Along with three friends, I am coaching a Little League team of seven, eight, and nine year olds. All four of us are in our early twenties. Needless to say, we are the only coaches in the league without kids of our own. Our goal? Utter domination. Throughout the season I will keep Pitchers & Poets readers updated on the goings on surrounding the team.
There is something pleasantly meaningless about the scoring in our Little League games. A book is kept (for the purpose of future statistical analysis, obviously), and balls, strikes and outs are counted. The runs are tallied quietly and casually. Only when a team reaches its limit of five in an inning do runs become much of an issue.
The unofficial nature of score-keeping and the fact that nobody cares that much about winning, result in an environment where results are pliable. For instance, on Saturday we played our final game of the season against the dreaded Beekeepers (ed. note: we have more games, just no more against this team). It was a stunning match-up: the base umpire* was simultaneously oblivious to on-field events and high on the scent of his own power, the kids were focused from start to finish, and only once in two hours did a pitcher walk three consecutive batters leading to a coach-pitch situation — and it was one of their guys.
*Even in Little League, umpires shouldn’t be allowed to wear sunglasses. It looks totally incongruous.
Entering the sixth inning, we had reached our two hour time limit. But the consensus was that the teams were tied at 15-15. Since ours was the last game of the day, the coaches agreed to play one last inning. This decision did lead to one moment of confusion. When asked in the dugout if they wanted to play the extra inning, the Killer Bees players were very clear in saying no, they did not want to keep on playing. They were content to take the tie. But once reminded that we were the home team, and not just the bad guys would get to bat, the kids were ready to continue.
“Free baseball,” said one Killer Bees father, his tongue clearly in cheek. “What more can you ask for?”
We wound up allowing four runs in the top of the sixth, to fall behind 19-15. Despite getting a couple of runners on board in the bottom half, the Killer Bees were unable to score. By the time we finally shook hands, the prospect of free snack was far more enticing than that of free baseball. In the end, it was revealed by our scorekeeper that the score going into that final inning was actually 19-14. Whoever had been keeping score for the Beekeepers made the mistake of counting a runner who crossed home only to return to third base on a controversial “one base on an overthrow” call by the aforementioned base umpire.
This was not the first post-game scoreboard correction, and obviously nobody assigned it much meaning. The kids got a competitive game, in which runs were scored as a result of baseballs colliding with bats (as opposed to runs being scored because of baseballs missing the strike zone). The fact that we thought it was tied — the fact that they still cared what the score was so late in the game — was impressive in itself.
As the kids get more competitive and become more interested in baseball, rather than say digging in the dirt or dancing in the outfield, we coaches have raised our expectations. We expect them to focus, to judge flyballs before taking off for the next base, to stand at the plate as if they are actually interested in hitting the ball. We have a steal sign. They generally follow it. All this has contributed to another new phenomenon: as coaches, we have become a little bit competitive.
Generally this competitiveness is directed at other coaches, some of whom seem not to share our good-natured approach to the job. They might, for instance, scream a little too quickly, argue a little too frequently, gesticulate a little too wildly. Or maybe wedon’t like them because they are more interested in winning than stressing skills and fun. Either way, the temptation then becomes to stress winning ourselves, and thereby teach the villainous dads a lesson.
The other thing that has led us to think more competitive thoughts is the kids. There comes a time during every Little League season when things begin to click. This has little to do with the coaching and little to do with the talent. It has to do with age, with repetition, and with the steepness of the learning curve. For a nine year old, the mere act of playing baseball a few times a week for a few months is enough to generate huge improvements. You play enough, and eventually the muscle memory sets in. This week, all of a sudden, it felt like all those drills caught up. The Killer Bees finally clicked.