Slow Ball 

When teaching kids how to play Tee Ball, you have to start from the ground up

When teaching kids how to play Tee Ball, you have to start from the ground up

Daughter Jess plays softball. Right now, she's playing on her high school team. In June, she'll start with her summer team. She's been playing ball for 10 years now. I've coached her, trained her and just plain played catch with her almost every day for the whole 10 years.

Every year, the ball players have gotten bigger, stronger and faster, and the competition's gotten tougher. At this point in Jess' ball-playing career, she's seeing pitches come in at 60 mph, from pitchers who are about 32 feet from the plate when they let those pitches go. Reaction time for high school softball hitters is about the same as it is for big-league baseball players.

With the level of competition nearing the maximum, and the margin of error down to the minimum, we Jowerses have found ourselves getting nostalgic for the early ball days, when the game was loose, lazy and sloppy, and nobody cared who won.

So Jess and I volunteered to coach a Tee Ball team down at McCabe Park. Tee Ballers are kindergarten kids and first-graders, the rawest of raw talent. They're more interested in picking daisies and kicking dirt than keeping up with runs, hits and errors. In Tee Ball, everybody bats, everybody scores and nobody's ever out. Defenders make no errors; they just make efforts.

A few days back, we had our first practice. Jess and I decided that we'd train the ball players and the parents at the same time. That's because there are two undeniable truths about ball parents:

1. They like nothing better than getting on a ball field and regressing back to their childhood.

2. If a parent throws funny or swings a bat funny, his kid will throw funny and swing funny.

If you want to train ball players, the first thing you have to do is fix their parents' bad ball habits. Here's an example: In hopes of ending the first practice with some real excitement, I had each kid hit the ball off the tee, then run all the way around the bases. I told the parents to play defense, but for crying out loud, don't get anybody out. My first batter smacked the ball into left field and tried for an inside-the-park home run. Just as he rounded third, one of the daddies picked up the ball and tried to throw him out at home. Well, don't you know, the ball hit my little batter right upside the head. Lucky for everybody, a Tee Ball is about as hard as a ball of socks, so the kid just ignored the impact and kept on running.

After he crossed home plate, I handed him the ball and told him, "Go out there and throw the ball at the guy who hit you." He ignored those instructions and took off running after his own daddy. When he got to point-blank range, he fired the ball and drilled his daddy in the ribs. In the end, nobody was hurt, and one ball daddy learned this fundamental lesson: Never throw the ball over a runner's head, because you'll probably hit him. If that happens, you won't get the out, and you might just start up a brawl.

At the next practice, I learned about herd instinct. One of my little girls came up to the plate and stood in the right-hander's batter's box, holding the bat like a left-hander. Her daddy hollered to me, "She's a lefty, coach!" It occurred to me that I'd better find out if I had any other left-handers. So I turned to the kids and asked, "OK, who else is a lefty?" Well, every one of them raised a hand. If the little girl at home plate was a lefty, they all wanted to be lefties.

After we sorted out the lefty/righty mess, Jess and I started teaching the kids how to play defense. Jess dutifully demonstrated the fundamental skill of fielding a ground ball at the "top of the triangle." She showed each child how to get into a ready position, then she drew a triangle in the dirt in front of each child. The idea is that a fielder's feet anchor the base of a triangle, and the top of the triangle is under the fielder's nose. Once Jess got 10 triangles drawn, she instructed the children: "Now put your glove at the top of the triangle." Just then, all 10 kids took their gloves off their hands and placed them neatly at the tops of their respective triangles.

"No, no," Jess said, "wear the gloves! You don't take your gloves off, you wear them!"

You've got to watch what you say to 5- and 6-year-olds. Next time we had batting practice, every kid came up to the plate with his bat in one hand and his glove on the other.

Like all Tee Ball teams, ours has one child who lets his mind wander a little bit during practice. At our last practice, he wandered right off the field. Jess went to him and said, "Come back and practice with us."

"No, I've got to go," he answered.

"You've got to go home?" Jess asked.

"No. Gotta go to home plate!"

That kid is going to do just fine.

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