Summertime is here and little league is winding down (the season starts in spring here in Nashville). This year the team is sponsored by his school, USN, and so nearly all Jude’s teammates are his pals and classmates, which is great. Last year they were champions; this year they moved up to majors and are struggling. But, I’m proud of Jude and his mates. I got pulled into coach at the last minute for a couple games, which was harrowing but fun. It reminded me a little of a short story I wrote a couple years ago, when he was in “Coach Pitch.” Here ‘tis – hope you enjoy it.
A little bit of rain is good. It clears the air and dampens the earth, keeping the dust at bay. The field was quiet and still as we sat in the dugout watching the other team arrive. We talked about our nemesis.
“Don’t worry man,” Jake spat, “Coach Y is only getting the kids ready for the next level.”
“Maybe so, but I’d still like to beat him.”
Coach Y and his team, the Yankees pulled to the park in a cache of station wagons and SUVs. We called him Coach Y because we didn’t know his name and we got tired of saying Yankees all the time. The kids didn’t pick their name, the league hands them out. We were the Mariners, which I hated, because it carried no history.
Jake and I watched Y lead his kids in fielding drills. The Yankees were outfitted like a regiment of pint-sized major leaguers. Every player had their socks up high and black lines painted under the eyes to absorb the harsh rays of the sun. Of course, clouds still hovered over the diamond and the infield was slow as a knuckleball. But, Coach Y didn’t care, he beat grounders into the dead earth with the verve of Ty Cobb, wielding a well-worn wooden bat, taped at the handle.
“Come on, you can get that Kyla, “ he screamed as the chunky little girl who waddled forward and scooped up the ball, very slowly. Once it was secured safely in her mitt, she froze.
“First, base, Kyla, first base!” Y pointed and yelled. He ran over to her and dropped to his knees and pointed again. “First BASSEEEEEEEE!” He smiled as he screamed.
She lobbed the ball in the general direction of the bag and it rolled to a standstill two feet short. The player who had been daydreaming at first base woke up and ran towards it.
“That’s it, that’s it,” he said. He high fived the girl and grinned.
Our team ran in from the outfield where another coach had been hitting fly balls that usually bounced two or three times before being caught. All of our coaches were musicians and while we were earnest, we didn’t carry the same urgency as Coach Y. When my son went to bat, for instance, I’d tell him to relax, be confident, and breathe. It was East versus West. The kids were all seven or eight years old, and they called it Coach Pitch, which was more advanced than t-ball, but not as advanced as Kid Pitch. This meant our head coach would pitch to our kids, laying them into that tiny strike zone best he could. The opposing team would provide a fielder for the pitcher’s position, who would stand behind the coach.
The kids piled into the dugout and threw their mitts on the ground.
“Are we batting first?”
“Am I up?”
“When do I bat?”
Our centerfielder played in the mud.
“Sure are, not yet, and I’m posting the line-up,” Jake answered.
“We’re playing the Yankees,” said one of our star players. “We’re so going to lose.”
“Hey now, “ I said, squatting down, so I could look him in the eye. ‘Don’t say that, don’t ever give up before you start. If you don’t think you’ll win you’ll never win.”
His eyes brightened just a bit.
“You know this coach tries to get you to throw the ball away,” I continued, as the team gathered. “Make sure that you know where you’re throwing the ball and if you don’t have a good throw, run it in.”
Jake picked up the thread. “Keep your eyes on our coaches when you’re on the bases, because whenever we can, we’re going to have you take an extra base.”
“Just like they did with us last time,” he whispered under his breath.
I loved coaching little league. I loved doing anything with my son. And, I loved being around the kids, watching them get better individually and gel as a team. They were at a great age, smart enough to know, young enough to retain their innocence. You had kids of all races, and both genders, and they supported each other in ways that were far different from my sandlot days, in ways that gave me hope for the future.. Another small side benefit of coaching was Stephanie, our lady umpire, who was easy on the eyes and the mind We’d chat sometimes between innings. She was in her mid-twenties, a youth worker, did mission work down in South America, every fall. During the rest of the year, she tutored in the schools around Nashville and umpired for small change. It gave me hope for the future.
There were less arguments on calls when Stephanie umped, either because the married coaches were experts at self-preservation through concession, or simply because she classed up the joint a little. It was kind of strange calling her “blue”, but that’s baseball. And, since we were playing Coach Y I had an important question for her
“So, Steph, I mean, Blue,” I said, “When exactly is the ball dead?”
“When it gets to the pitcher.”
“So, they can’t keep running as long as our pitcher has it, right?”
“That’s right,” She took a swig of water and headed back to the plate.
