Some years back, I heard Scott Whitlock, head coach of Kennesaw State University’s Owls, speak at a seminar for softball coaches. “How many of you,” he asked, “coach high school softball?”
Hands went up, and Whitlock said something like, “You people are heroes. You take what the school population gives you and do the best you can with what you’ve got. I admire you.”
Then Whitlock asked, “How many of you coach college softball?”
He counted hands and said something like, “You people have the best coaching job in the world. You get to decide who plays for you and get to work with some of the best athletes in the country.”
Then he asked, “How many of you coach travel ball?”
Lots of hands went up.
“You people are crazy,” Whitlock said. “You spend your own money on equipment and hotel rooms. You work hard to develop your athletes, then coaches like me get all your players as soon as they finish high school.”
I’ve coached recreational ball, middle school softball and travel softball. Ever since 1992, I’ve dedicated January and February to planning and scheming for the upcoming ball season.
But right now, I’m 25 days away from starting what will likely be my last softball-coaching job. I’ll be the unofficial helping daddy of daughter Jess’ high school softball team. Come May, high school, and high school softball, will be over and done for us Jowerses, and daughter Jess will be off to college—and college softball.
So, with hardly any light at the end of my coaching tunnel, I’m turning around and looking back at the beginning of my coaching career. Back in ’92, daughter Jess played on a coed T-ball team, sponsored by the YMCA. The kids were 5 years old. I got drafted as the coach, and I named the team the Blue Meanies. A few parents, though none of the players, got the Yellow Submarine reference.
I created a team cheer: “We keep a smile on our faces while we run the bases. We’re no weenies, we’re the Blue Meanies!”
The Blue Meanies had three standout players. There was daughter Jess, who had learned that if she smacked the ball hard down the third-base line she would always reach base, because there is no 5-year-old who can cleanly field a ball and throw it to first base. And even if there were such a kid, no big-toddler team has a first baseman who can field the throw.
There was Andrew, who was 5, but was about the size of small grown man. Every ball he struck was a home run.
And then there was one-L Wil, who didn’t talk much, but insisted on playing left field. Once he was in left field, he insisted on sitting down in a sandy spot, where he would repeatedly write “Wil” in the sand with his finger.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that in 5-year-old T-ball.
As you might suspect, the ball skills of 5-year-old recreational ballplayers are about the same as the running skills of baby basset hounds. They run sideways, they trip and roll a time or two, they pee spontaneously if they get a little scared.
Offense rules in the big-toddler game, as no struck balls are retrieved before the batter-runner touches home. Defense is predictable: when a ball is struck, all the boys run after it, converge when the ball stops rolling, then jump into a pile and fight over the ball. The girls watch, shake their little tousled heads and wait for the boys to come back from the outfield.
On the Blue Meanies, Wil was our one exception. He didn’t chase after batted balls. He stuck to his routine of writing his name in the sand. I tried to get Wil interested in defense by paraphrasing Tom Hanks as the coach in A League of Their Own. I’d call out to Wil in left field: “Wil, buddy, there’s no sitting in baseball. No writing in the sand either. Get up! Play some ball!”
Wil never even looked up. He just kept sitting and writing.
Late in the season, when the Blue Meanies were in their best form, there came a fine spring day when one of our opponents smacked a worm-burning grounder through our infield. The ball skipped right by Wil’s left knee, heading for the left-field fence.
As usual, all the boys except Wil turned and ran for the ball. They converged at the fence and fought until my shortstop seized the ball. My shortstop, fully aware that he couldn’t throw the ball in from the fence, started running the ball back toward the infield.
Just then, Wil rose like a baby who’d just figured out how to stand. Wil turned his back to the infield, squared up on my shortstop, and executed a perfect open-field tackle.
I trotted out to left field, dusted off my freshly tackled shortstop, then turned to one-L Wil. “Wil,” I said, “I was wrong. There is sitting in baseball, and writing, too. How about you just sit back down in your spot, and work on your writing. It’ll be good for the team.”