Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Road to the Hall of Fame, Step 2

Well, we recently wrapped up Aaron's second step in his road to Cooperstown, NY. Last year was his first year in organized ball, pee-wee league. It started out as tee-ball; however, all the kids thought the tee was boring, so they ended up getting pitched to. Aaron was one of those who I was worried about when he hit (I'm not talking as his father...everyone said he could hit the ball hard). He had the option of doing one more year of tee-ball or head up to the next level: the instructional league. We decided to send him up to instructional.

We signed him up, and they put a call out for an additional head coach as there were so many boys that had signed up that they could easily field an additional team. I thought about it a number of times, having assisted last year in tee-ball, but my teaching schedule was going to keep me from at least 1 or 2 of the first practices, so I decided to stay back and assist one more time.

Being that it was a 6-7 year old league, Aaron was going to be one of the younger ones on there, but we thought he could handle it. He was bored in tee-ball, though all kids were bored easily at that age. I don't know how many times I had to holler to a kid who was playing in the dirt or watching a grasshopper to RUN to third base because the kid from first was standing right next to him on second base and wondering what was wrong.

After the first practice I went to this season, I was a little worried about our decision because Aaron was still out there playing in the dirt, and the balls were coming at him a little faster than the last league. As the season progressed, though, our decision was affirmed because he fit in fairly well with everyone in terms of level of ability. He was about average, both batting and fielding. Besides, with the exception of one or two, all the kids were still playing in the dirt.

From team photo day:

The biggest issue we had was keeping them interested in the game while out in the field. Everyone wanted to bat (wouldn't you?). The coach that pitched for us was REALLY consistent, and our kids would usually hit the ball by the second or third swing (Note to my Father: I did NOT pitch for this league...I vowed never to pitch again after that one almost sailed over the backstop back when you coached me back in 8th grade), but going out to the field and standing there while the other team took 7-8 pitches to get a hit had them about as A.D.D. as me. I got to hear lots of interesting things out there..."LOOK, A TRAIN"; "See the face I drew in the dirt"; "Can we bat yet?"; "My sister kissed so-and-so and got caught by my Dad...she is grounded for the next 4 years." At times, the ball would roll right by them as they're telling me this stuff. During those times, I'd most likely be biting my lip and trying not to let the military "vernacular" slip out.

I think I had the "funnest" coaching job as I stayed behind the plate when we batted and helped shag passed balls and make suggestions on batting. I wish I could say that I was the one responsible for how well our kids hit (and jokingly did once or twice), but they had a lot of natural ability. Between Craig (pitching guy) and me, we'd tweak a few things based on what we know, stuff like choosing a lighter bat when they were late or dropping the barrel and popping it up; closing the stance when the kid swung really early on everything but was late when pitched faster; putting my glove at the corner of the batter's box to keep them from stepping "in the bucket" (that was my Achilles Heel when I played); and my favorite, DON'T THROW THE BAT AFTER YOU HIT IT! I think I had one kid scared of me because of that one. 95% of the time, they'd hit the ball by the 3rd pitch, often into the outfield. Mark did great keeping things organized as to who was on deck and keeping the dugout to a low roar, and head coach Brian usually held down the fort as first base coach.

It was a traveling league, which was odd for me at this level. Back in Hoopeston, where I started my little league career, we didn't have organized ball until I was finishing second grade, and the games were all against Hoopeston teams. Aaron just finished kindergarten, and we played against several other Tri-Valley teams as well as teams from Heyworth and LeRoy. I don't think I traveled until after 6th grade.

It became apparent that some teams, parents, and kids are already out for the win, with teams with only second graders on it, playing their best players at first, second, and pitcher, etc. We treated this as "instructional", in that everyone played all positions, and they rotated every inning or two. That was also done in part to keep them interested (playing outfield was like the death sentence to our boys...they wanted to be in the infield where the action was).

Aaron at catcher:

One of the coaches from the other team kidding around with him.

Working with right and right-center field:

This all changed when we started playing the 3-out rule rather than letting both teams bat around. They wanted to bat, and they realized that they could bat quicker if they could get 3 outs. THAT got them watching the ball!

Probably the hardest thing for the kids at this age was figuring out what to do once the ball was hit. I usually worked the right side of the field. First base was easy.

Me: If the ball's hit to do, what do you do?
Kid: Go to first base
Me: And if it's not hit to you?
Kid: ???
Me: GO TO FIRST BASE (jokingly...usually if they've already played first)

Second base and pitcher was a little more challenging for most of them, but that's the purpose of instructional ball - to get the basics down. We didn't worry so much about strategy (i.e. runners on first and second, ball's hit to you, see if short is covering second, if not, try tagging runner and throwing to first, if he's past you and short isn't covering, throw to first). Basically all we said was: if it's hit to you, throw to first...if it's not hit to you, head to second base for a possible throw in from the outfield. Most of the time, the players would get the ball and look at us to tell them where to go. It worked a lot of the time, but you should have seen their faces when the coaches shouted different things.

