I CHAMPION lost causes. Had I been around in the 1930s, I no doubt would have preferred Herbert Hoover to FDR. Earlier, I might have cheered the Bolivian soldiers in their shootout with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I perhaps would have found redeeming qualities in Attila the Hun. But friends who do not know the dark secret of my past say that I have gone too far this time. Last week I was caught red-handed defending Little League baseball managers.
Not that it is easy. Robin Roberts, my boyhood hero of the Phillies, inveighed against the Little League. Conventional wisdom of the '60s asserted that it was a mere fluke that Joey Jay survived Little League to play in the big leagues. The roar continues. Echoing in my memory are the cacophonous complaints of aggrieved mommas and poppas and grandmothers. Perhaps now I can go public. I spent eight years coaching in the Finksburg Little League.
Eleven years have passed since I gave it up. Every spring the urge resurfaces to return to the coach's box, but I overcome the temptation. And every spring I wonder whether a former friend whose son I could not play every inning of every game will choose to speak to me again.
A Little League manager is damned whatever he does. I never hear the coaches with whom I locked horns on the diamond complain about the many volunteer hours they spent caring for the ball field, nor about the expense of the baseballs and bats they had to buy; but some parents who only occasionally attended their sons' games let those around them know how much better they could manage things.
I have heard parents whose sons' chief contribution to the game was to chase crickets out of the grass in left field complain that their Chuckies were not catching. They were insulted when the coach tried to explain tactfully that physical injury awaited a 9-year-old behind the plate if he were unable to concentrate on the game.
But most of the coaches I worked with were never so pleased as when that left fielder who chased crickets made a play that was one of the affirmative, defining experiences in the cricketer's young life.
Some managers were regularly ridiculed because they favored their own sons. Actually, their sons were usually best prepared to play the most demanding positions on the field because their fathers began teaching them the game long before they were old enough to play Little League. Some of the best peer teachers on the field were coaches' sons.
One year some parents thought me benighted because I selected someone who did not know much about coaching to work the first-base line. Neither his critics nor he knows to this day that I selected him to coach because he was a medic in a local ambulance company. He attended all practices and games. Some managers coach in silent fear, knowing the possibility of serious injury to young people not fully ready to play with dangerous weapons.
Only once did I cut a lad from a team. It was in a youth soccer league, and one rambunctious and uncoordinated 9-year-old could not run without sticking his tongue out, even though his coaches tried for a month to get him not to. His parents could not understand why I was so insensitive. He matured to become a stellar and talkative lacrosse player, and I still rejoice in his success.
Obviously an occasional coach becomes the antithesis of role models for youth, with distended beer belly, cigarette hanging from mouth, ill temper and blue language. But this is the exception, and at least most coaches make the effort to work with young people.
In retrospect, the joys of coaching Little League are many. My Pirates almost won a championship once, but our slugging outfielder decided one day to do what major leaguers do. He mixed bubble gum with a wad of chewing tobacco and moved to center field. Chasing a ball in the top of the first inning, he stumbled, swallowed the wad, became ill and left the game. He did not hit his usual home run and double. We lost, 3-2.
In his regular life, Ray Stevens teaches English at Western Maryland College.