baseball.

Now, baseball is mostly a mental game. Concentration is key--there's long moments with nothing going on and then a few seconds of furious activity. Positioning defense, the strategy involved with baserunning--this raises the game head-and-shoulders above games like Soccer, where there is constant activity. . . and unfortunately makes Baseball a much harder game to learn than soccer, which is why soccer is idea for little kids: just roll a ball onto a field and watch em all chase after it. With t-ball, the kids out in the field pass the time until the ball comes rolling by them, kicking dirt, turning cartwheels, picking dandelions. . . But baseball requires thinking, and most kids t-ball age just don't "get it." Thus, fielded balls are wildly chucked towards bases where no baseman exists; kids watch the ball roll right by them with curiosity instead of fielding it; and once the ball has passed their location, they're on to the next thing, regardless that play is still on-going and the ball is coming back to them to try to put out the runner.

After 11 games, the Tigers are sitting at 3-7-1. There's one undefeated team at 11-0; there's two hapless teams at 0-12 (life must suck down there in the Cellar). But the kids are definately having fun, and after two practices and sometimes three games a week, they're starting to catch on. We lost a game last weekend to a 9-0 team by only two runs; we then came back and beat the 0-9 Royals 20-7.

I'm no baseball expert, but I have detected a few trends in t-ball that are necessary to win games:

1. You HAVE TO make outs. This is most important. Teams are limited to 5 runs an inning, and with this level of play, it is often a given that each team will score 5 runs each time up. The only way you can win is to get three outs and hold your opponent to less than five runs. That 11-0 team, for instance, has scored 185 runs and allowed only 104; the 0-12 team has scored 109 and allowed 190.

2. You HAVE TO have a good infield-to-first-base combination. This can be a pitcher or charging third-baseman who can get the little dribbler hit (most common) and wing the ball to first base. This is the easiest way to get outs, and the team who can come up with a couple of good fielders-throwers-catcher combinations will get the outs, and thus, the win. (Usually the first baseman and/or third baseman is the coach's son, and probably gets plenty of practice outside of usual team practices)

3. You MUST HAVE enough players to play! It isn't enough to merely forefit a game by not having at least 8 players; if you have only 8 players, you get an automatic "out" every nine at bats. If you're playing a team with a modicum of success in making outs, you're going to be sunk.

4. MAKE THE PLAY AT HOME. Best way to get the outs is to get the out against a runner going home. That way, you get the out and eliminate the run. This requires the fielders to know what's going on. So a third baseman or pitcher who is cognizant of what is going on and can charge the hit and make the play at home will make a big difference in a game.

CYNICAL REALIST SPEAKING: If a coach can emphasize these four things in creating his team, he'll be on his way to having a winner. That means recognizing the physical as well as mental skills of his team. As in life, there's a "lifeboat theory" at work--put your effort into those who can help the team, and let the others just exist on the perhiphery. Though everyone is supposed to get a chance to play every position throughout the year, the wiley coach who can best use his fielders and those who can catch to make the outs will do best. The kids who don't pay much attention or whose heads aren't in the game can be relegated to the outfield where they will do the least amount of damage.

Hell yeah, the game is all about letting the kids have fun. But adults want to win, dammit, and for the kids at this age, they really could give a shit about winning; might as well put em out there let them have fun while us failed jocks sit there in the stands, yelling "Throw it to THIRD, Jeremy!!!!! THIRD!!!" and put the stress on ourselves.

One more weekend, and it'll be over. . . .and we can look forward to doing it again next year (when E moves up into "coach pitch" and likely a whole new set of winning strategies)

E fields the ball in practice. . . .

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