Ten years ago, my wife Brenda snapped awake at 4 a.m. and told me she wanted to have a baby. My first thought, honest to God, was, “OK. It would be good to have somebody to play catch with.”
Three months later, when tests showed that our baby was a girl, my first thought was, “OK, so I’ll have to throw underhand.”
Jess started playing tee ball at age 4. In her second tee ball year, I volunteered to coach her team. During that season, I found out that there are seemingly normal American children walking around who don’t know the first thing about baseball. Some of them don’t know what home plate is, or where first base is.
That shook me up. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to play ball. Back home in South Carolina, we played baseball every day at recess. We could get in a couple of innings in the morning recess, and maybe three innings after lunch. When school let out for the summer, we’d still meet in the schoolyard and play ball every day. Of course, that was just us boys. The girls played at the edge of the woods and made playhouses out of pine straw.
A few weeks ago, at the McCabe Park ballfield, I saw Amanda Stinnett, a girl no older than 12, pull off an unassisted triple play. She caught a liner at third, then chased down and tagged two errant baserunners. I’m here to tell you: Getting the opposing team out in one lick, by yourself, takes a keen mind and steely nerves. I say that when it’s time for an American to fly to Mars, we just might want to hand the spaceship keys to Amanda Stinnett.
I coach the Heaters, a minor-league softball team in the McCabe Park Little League. At McCabe, minor-league softball has meant coach-pitch ball, in which coaches pitch to their own batters. The idea is that, by throwing hittable pitches, the coaches will help the girls gain confidence in their hitting. It also means the girls in the field get more practice catching and throwing balls. But this year, league management decided we should try to move our 9- and 10-year-old girls toward player-pitch ball, which is what most other leagues are playing.
One thing I’ve learned about coaching Little League: The head coach must find two good assistant coaches. It takes at least three people to keep a practice civilized. Try it by yourself, and you’ll have children wandering off into the woods, or starting up their own little games of tag or hide-and-go-seek.
Last season, my best player was Sara. She was my best hitter, my best fielder, and my toughest competitor. Both of her parents were at every game, and they always volunteered to help. So I asked Sara’s dad, Jerry, to help me coach this year. Besides being an all-around knowledgeable ball guy, Jerry has one quality that makes him perfect as a co-coach: Jerry speaks softly. He never hollers.
With Jerry on board, I needed one more assistant coach. So, at the second practice, I started scanning the bleachers for people who looked like they might know ball. Nobody looked quite right to me. But just about then, I heard a voice over in the shade trees say, “Phew. That was one sorry effort on that ground ball.”
“Sorry effort?” I thought to myself. “Who said, ‘Sorry effort?’ ” That’s good ball talk. The most important thing in ball is to avoid making a sorry effort.
I went looking for the man who said “sorry effort” and found Joe, father of Tiffany, one of my rookies. Right then and there, I asked him if he’d help coach the Heaters. He accepted. The coaching staff was in place.
After a few practices, we settled on our lineup. And, don’t you know, it turned out that the coaches’ kids got the hotshot positions. Most Little League teams turn out that way. Some folks think it’s favoritism, and maybe it is. But I think it has more to do with us ball-crazed dads playing ball with our kids year-round, and turning ’em into ballplayers.
Daughter Jess was gobbling up ground balls and making accurate throws, so we decided to put her in the middle of the infield, in the circle position. Jerry’s daughter, Sara, was our biggest girl, our strongest hitter, and an excellent fielder. We put her at first base. Joe’s daughter,. Tiffany, played shortstop. And wouldn’t you know, when we had pitching tryouts, Sara, Tiffany, and Jess turned out to be the ones who could throw strikes.
Next-door-neighbor Hannah, who joined Jess and me for most of our off-season practices, had developed a cannon arm over the winter, so we put her at third. We rotated our older girls among second base, catcher, and left field. Our young players played center and right field and got in some work at catcher.
Our league rivals were the Sylvan Park Neighborhood Association team and the St. Ann’s Knights of Columbus team. We called them the Reds and the Blues, respectively, because of the colors of their jerseys. We won our first five games, then lost to the Reds in Game 6. We rebounded, though, and clinched the McCabe Park Minor League Softball championship when we bested the Blues in Game 10.
We were scheduled to play four interleague games this season, against two teams from West Parkthe Predators and Austin’s A’s. I’d never seen these teams before, so I went to a game between the McCabe Reds and the Austin A’s to do a little scouting.
