With the end of June comes the end of Little League baseball and softball season. This spring I managed my son’s team of ten, eleven, and twelve-year-old boys, and helped coach my daughter’s softball team of five-to-eight-year-old girls.
Throughout the season, as one of the players on either one of my teams, or the opposing teams struggled, I began to pay particular attention to the things coaches, teammates, and people in the crowd (fans?) say. Most of these people are well-intentioned. Perhaps I’m putting too much thought into this, but some of the things heard around a youth baseball or softball field are ridiculous.
"Just throw strikes." Kids are inconsistent, and pitching is difficult, so it’s only natural that even the best pitchers are going to walk people. After walking a batter or two this sage piece of advice echoes from all parts of the field. I understand the sentiment, but it’s not helpful. At all. Not one bit. Speaking as someone who played Little League for twelve years, and has coached eleven teams, I can guarantee you that “Just throw strikes” has never been helpful.
You see, the problem isn’t that the kid has forgotten his job. He’s the pitcher. He’s supposed to get people out, which means throwing strikes. It’s not like he’s standing on the mound, beating himself up, thinking, “I have this ball, and that kid’s standing up there, but I can’t remember what the hell I’m supposed to do next.” He knows what he’s supposed to do, he just can’t do it! And no matter how many times you try to explain to him that he should “Just throw strikes” it’s not going to help.
"It only takes one." This doesn’t make sense. Ever. It only takes one? I remember hearing that phrase for the first time when I was ten years old and thinking, “Why didn’t that guy finish saying what he was going to say?” It only takes one what?
One swing? One pitch? One strike?
It doesn’t matter what you mean. Unless you hit the first pitch, or unless you retire the batter on the first pitch, it will always take more than one. That’s why the rules of the game give you four balls and three strikes and three outs and nine innings. It only takes one? Yeah, if you ignore all of the ones that came before!
"Let’s get some runs!" This one isn’t just confined to youth baseball and softball. Harry Caray used to always say this after singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game. It doesn’t make any more sense when he said it then it does when some well-meaning coach says it as his team comes off the field after giving up six runs.
Just once I want to see some kid respond with, “Ohhhhh! We’re trying to score more runs than the other team? This game makes so much more sense now.” I haven’t heard it yet. Maybe next year.
"Block the ball." While most of the other sayings on the list are words of encouragement, or pieces of benign advice, this one is more problematic. It’s usually shouted at the catcher when there’s a runner on third base. We might as well tell the poor kid, “If your teammate on the mound doesn’t listen to our advice and decides not to just throw strikes, and throws it in the dirt, then it’s entirely up to you to block the ball. Don’t forget, they have a runner on third, so it only takes one wild pitch for them to get a run!”
I guarantee the catcher knows the situation, and he or she’s hoping-upon-hope that the pitcher throws the ball right down the middle and makes his or her job easier. Chances are the catcher’s not on the fence about what to do. She’s not squatting behind the place thinking, “Should I block this pitch or just let it go by?”
Literally anything else you say during a game. One of the things I loved most about playing baseball was the way everything went silent when I stepped into the batter’s box. I didn’t hear a thing. I suspect most kids are like that. So whatever you’re saying to them at that moment isn’t getting through.
Believe me, I understand the urge. There’s nothing more maddening than watching an outfielder who fields a ball and then stands there holding it as runners advance. If you’re not shouting “Throw the ball!” at the top of your lungs, then you should check your pulse.
But problems aren’t solved during a game. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve yelled, “Catch the damn ball!” it never makes a kid a better fielder!
There’s really only one cure-all for poor play in both youth baseball and softball: a post-game visit to the concession stand!
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