The Little League Manifesto

There are children who through no fault of their own should not come face to face with a line drive.

May 3, 2019

The author as an 11 year old first baseman

Categories: 

On this sunny day, we dive into the Lin's Bin files to combine a two-part assessment of Youth Baseball from a man who has seen it from all sides. Me.

I have a confession. I was a Little League coach.

Early April in Chicago. The trees are barren. The fields are muddy. And the temperature on a good day is 40. On this field of dreams, we meet our young charges for the first time. By the time the actual season begins, we will have had time to teach them almost nothing. Moms and dads drop off their kids and ask what time practice is over. Some kids are putting a baseball glove on for the first time. You pray you have some kids with older brothers or overzealous fathers.

One year, I attended a coach’s clinic where everything I knew was wrong. We tend to learn our baseball from the major league stars of our childhood. I learned my errant batting stance from Carl Yastremski, Triple Crown winner of 1967. Elbows high in the air. Wrong. The elbows should be at 45 degree angles pointing down.  And after years of hearing baseball announcers follow a home run call with the explanation, “He really had his arms extended,” we are told at this coach’s clinic that the arms must be bent at the elbow at impact to generate power.

How do we translate a wealth of new information to a bunch of kids who have been taught baseball by parents as clueless as I am. Bad habits are hard to break. Bad baseball habits nearly impossible. “But my dad taught me to choke up on the bat.”

You know who choked up on the bat?  Lenny Dykstra. And do you know what happened to him? He went to prison. Choking up is the not the answer. A lighter bat is the answer.

Coaching kids is a delicate affair. You need to explain the importance of wearing a cup.

Actually, you don’t explain why. You just say it’s a league rule.

You need to motivate.

Be clear about your expectations.

Too many little league coaches have listened to tapes of Bobby Knight.

These coaches are also parents of players on the team.  These are the parents who leave their sons on the mound to pitch after 4 consecutive walks and a bases-clearing double.

“C’mon buddy throw strikes.”

The parent coach issues start with the pre-season draft. 

The Kids have numerical ratings attached to describe their hitting, fielding, and pitching. The ratings have been supplied by their coaches from last season.  If those coaches are looking to draft the same standout from last year, they would be foolish to provide a glowing scouting report. 

Little League drafts are like the backrooms of a 1950’s political convention.  On the one hand, you have a smoke-filled room filled with tacit blackmail, cronyism, and secret deals.  On the other you have the 1960 Democratic National Convention.  If you’re seeking out parents who take Little League too seriously, start with the truly insane. The Coaches.

These are men who suffered baseball careers that languished in high school. Or they are coaches who barely survived their own Little League experience. Or worst of all, they are former prodigies who once had a tryout with The Minnesota Twins. In each case there may be issues of the worst kind. The unresolved kind.

Still little league coaches need to be congratulated for the time they spend on the crappy little league fields of Chicago. And if they have reached that safe place where they no longer sound like a maniac when they are addressing their team, they must face the most dangerous game, the little league parent who has not volunteered to coach, but has apparently volunteered to provide unsolicited advice and criticism.

Mom wants to know why her son isn’t starting at 3rd base.  The dad who thinks their son will be playing in the college world series.

Yes. There is something desperate about parents who live thru their children’s activities.

But our instinct to protect our children’s hopes and dreams can supersede our instinct to protect their bodies. There are children who through no fault of their own should not come face to face with a line drive.

And the parental hissy fits and outbursts stand in contrast to a group of kids who just want to avoid another adult assessment of their worth. Kids who want to play a few different positions on the field and have a milkshake after the hysteria draws to a close.

Parents take Little League so seriously because as they grow older they grow more wistful.

Take the 2005 ESAA Cubs.

I’ll see them always through a cloud of dust chasing baseballs into the dandelion-choked outfields of little league baseball.  A pride of less than a dozen young lions.  9 and 10 year old boys struggling to remember where they put batting gloves, water bottles, and perfectly sculpted baseball caps.

I’ll remember those practices in the cold and damp of early April when every batted ball

felt like it would shatter your hands.

These were the comeback kids.  Like thoroughbreds on a front runners shoulder, these kids would come flying down the homestretch.  Diving catches in the infield.  Chasing dizzying pop flys in the outfield, arms stretched up as in prayer, letting the ball find its way into the webbing.

I’ll know them always earnest and brittle, weary in the summer sun but game enough for game time.

Brian’s glower.

Danny’s smile.

And every baseball coach needs a ballplayer named Willy.

Disappointments fall hard on a kid.  How do you tell them these are the disappointments they may cherish?  But if these little leaguers teach us anything, they teach us resilience.  From darkest countenance to sudden laughter in the time it takes to open a bag of chips.

The sun frames our memory of these games leaving silhouettes in the batter’s box.  But we won’t remember shadows, we’ll remember how these days were tinged with gold.