The A’s girls were whopping big, strong, line-drive-hitting girls. They ran the bases like their hair was on fire. They put a fearful whipping on the Reds, and I left the game convinced that no girl on the A’s team was younger than 12. I called McCabe softball czar Greg Wolf. “I won’t play ’em,” I said. “They’re Amazons. They’ll unscrew our girls’ heads like bottle caps.”
Greg spoke softly: “The A’s are the best team in their league, but they are not warrior princesses.” I agreed to think it over.
“Just walk the big ones,” Jerry said.
We lost, 9-8.
Our next game was against the McCabe Blues. We came from behind to pull out a 7-5 victory. Two days later, we played the McCabe Reds. Summer vacations had left us four players short, and the Reds just plain whipped us, 15-7.
Three days after that whipping, we were due to go to West Park and play the A’s on their turf. Jess came up to bat in the first inning. She fouled off strike one, missed a high pitch, and then was called out on a low strike. When I got back to the dugout at the end of the inning, she was red-faced, stomping mad. “That was the worst call I ever saw,” she screamed. “That pitch wasn’t an inch off the ground. Can’t you do something?”
“I can’t argue balls and strikes with the umpire. That gets me thrown out of the game.”
“Well, go over there and get thrown out.” Jess had watched enough ball games to know that sometimes, the manager gets thrown out on purpose, just to get his team fired up.
“Nope. Not gonna do that. If you want justice, you’ll just have to go out there and win this game.”
The score was 1-1 at the end of the first inning. When we came up in the top of the second, our bats came to life. We got the seven-run maximum. We got seven more in the third and held them to one run in their half of the inning. That was the ball game.
There was great joy and celebration on our side of the field. The girls jumped and squealed and slapped five. Our parents couldn’t believe what they’d just seen. Their daughters, all rookies in this player-pitch game, had just bested a fine-tuned, well-coached softball squad twice their size. Nobody wanted to leave the fieldnot the players, not the coaches, not the parents.
I couldn’t make them quit.
Four years ago, Tony Laiolo invited me to the McCabe Little League field to play in a coaches’ game. Problem was, not enough coaches showed up, so some of the Little League players joined in the game.
It had been about 20 years since I’d touched a ball, and I had to borrow a glove. A girl’s glove. My old skills, which were moderate at best, came back quicklyexcept for one. I couldn’t judge a fly ball. During warm-up, the first half-dozen fly balls hit my way dropped about six feet behind me. So, to save myself some humiliation, I moved to second base, where I figured I’d see mostly grounders.
About a half-hour into the game, Jim, a 6-year-old, hit a ground ball to my left. I got to it but kicked it a couple of times. By the time I had it in my glove, Jim was running behind me, headed for second. I chased after him, but with the head start he had, I saw I wasn’t going to catch him. I started to throw to third, but nobody was covering. So I ran to a spot between third and home, figuring to hold Jim at third. Problem was, by the time I got there, he had rounded third and was heading my way.
So I tagged him on his back. At the time, I was under the spell of ball, and in my mind, I was just a kid. But in truth, I was roughly three times Jim’s size. So, in the course of making a routine tag, I pushed Jim down, skinned him up, and made him cry. Just then, I had an out-of-body experience. I looked down and saw my hulking form standing over a first-grader I’d knocked flat.
After a minute, Jim was fine, and I was embarrassed for life. Now, when Jim sees me at the Little League field, he balls up his fist and smacks me on my arm. I figure I’ve got it coming. I just hope he stops before he’s 16.
Me: What do we call girls who turn sideways to throw?
Team: Ballplayers, Coach.
Me: What do we call girls who stand face-on when they throw?
Team: Cheerleaders, Coach.
You people who think little boys and little girls are exactly the same, and that all their behavior is just a reaction to society’s programming, listen up: Girls are born with an ugly throwing motion. “You throw like a girl,” isn’t just a schoolyard taunt; it’s a legitimate criticism.
Not that all boys are born knowing how to throw. Some boys throw ugly too. But it’s a different kind of ugly.
If you give a girl a ball and tell her to throw it to you, there’s almost a 100-percent chance she’ll stand facing you. Then, with her thumb on the side of the ball, and her elbow down, she’ll push the ball toward you in something like a shotputter’s motion. This kind of throwing uses only arm power, and not much of that.
To make a decent throw, a ballplayer has to stand sideways to the target, like an archer. The thumb has to be on the bottom of the ball, and the elbow has to be up. Then the player can use her legs, back, shoulder, abs, and arm to throw the ball. When a girl gets all this worked out, she’ll never throw like a girl again.
