This is my 20th summer of coaching baseball. There have been many memories, relationships made and some level of success be it small or great. Some of my best seasons have ended before the championship round. My goals each year are to teach the fundamentals, teach some rules and to keep it fun. Some teams just clicked and got it, others were a little more trying but they sorted themselves out and I made the best of it.
This season, I feel like I’m on a Tilt-A-Whirl ride. You know the one. The carnival ride that you went on again and again as a kid. You’re in a half shell of a car with maybe 1 or 2 other people and only a crash bar on your legs for safety. The ride spins in waves and each car spins as well. When you’re a kid it’s awsome. but I’m not a kid anymore.
The off season preparation for a little league goes by quickly. The Board meets once a month to set an agenda and then tasks have to be put in motion. Equipment checks and orders made, umpire training, coaches clinics, uniforms, permits, registrations all lead up to Opening Day. Like being in line for that ride, it’s slow and methodical. <“Are we moving? What’s the guy doing? Why doesn’t he let another kid on with the bigger one? Stupid big kids always have to ride alone.” But I’m getting closer. It’s warm out. I don’t know what time it is or care. It’s July or in my mind a month of Saturdays.> Opening Day is on Saturday and my boys can’t wait.
Opening Day is like a holiday. There’s a parade of teams and EVERYONE is happy and excited. The uniforms are new and clean. Kids and parents and friends and relatives of all kinds are sharing smiles. It is truly a great day. The season has officially begun! <Finally we’re on the ride. Me and my two boys, 11 and 7 years old respectively. The shell is steel, painted red. the seat is hard, harder than I remember. The bar is tight on my leg and thigh as it locks in. There’s a click. And a hum. The ride begins, slowly.>
Coaching 7,8 and 9 year old boys and girls is different than coaching the teenagers I first started out with. I still focus on fielding, throwing, base running and the postions but I have to repeat it constantly. It’s a challenge. Practices are haphazzard, uneven. Most have never played or thrown a ball. It’s all baby steps. The games are tough. The other teams have kids with experience. The other coach is worried about winning. Winning? I just want a kid to stop a ball and try to throw it to first base. I want them to swing and make contact with the ball even if it goes foul. I want the smiles back because all I see is fear. Winning? The ride is building momentum. It’s a herky-jerky wave of metal bars and panels clanking. My sons are trying to get the car to spin. Their laughs are so infectious. This is fun. The ride spins to the left, like time going backward. The car spins too, and they each try to smoosh me. <I slide on the seat into my sister. “G-Force!!” I scream. She hates it but I love it. I can see my mom waving with one hand, a cigerette in the other but now she’s gone. Other moms are waving at other kids but I don’t think they see each other.> A car to my right spins to face me and all I see is a little girl, maybe 7, wide eyed an mouth agape. She’s gone. Was she crying or laughing? My car spins. In the crowd are all kinds of people. Parents, grand parents, cousins and friends. I see a man vaping as he looks at his phone. A woman with a stroller seems anxious. Another woman is on a scooter. She looks miserable, like why am I at an amusement park miserable. My car spins.
The season is racing by. There are so many rainouts and games to reschedule. People still owe the league money. There’s a tournament next week and we don’t have all the paperwork done. We need copies of birth certifiates. The Snack-Shack is a mess. We can’t cook hot dogs until its clean. An umpire stiffed the 1 p.m. softball game, can someone ump for them? The league Facebook page is loaded with complaints. Where’s the President? Who knows the rules? When are team pictures?
I look at our bleachers and a Dad is looking at his phone. Two older gentleman are in the shade under a tree, they nod at me and shake their heads. I’m trying to explain to this 15 year old umpire that a ball is foul. It dropped in front of the plate and back spun to the backstop fence. My 8 year old catcher turned and watched it roll by him like a matador teasing a bull. The batter ran to first. “It’s Foul!” I yell. The ump called it fair and she’s not changing her call. The 3 coaches on the other team all look down and turn away. To quote Jack Buck, “I don’t believe what I just saw!” I see my son at the pitchers mound. He’s sweaty and sullen. He doesn’t look happy. A kid on our bench asks, “Are we winning?” Winning.
<On game days I would come home early, usually by 3 p.m. After riding bikes or playing catch with my friends, I needed to focus on the Game. “Hi Mom. (cheek kiss)You know I have a game today, so what’s for dinner?” “Bread and water. Where’s Angela?” She says while blowing smoke through her nose. “How should I know? She doesn’t listen to me. Maybe she’s at the pool. I’m going to lay down.” I reply. I’d go to my room and lay on the bed. I wasn’t trying to nap, just be still and think about baseball. After a while, I could smell garlic and chicken. My mom would make small slits in the chicken and put pieces of garlic in them. Pepper, salt and olive oil and then the oven. We’d have peas or corn and mashed potaoes I’m sure. And salad. We ALWAYS had salad.>
The car spins. My knee and leg are very uncomfortable. My boys crash into me. How many times is this damn thing going to go around? Has it been 10? 12? Maybe it’ll stop at 20. My lower back hurts. My boys are laughing and it makes me smile. The car to my right spins an I see the girl. I think she’s okay now. It looks like a smile. Then the cars spin.
The pitching machine isn’t working today so we improvise and decide to coach pitch. The other coach is mad. “Why do they get to coach pitch and we had to go off the machine? They’’ll be able to hit now. It’s not fair to my kids.” “Really?” I say. “I’m going for a no hitter.” This is what I deal with game after game. Silly squabbles about a childs game. I want ALL the kids to hit. I’ll pitch to his team also, I don’t care about that.
<The car spins. This is so cool. Lights are blinking, the crowds a-buzz, the air smells like cotton candy, or is it popcorn? I lean my head back and close my eyes as the car spins and spins.
It’s almost 8 p.m. We’ve been here 2 1/2 hours. We’re losing 10–2 but I don’t care. The kids are hot, hungry and miserable. It’s 85 degrees and humid. The weather doesn’t bother me but the kids, the kids are not allright. One got hit with a bat on the elbow. 2 are crying because their parents yelled at them. One kid walked home and we had to get a T-ball player so we could keep playing. I want to call it a day but the other coach isn’t having it. 4 out 5 innings isn’t good enough for him. “You’re cheating my kids out of playing.”
The ride keeps going, 18, 19, 20 revolutions. I lean into my oldest on the spin, “G-Force!” It’s slowing down now. Yeah! <Darn. Should I get back in line or go to the bumper cars? I think I’m getting hungry. Maybe Gram has dinner ready? I’ll run down the street, eat and grab $5 for the water gun game. Or the dart game? I really want that VH poster.> “Dad, can we go to the water park now, its hot?” “Absolutely.”
It’s 8:26 p.m. now and the score is 24–2. My team could careless. I ask another Board member if he could please tell this ump to end the game and he does. Mercy, finally. I refuse to shake the other coach’s hand. He thinks he’s a great coach because he has only lost 3 games. I told him he doesn’t know the rules and he certainly doesn’t know baseball. Winning? On the ride home my son asked if I saw his hit. “Of course”. I say “Well it would have been better if you pitched it better.” And he smiles. Maybe 20 years is a good round number.WINNING.