The coach gets fouled on final day

June 13, 1998|By Rob Kasper

ON THE closing day of our Little League season, I stood with the team on the outfield grass between first and second base. I was enjoying the warm Saturday morning sunshine. In the hubbub before the ceremonies began, kids and dogs milled around, some of them banging into my legs. I didn't react. I was an assistant baseball coach, and by the end of a season, we tend to be a callous breed. You take your knocks but you stand your ground.

Suddenly the kids standing near me laughed and pointed at my leg. One of the dogs, a free-ranging dalmatian, had relieved himself on my pants leg. He must have mistaken me for a tree, or dead wood. So it goes in the life of a kids' baseball coach. One minute you are basking in the sunshine, the next you are confronting the unpleasantness at your feet.

You start the baseball season full of hope and strategy. You talk to the team about hitting the cut-off man, the player who relays the ball from the outfield to the infield. All the times and dates of your games have been inked onto the kitchen calendar. Everyone is anxious to play ball.

By the end of the season, what keeps you going seems to be grim determination. You are elated when the right fielder runs toward, not away from, a fly ball. Hitting the cut-off man is an afterthought. Your primary thought is attendance. How many players can show up at the games, which, because of rainouts, have been rescheduled more times than missed dental checkups. The calendar looks like hieroglyphics. At any given inning, one-third of your players seem to be missing either their hats, their gloves or their motivation.

In the seven years that I have coached kids' baseball, each season has had its distinctive tone. This year, when I helped head coach Jeff Corden with the Cubs, a team of 11- to 13-year-old boys in the Roland Park Baseball Leagues, we seemed to specialize not in winning, or losing, but tying.

We began the season by tying the Falcons. The record book shows we played the Falcons just twice, but it seems like we played them forever. The first game ended in a tie and was called because of darkness.

When, at a later date, we continued the game, neither team was able to score. We had a runner on third, but couldn't get him home. They lost a run when, during a contested play at the plate, a base runner failed to slide and was called out. Eventually we scored a run to win the first game. But in the next game, the valiant Falcons rallied with two out in what could have been the last inning to tie the game as darkness fell. I don't think we ever finished that game.

It fell to the wayside during the mad rush to complete the scheduled games. As with most area baseball leagues, the schedule of our league was sent reeling by the week or two of rain in mid-May.

All the games that were rained out had to be crammed into the final days of May. This time of year is already booked. There are school plays, homework, school projects, final exams, graduations and other obligations that interfere with what we coaches tend to regard as the most important item on the agenda, namely playing baseball. And so a coach becomes a speed-dialer, trying to find an open date, an available umpire, a free field and a minimum of seven players who can be at a game.

This year our team finished in the middle of the pack and did not make the playoffs, the post-season play reserved for the top four teams. My coaching wisdom tells me why. We had trouble catching and throwing the ball. We scored runs. But the other team scored more. You tend to lose when that happens.

I also have figured out what successful coaches do. They instill confidence in their players. I still haven't figured out exactly how the instilling occurs. But I can see it when it happens. The four teams that made the playoffs -- the Bearcats, Bulldozers, Cavaliers and Junior Orioles -- played with confidence. And the team that won it all, the Cavaliers, had one player, Jeremy Pollock, who played exceptionally well, with one hand in a cast.

Like many coaches, when I look back on a season, certain plays come to mind. One such occurred when Ben, our left-handed third baseman, snagged a grounder and thereby prevented the ever-dangerous Dylan, a Junior Orioles star, from scoring the winning run from third. That game also ended in a tie.

When we played the Junior Orioles again, they clobbered us. At the end of six innings they led by about half a dozen runs. That could have been the end of the game. Instead our side lobbied to play one more inning. The other team agreed, and promptly scored about 100 runs.

Later I told myself I should have spoken up against playing that extra inning. I should have been content to accept a respectable loss, instead of agreeing to more play that led to an embarrassing defeat. But instead of speaking up, I stood there like a piece of dead wood. Which makes me think, maybe that dog knew something.

Pub Date: 6/13/98

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