For some weird reason, young girl ballplayers want to catch everything basket-style, with the palm up. Problem is, basket-style catching is downright dangerous for balls coming in above the waist. Often, a ball just bounces or rolls off the heel of the glove and into the girl’s face.
The only known cure is to throw the girl hundreds of balls, over her right shoulder and left shoulder, and just outside her right hip and left hip. After a while, this will teach her to turn her glove to make high, low, forehand, and backhand catches.
Before this season started, I called McCabe softball czar Greg Wolf. “Who’s coming back from last year?” I asked.
“Looks like you’ve got Jess, Hannah, Sara, Kristen, Indira, Jennifer, and India,” he said.
“What about Frances and Phoebe?” I’d had those girls for two years. I almost got kicked out of a game two years ago when an opposing player flattened Frances at home plate. I decided it was a planned attack, masterminded by the other team’s overly aggressive assistant coach. Why else would his big kid shove my littlest kid down in a game they already led by 10 runs? I stomped around in my dugout and said unsportsmanlike things way louder than I meant to say them. I made myself stop short of starting a bench-clearing brawl, but I couldn’t stop short of getting plenty indignant on Frances’ behalf.
And I just couldn’t stand the thought of losing Phoebe, my freckled, angel-faced infielder. Phoebe, who caught a hard line drive without ever seeing it, and just nodded sweetly when I told her always to say that she saw the ball all the way. “You’ll drop plenty that you ought to catch,” I told her. “When one just flies into your glove and sticks there, take credit for it.”
When I think about girls’ softball, I see Phoebe’s face at the moment she caught that line drive.
“Frances and Phoebe are going to major league,” Greg said.
“You can’t have ’em. Keep ’em back a year. They’re small,” I begged. “How about Amanda and Alison?”
“Amanda’s not playing this year. Alison is going to the majors. They can’t all be your girls.”
This year, Frances and Phoebe play for the major-league Powder Blues, the strongest softball team in the league. I go to their games when I can. I embarrass them with my cheering.
Alison plays for the Powder Blues’ rivals, the Teals. Last week, with just a few games left in the season, the Teals beat the Powder Blues for the first time. Alison got the game ball, a reward for her excellent fielding, hitting, and all-around solid effort. Before Alison left the field, she found me behind home plate.
“Coach,” she said. “I got the game ball.”
I don’t think I could stand being a schoolteacher. I’d have to start teaching first grade, and move up every year with the class. I just can’t stand to see them go.
My mother went to high school at Langley-Bath-Clearwater High School, which was a quarter-mile up the road from our house. The building looked like a Spanish mission. Some people called it The Alamo.
Just before Brenda and I moved to Nashville in 1981, somebody burned down the old schoolhouse. Just looking at the empty spot made me a little dizzy, like I wasn’t completely in the world anymore.
The last time we went back home, I drove Brenda and daughter Jess to the old schoolyard. It’s a park now, with a baseball field. Jess and I got our gloves out of the car, and we went onto the field and played a little catch. Then we got Jess’ bat out of the trunk, and I pitched her a few.
I tried to figure out where the old schoolhouse sat, but I couldn’t quite do it. The land was all re-contoured when they put in the park, and the trees that marked the edges of the schoolyard were gone.
As we were packing up to go, I spotted the outlines of the old football field. I walked Jess down there, and I found four spots where the grass was just a little bit thin. I don’t know if kids have been playing on that raggedy old diamond all these years, or if my school buddies and I wore that grass out so bad it never grew back. But I do know those worn-out spots were our old bases. I went to my old position, at first base. Jess stood at home and threw me the ball. It stung my fingers a little and settled nicely into the web of my glove.
“Growing Ballplayers,” as told by Tony Laiolo, former softball czar, and poet laureate of McCabe Park Little League:
“I remember a lot of days when I’d start working on the field about 3:30 in the afternoon. When it was dry, I’d wet it down. When it was wet, I’d rake out the mudholes. Then, about 5 o’clock, kids would start showing up in uniforms. Pretty soon, like a time-lapse movie, the field would be full of color-coordinated children.
“It was like farming. I felt like I was growing ballplayers.”
It was 9 o’clock, past time to quit the year’s last pickup softball game and go home. Parents were waiting in their cars, out in the shadows past left field. Just then, rain started pelting down. The first big drops kicked up some red infield dust. As the rain turned into a downpour, the girls stretched out their arms, the way they do when they’re calling for a fly ball. They camped under the field lights, followed the drops down, and caught some on their tongues, literally drinking in the last few minutes of their softball season. It’s tough to walk off the diamond when you know it’ll be seven months before there’s any more ball.
I let daughter Jess turn out the field lights.
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