Of Fairness and Uncovered Bases
I was outside my childhood home one summer afternoon releasing tension by throwing a tennis ball against the garage door. I was waiting for a phone call to tell me whether I'd made the Little League All-Star team. I was realistic about my chances. I knew I was on the bubble. For one, my coach spent the first half of the season fucking me. Not literally. See, I was still involved with soccer when the season started, so was late to a number of practices, only sprinting up after finishing training on the pitch. Unlike every other coach in the league whom I'd known for years, ours was new to the area. One of those old school guys. He didn't even have a kid in the league.
More often than not, I only played the requisite three innings. Most of those were in right field. This was not meant as a punishment, though every kid in the universe knows right field is where you put the shitty players. No, our coach was a tactical genius. Since we had a couple pitchers who threw really hard, he figured Little Leaguers wouldn't be able to get around on them, so most batted balls would go to the right. He instructed me to play shallow and to try to throw them out at first (which only happened once, so horrid was this strategy, but the kid I did throw out at first was none other than my buddy Donny, and I like to bring it up every now an then for fun). More often than not, the other kids were smoking line drives off one of our pitchers, who did indeed throw hard, but straight, and right down the middle.
Anyways, this thankfully changed about halfway through the season, a season in which, to that point, we'd won a single game out of ten. I again had rushed my way from soccer to the diamond, arriving about 15 minutes before game time, which was 15 minutes late, of course. I was not in the lineup and my coach began to (again) berate me. It was then that our assistant coach, the older brother of two of my teammates, spoke up, pointing out the effort I was making by rushing from soccer, pointing out that my soccer team was incredibly successful (we had already won the state championship and were preparing for regionals) and that I might, perhaps, be an asset to this floundering baseball team because of my athletic ability. There was more. Basically, and emphatically, accusing the coach of a bias against me, that my playing time was not equal to my talent level.
I never loved Marty DeBrum more than I did at that moment.
Long story long (and this is gonna be a helluva long post), the coach put me in the starting lineup, where I stayed, and flourished for the second half of the season. We won six games that second half, I played most of the time at 3rd and 1st and I batted over .500. I wasn't the best player on my team, would never have been mentioned among the top players in the league, but the All-Stars (and Williamsport!) was within reach.
Danny O'Brian gave me the news. He rode his bike past as I was playing with that tennis ball and I asked him if he'd heard about All-Stars (he was a shoe-in). Yep, he said, they called a couple days ago.
"Hey Daddy!" AJ said after practice last week. "Did you know my new league has All-Stars?"
"Don't worry about All-Stars, AJ."
"It's all politics."
Emet and I spent a few minutes explaining to him what that meant, that, many times, these selections are merely popularity contests and don't truly reward the level of player. All the coaches sons are going to make it, you know. Many assistant coaches, as well.
Like my own Little League career, I'm realistic about AJ's ability. He's comfortably in the middle. Like all Little League teams of this age (7-9), the cream is easily identified. Usually two or three or four kids on the team who are preternaturally gifted, or who've spent hours practicing with Dad or big brothers (or sisters) or, incredibly, hitting and pitching coaches. We have two of those. Then there are the kids who have a little skill, can catch or throw or hit or some combination. We have seven of those. Then there are the kids who are afraid of the ball (three). AJ can hit (when he's not stepping in the bucket, more on that later), never swings at balls, has an above average arm, in fact, one of the best on the team. His glove? Erratic.
So, he's one of those middle kids. Interchangeable with a handful of others on the team. Yet, for some reason, this is not how the coach sees him. The team has just played its fourth game. AJ has started two of them, hitting 9th, owing to the fact some kids were missing. The other two, he's been on the bench, hitting 11th (they use a continuous batting order). He's had but seven plate appearances in four games and has reached base in five of them. Of the kids who hit in front of him, three have yet to hit the ball or reach base. One of them hits 5th.
Further, when he does get to play the field, he's spent every inning in the outfield, despite the constant rotation of players by the coach. He is the only kid that has yet to play in the infield.
I find myself curiously more affected by this than I would expect. Perhaps it was my own experience thirty years ago. Perhaps I, as Emet says, "want AJ to succeed at baseball more than he does." It could be the dejected look on AJ's face when he sees that he is (again) not in the starting lineup or hears another kids name called to play second base.
I am so not built to be That Parent. I have not said anything to the coach. But I have now reached the stage of Beyond Fucking Irritated, because this coach has obviously formed a hard-shell opinion of my son and disregards anything he actually does on the field or at practice. And AJ is smart enough to notice it, too.
Having spent a dozen years as a coach, I give a great deal of leeway to coaches. It's not an easy gig. It can be frustrating, not so much the actual coaching part, but the dealings with administrators, officials and, yes, parents. At the same time, I feel like my experience gives me an insight into what goes into successful coaching, and am therefore critical of those who don't seem to get it. In a word, a coach must teach.
