We make sacrifices for the greater good. So, for this year, we may have to move on. Without the game both dad and grandpa played, the one with the deeply rooted traditions. Without the early spring practices with all the age-old drills. Without batting practice with coaches doing their best just to find the plate. Without opening day, a rite of passage into the new season. And, of course, without the games. So many great memories. Little League baseball.
The sport truly at its core, first year T-ball is an experience all its own. Bats, in some cases, as long as the players. The amazing phenomenon of the occasional batter continually slamming tee instead of ball. It seemed impossible. But not the case.
Shortstop and second basemen standing only feet from the pitcher on the infield grass. Outfielders waiting endlessly on the back of the diamond. No chance a batter will reach that far. Trying to keep everyone’s attention was more a challenge than the game itself. Someone get Joey away from the ant hill and into the game.
The level with the largest disparity between those that can and those that cannot in the field. The early growers with rifle arms throwing to their teammates just learning to play the game. With the ball mid-air, the lump developing in everyone’s throat praying for a happy ending. As a coach, the start of graying hair.
How to memorize all the player’s names? One coach had mastered it. Writing the first name backwards on each player’s inside hat lid, he would flip up the cap and there it was. Yes. This one was Brandon. Easy enough. Hilarious.
Coach pitch. At times, an almost Zen-like connection required to unite pitch with bat. The sensation of needing to hold the ball the entire way to the young hitter’s bat. On occasions, it would miss, again, again and again. The question was always whether to get the tee or keep throwing. The tee led to success. At least it got them away from the spotlight and down the baseline. At that moment, deflecting attention was the highest priority.
The first batter of the season, the leadoff hitter, reaches the batter’s box and proudly proclaims his birthday. We sing happy birthday from baseline to baseline. Next time up, he sheepishly but proudly shares he cannot believe he’s 5 years old. Well, it is 20 percent of his life! Great memory, all so pure and innocent.
Minor leagues. The first real taste of baseball in its more intended form. With coaches out of the pitching equation, the connection between batter and catcher becomes an exercise in unpredictability and patience. Young, often erratic arms and catchers, so small in stature, with equipment outweighing the child. The wild pitches sending receiver to backstop. Just part of the experience. Here comes the pitch. There goes the catcher, taking his 50 short steps, equipment rattling, all the way to the backstop. Next pitch. Back it goes. And we do it all over again.
This was the bracket where you saw the big-league promotions. Pretty cool! You could sense the same feeling of a Red Sox minor leaguer getting the ring from Fenway Park. On to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night games versus Tuesdays and Thursdays. You might as well have moved to Kansas, not seeing the core group anymore. But all in the name of progress.
You also saw the first indication of those playing to excel and those playing for the fun of the game. Promotion? No thanks. Staying with my friends suits me just fine. Unless we all can go up!
And the first time with playoffs. What was better than that? For the participants, there was no separation between this and professional baseball. It was their world and all that mattered. A championship meant everything. Really good stuff.
Then it was time to get drafted to the majors. The call came from the new coach. Drafted by the Indians! Wow! Forget that they finished last the past four years. I got the call! Major leagues, here I come!
And there was no more fun than being a coach taking part in the draft. You had watched the NBA and NFL draft so many times. The commissioner walking to the podium. When you announced, it felt the same way. With the second pick, the Tigers select Bobby Boomer. It was so much fun with so many laughs.
Always a criterion in choosing players was whether a parent was able to pitch batting practice. This was no small issue. For those who could throw with pace and accuracy for an extended period of time, it was priceless. Then there were the rest of us who filled in when desperation called our name. Clearly, the definition of an ugly scene.
The major league level? Certainly, a great take. It added a whole new dimension with players finally being able to clear the distant fence. There was always the short list of hitters with the requisite power.
And, for those select few, it was the opportunity to play regionally with the hope of advancing all the way to Williamsport, to the Little League World Series. Just imagine. It seems an unreachable goal. But a team a couple of towns up the road had gone. Why not us?
So, if we must this year, take a break from the game but keep up the skills. For better or worse, the year will pass sooner than we can even imagine. And, then you will be back at it again, carrying forward traditions and playing the same game the same way dad and grandpa played it so many years ago.