Coaching small ball yields large rewards

August 20, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

WHENEVER people ask me why I don't have my own ESPN show like every other sportswriter, I tell them, first of all, that ESPN hasn't called.

Then I tell them the real reason: I've spent the past five years on the baseball diamond.

Instead of using my free time to work on my media exposure, I've used it to work on getting a team of Towson travel baseball players to throw strikes, hit the cutoff man and walk away rather than argue when an umpire blows a call.

The time obligation was enough to discourage me from thinking about doing anything else outside of work. Our team played more than 150 games across Maryland, starting in the spring of 2001. There was no time for TV appearances. I had lineups to make out.

Now, it's all over. The players, including my son, started out as kids, but now they're 14 and headed for high school. It's time for someone else to throw them batting practice.

Our final game was last month at a tournament in Bowie. It rained.

The humble ending was fitting in a sense. We never pretended to be a team that would go to the Little League World Series, which starts this weekend in Williamsport, Pa., or the Cal Ripken World Series, which culminates tomorrow in Aberdeen.

Our goal was to have fun, learn the fundamentals and improve. We batted everyone who showed up, not just the top nine. Everyone played the same amount in the field.

Something must have gone right. The core of players and parents remained the same through the years, evolving into a de facto family. We spent hundreds of hours together. The time went fast.

On the field, we won more than half our games and advanced deep into a few tournaments. We also blew leads, got slaughter-ruled (consigned to defeat by being 10 runs down after five innings, for those who haven't had the pleasure) and experienced that most humbling baseball sensation - the fear that maybe we just couldn't get the third out of a dismal inning.

It all started innocently enough. I was in Augusta, Ga., covering the Masters, when the call came from home: There was a group of kids looking for a coach, and they wouldn't have a team unless someone stepped up. I was the dad with the sports job. I said yes.

That one-word answer signed me up for 1,000 innings of managing and years of organizing practices, driving car pools and raking rocky infields. I loved every minute.

Our team was a little raw at first. Down 15-2 late in one game, I was just trying to get us through to the post-game snack.

But then the other team ran out of pitching and started walking batters. We mixed in a few hits, came all the way back and won, 16-15. So much for having to explain that it was important to keep playing hard.

A few years later, we were down to our last strike in a tournament game and actually used it, but the opposing catcher dropped the third strike - our final out - and our batter reached first. We went on to score seven runs.

Now that it's all over, I can see how the experience changed me, in print and otherwise. I think I'm nicer to managers than I used to be. Lee Mazzilli might not agree, but having made my share of second-guessable moves that blew up, I'm a lot more understanding.

I'm also more than ever a fan of the game; simultaneously covering the Orioles and coaching a youth team, I never ceased to be amazed at the overlapping themes. (Throw strikes, back up throws and hustle - or else.)

I'm probably more positive than most people about the state of youth sports. I've heard all the horror stories, but my five years on the front line went well. There were a few opposing coaches who cared too much about winning, and one who missed our game because he had been thrown in jail. (True story.) But the vast majority were sportsmanlike and kid-oriented.

Things are better than you think out there.

I kept doing it because I loved the players, the parents pitched in, and frankly, it got into my blood. I didn't lie awake at night worrying about column ideas. I worried about having enough players because my bench had gone to the beach. I worried about my batting order, and whether the umpires I had reserved would show up, and whether all players were being treated fairly.

I don't have to worry anymore, but I wonder what I'm going to do with my free time. Television? I'd rather be on a ball field.

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