Makes sense, right? If we assume coaches want to win, the best way to do that is to instruct their players, correct? Teach them the skills and rules so the kids can succeed on the field. But teaching is not simply mechanics. Children learn differently. One can't endlessly repeat platitudes and expect to connect with children. You have to get through to them.
I had a kid last soccer season who was annoying as fuck. Just constantly underfoot and interrupting me at all times. Coincidentally, he was uncoordinated. He ran on the outside of his feet, which I'd never seen before. I would have been fine with him quitting. But, I had an obligation to him and his parents, as his coach, to work with him. And I knew I couldn't get through to him by treating him the same as the others. I needed patience. I needed to take it one small stride at a time and, most important, to find something in him that would inspire him to compete.
By the end of the season, he wasn't half bad. And he was less of a nuisance. And yes, he helped us win.
"How come I always have to play the outfield?" AJ asked me. I didn't have a good answer for him. I couldn't say, "The coach has his favorites" or "He just doesn't like you," two explanations I've already formed in my head. There is no real good reason. Each of the team's four games have been blowouts (two for us, two against us). How you don't let kids play different positions in those instances (especially when the games are LITERALLY out of reach thanks to a league rule that allows a maximum of five runs per inning) is beyond me. In AJ's case, he's completely aware that he's being "left out." Consequently, he's becoming less engaged with the team.
This speaks to the ability to recognize and teach kids. For AJ, getting to play second base is a reward, one that will keep him focused, keep him energized. He takes this situation as his failure. He sees injustice in it and, if there is one thing my child can't abide, it's injustice.
We had a practice at the batting cages last week. The head coach wasn't there, but the assistant (considerably more to my liking) was, as well as a parent (of the best player on the team) who helps out when needed. This parent gave AJ's swing more attention in 5 minutes than the head coach had all season. Not the rote bullshit, but actual, easy to understand instructions about hitting and, all of a sudden, he's not stepping in the bucket any more. Then he gets into the cage and turns into Paul Fucking Molitor. "He's got a great swing," the assistant coach remarked, after AJ lined ball after ball into the netting.
He was pumped. "Daddy, did you see the one I hit right back into the pitching machine?" etc. etc. I was pumped, too, though guarded. I wasn't sure the news would get back to the head coach, if maybe he's deign to move AJ up in the batting order, at least ahead of the kid who jumps out of the box every pitch.
A few days after Danny O'Brian told me I hadn't made the All-Star team, the coach called me. When he identified himself, I had this euphoric fantasy that I was on the team, there was an oversight, whatever, get your glove and get to practice. In fact, he wanted to know if I'd come to the field on Saturday to play a game against the All-Stars, he was rounding up an opponent comprised of us also-rans. Heart deflated, I told him sure.
"Why'd you say 'yes?'" my mother asked me, knowing full well how hurt I was.
"I want to show them they made a mistake by not picking me," I said.
That's the attitude I've imparted to AJ. He has to work harder. He has to show them what he can do. Don't give the coach a choice to sit him on the bench. Prove himself.
Yet, it has reached a point where I have my doubts.
AJ is playing centerfield, which, at this age, means the lip of the grass right behind 2nd base. With runners on first and second, he fields a hump-backed liner on two hops. He is poised to throw the ball to second for the force (that's another thing he's good at; he always knows the right base to throw to), because the runner isn't even halfway there. Except, neither the shortstop (who has never even moved toward the batted ball and remains rooted to his spot) nor second basemen (standing next to AJ, having chased the ball into the outfield) are at the bag. He's got the ball cocked but holds onto it instead, noting the situation and, seeing the runner arrive at second, throws the ball back to the pitcher.
The rule in the league is that runners can't advance once the pitcher has the ball, but, in the meantime, while AJ held the ball, the runner who started the play on second rounded third. He was more than halfway home when the pitcher caught AJ's throw, so he was deemed safe.
AJ gets back to the dugout at the end of the inning and his coach starts berating him for holding onto the ball and not getting it back to the pitcher. AJ starts to explain (though, why he should have to I don't know since any fucking moron watching the play could have deduced exactly what was happening) and the coach cuts him off and tells him to just throw the ball back to the pitcher (you know, not for nuthin', but teaching the kids to throw the ball to the pitcher every play isn't exactly teaching them baseball).
AJ is crushed. The shortstop unnoticed. Me? Fucking furious. It takes every ounce of willpower I have not to rip that motherfucker's head off right there.
No, my son is not an All-Star. He's a kid who wants to hit and play second base. But more than that, though he can't articulate it, he wants to be treated fairly. Which is what I suppose we all want out of life. As adults, we know that fairness is an elusive notion. Injustice is part and parcel of life, of employment and relationships and class. AJ will need to learn that soon, too. But I'd like to delay it as long as possible.
I'd guess until about mid-season.