Little League season starts soon and I always like to post this right around this time...
Anybody who thinks the Chicago Cubs are the most loveable losers in the world never met my little leaguers. Then again, no one has ever witnessed anyone, anywhere, lose quite like us. We were the Bad News Bears without a happy ending. We made the Washington Generals look first-class. I felt bad watching the runs pile up on my helpless little guys, but the other teams felt worse – you know things aren’t going well when the other coaches are rooting for you.
Winning just wasn’t our thing. Not that any of my little guys knew – once, after an especially bad whooping, one of my nine year olds tugged on my t-shirt and asked if we had won. Won? I gave him a perplexed look, “buddy, we didn’t even make it out of the batter’s box today.”
Such was life for my team during our 0-16 campaign. We struck out, we dodged groundballs, and for a bunch of fourth graders, we had an uncanny ability to remain clean (dirt also wasn’t our thing). But the truth is, I’ll probably remember the losing only slightly more than my team, and that’s only because I actually kept score for every game. It’s everything else, the hilarious stories and the head-scratching ones, the heartwarming and occasionally heartbreaking tales that made this season memorable for me.
Teaching baseball to children is a lot like teaching someone to speak English. Every time they think they’re getting the hang of it, another crazy rule pops up and throws everything off. The “infield fly” rule is just a preposterous as “I” before “E” except after “C.” And why, as my first basemen once asked, can’t you just throw the ball at the runner to get him out? Monkey ball works in kickball.
The key is learning all the positions, but that also means knowing right from left, which can be tricky. Sometimes it can also be hard to pronounce the names of each spot on the field. For example, one kid spent the entire year asking to go to the mountain and I would always say no. I thought he was talking about the big pile of dirt behind out dugout. Turns out he meant the pitcher’s mound, and he took the hill in our final game. Jose hit four batters in a row.
My actual pitcher (we only had one) was a 3’2 seven year old who played right field and batted dead last on opening day and was the starting pitcher and leading off by game three. He was so tiny that our catcher (his brother) would often knock him over when throwing the ball back to him. But Joey knew that pitching was all about intimidation, so he’d wear eye-black to look older and make his “mean face” to strike fear in the hitters. That’s heart.
Of course, every team has an overachiever. Ours was our shortstop. Chris knew how to catch and could throw all the way across the diamond. He liked to dive and slide and even though he had an awful habit of throwing his bat after swinging, he made contact enough to be considered our best hitter. In one already out of reach game, a ball was hit to shallow left field and he made the greatest catch any of my kids had ever seen, so they did what the pros do: They jumped on top of him and celebrated as though it were the game-winning catch. One problem: It was only the second out of the inning and a runner tagged up and scored.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t laugh or smile at everything that happened this season. Sometimes reality hits hard. They old motto is “kids say the darndest things,” but in actuality, they’re brutally honest. Mom drinks too much. Dad’s never around and he doesn’t pay child support. Or we’re going to be homeless. Real life problems that winning in baseball won’t solve. My friends often tease me by comparing me to Keanu Reeves in “Hardball,” but the truth is, real life tends to be a lot less entertaining and a lot more eye-opening.
It’s the tear-jerking stories that make me want to come back and should make you want to get involved. Sometimes we don't realize that kids these days are lonelier than ever. Not every child has a reliable parent to turn to or someone willing to pay attention to them. Too many grow up with John Madden as their male role model and Grand Theft Auto has taught them far more about stolen cars than they will ever know about stolen bases.
It's really sad, especially when you hear from people who have already given up on a generation. Children need coaches and role models in their lives now more than ever. It's so easy too. Spend a couple hours a week with a youth. Mentor them. Coach them. Teach them. Do something.
It's not hard to have an impact on a child's life.
So make it happen.