Bases loaded, ball's hit to the pitcher

Me (seeing that the first baseman is ready): FIRST BASE!!!
Another coach (seeing that the catcher has stood up): THROW IT HOME!!!
Yet another coach: SECOND BASE!!!
Pitcher: looks around and throws it over the third baseman's head
Coaches: looking at each other like the 3 Stooges.

The season ended on a HOT note in late June. First, we traveled to LeRoy, where the game-time temp was still a good 96 degrees at 5 pm, with at least 80% humidity (ahhh...summer in the Midwest). I had just donated blood (2 pints using a double-red cell donation), so I was pretty much worthless, especially in the heat. It was so hot that everyone was sitting in the shade - it didn't matter what side you were on or what view you had:

Notice nobody's in the sun right by home plate...between the dugout and the bleachers? Yeah, it was that hot. Aaron, of course, is catching the first 2 innings of the game:

At the end of every inning, I'm force-feeding him water, despite his protests.

Yeah, they were definitely moving slower in this game. Notice there are no coaches in the above pic. That's because A) we were down 1 coach; and B) we're all still crawling back to the dugout.

Aaron, after clubbing one to the outfield. The rest of the other team is just standing there, worried about spontaneously combusting if they move to look at where the ball is.

Aaron, rounding third after someone behind him clubbed one into right-center. He's listening to one of the coaches telling him to head on home (we allowed doubles on really good hits).

He made it home with no play. I'm there telling him not to slide and to give him a high-five.

I think we made it 4 innings before we decided to call it a day. I was seeing steps in the dugout that didn't exist (much to the amusement of one of the coaches). Probably the most anticipated part of the game was the snacks afterward:

Eric's giddy with excitement (or in the first stages of heat stroke).

The next night, we got a respite. It was only 92, and there was a slight breeze. The only problem was that this game started at 8 pm (scheduled...actually started around 8:25), and most of these kids are in bed around 8:30. Added to that was the fact that we were playing in Ellsworth, where the field is right next to the water tower (painted like a baseball). It is also really close to the tracks (and, yes, a train went by right in the middle of the game). To make it even more distracting, it was located in the middle of a wind farm, with turbines as far as the eye could see.

It was heaven for someone with A.D.D.

Aaron's up to bat here, and I'm not in my usual post behind the catcher. I'm watching him, trying to figure out what he's doing wrong as he developed a rather unique swing tonight. It took another at-bat to finally figure it out:

Now, I know I'm going to get grief from the baseball Gods here for showing the controversial "back elbow up" stance. Aaron had his back elbow down so far that he had essentially started his swing in his stance...only he'd bring the bat back up before swinging. He was really late in his swing. Bringing the elbow up some actually sped his swing up a little more, and he hit the next pitch past the shortstop (he got around faster). We'll fix his stance later...small steps.

We had one who always stepped into the bucket when he swung. I threw my glove down near his front foot and told him not to step on my glove (I didn't want shoe marks on it). I looked at him and told him that if he "stepped right at the pitcher, you'd probably hit the ball through him."

He gave me the "okay...quit bugging me" look and dug in. He stepped right at the pitcher. You can probably guess what happened.


It was pure instinct for our coach to put his glove up to save some extreme pain and a voice an octave higher. I think I heard Evan (the batter) giggling maniacally as he ran to first. I hollered to him that I was just joking about hitting it through the coach.

It cooled off rather quickly, and the lights took over...the boys thought it was pretty neat playing under the lights.

After the game, Brian, the head coach (and, unfortunately, a die-hard Cardinals fan), gave each of them a medal and a little trophy for those who were chosen as MVPs (or MVTs...the boys wanted to call themselves the "Thunder"). Surprisingly, every one of them received MVT honors throughout the season (and I don't think they suspected a thing, either).

Brian also found cookies in boxes with MLB logos on them. He gave a box of their favorite team to each child. You can see a couple of the boxes in the pic above.

Before they turned out the lights, Aaron and Coach Daddy posed for one final pic:

Despite both of us sweating buckets at 9:45 at night, it turned out to be a pretty good picture!

So, to Aaron, C.J., Colton, Derek, Eli, Evan, Greg, Liam, Logan, T.J., and Tommy...GREAT JOB GUYS! To Brian, Craig, and was a blast working with y'all. And to the parents of the boys...a huge Thank You. Several of them came up after the last game to give the coaches a big thanks and to tell them how much they appreciated what they did. That little gesture did not go unnoticed.

Until next year...

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