Our manager, Jake, was a funny guy. He’d get super nervous unless we were ahead by 10 runs or more. He was good with the kids and never berated anyone, but he still played to win and winning mattered. Show the same colors, however, and he’d pull back. After our speeches, the kids took the field. Coach Y took the mound for the other team, warming up while his lead-off man grabbed a bat.
“I wonder if he’ll dust off his kids for digging in,” I said.
Jake laughed. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Hey Blue,” Coach Y hollered. “We ready?”
Jake picked up a batting helmet and put it on the bench. “We’ll, don’t’ be too hard on Coach, you know. He’s probably carrying around baggage he doesn’t even know he has.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and until you walk in another man’s shoes, you don’t know. But, I still want to beat him.”
We all do,” said Jake, “ I’m just saying. And, when we bat, I want you to coach third and wave our guys home on everything.”
We laughed, all sinister-like.
The Yankees first hitter was a little guy who came to the plate wielding a bat that was twice his size, but he got a piece of the ball and hit a little flare that died just past the pitcher’s mound. Our fielder ran in, hurried his throw and the ball bounced in the dirt to the right of the first baseman, squiggling into right field. Their player dug for second as Coach Y screamed at him from the pitcher’s mound, RUN, RUN, RUNNNNNNNN!, frantically pointing to second base. Our first baseman grew more nervous with every second, so when he finally tracked the ball down in short right field, he heaved it to second with all his might instead of running it into the pitcher. In his haste, he failed to grip the ball correctly and it squirted from his hands and trickled to the shortstop instead. The baserunner was barely to second base when Coach Y began screaming “RUN HOME, RUNNNN HOMMMEEE!” The runner dug for third, hit the bag and ran towards the plate. By the time our befuddled shortstop got the ball back to the pitcher, trying to “deaden” the play, their man had scored. 1-0. This was Coach Y’s modus operandi for every play, every game.
We had two coaches in the outfield and they reminded the kids that if you didn’t have a clear play, you should get the ball to the pitcher. Luckily, the next batter struck out. The heart of the line-up was coming up – kids who looked old enough to be behind the wheel of their parents’ car. The next two batters drove the ball well into the outfield. This was a blessing, because they were hit so far and hard that it was clear what to do – run the ball back in. So, it was back to back doubles, one out, and we were down 3-0.
The next player was a skinny guy with glasses, who swung with unparalleled kinetic energy. The ball barely hit the bat and died in front of the plate. Our catcher picked it up and threw it to first. Two outs. Next up was the girl I’d seen Coach Y working with on fielding drills. Some of the girls were good players; some were not. The boys treated them like equals, one way or the other, because they were teammates. When I was a kid, girls weren’t allowed to play little league. Coach Y softened up a bit and really tried to lay it in there. This particular girl swung down at the ball, chopping the air like she was wielding a machete. She struck out.
Our team came to bat in the bottom of the second and we played their game. I waved my arms until they were sore, and despite Y’s coaching, his players became rattled and threw the ball away a couple times. We scored four runs and took the lead, 4-3 after 1. Back in the dugout, Jake was smiling.
“Attaboy,” he said to me. “Wasn’t it great when that one ball nearly hit the guy walking his dog on the first-base side?”
A funny thing happened the next inning. Their first batter hit a grounder to our first baseman, who easily stepped on the bag for an out. The next batter hit a ball sharply to our shortstop, who bobbled it and knocked it down. He was getting ready to heave the ball to first base, which surely meant another error, when Coach Y started screaming again. RUNNNN, RUNNNN, TAKE SECOND. Sure enough, the baserunner hit the bag at first, took the turn and our shortstop pulled himself together and ran the ball to second-base where he applied the tag. Two outs. Our players were pumped. Two out and no one on against the Yankees. You could see the kids gaining confidence and thinking, “we can beat these guys.”
It was back to the heart of their order, however, and their next batter creamed one into the gap between center and left field. Fortunately, our fastest player was playing centerr and he tracked it down. Afraid to throw it away, he sprinted all the way back to second base with the ball in hand, holding the batter to a double.
Next up was another thumper. Coach Y laid it in his wheelhouse and he smoked a sinking line drive to our third baseman. It hit the ground right in front of him, and took a short hop. Our third baseman shoved his mitt down in self-defense and the ball bounced a few feet in front of him. The runner ran around the play, headed for third. Our fielder went for the ball, but instead of running it to the bag, he headed towards the mound. Coach Y screamed, RUN HOME RUNNNN HOME, as he ran alongside his player, pointing to the plate. Finally, our third baseman flipped the ball to the player we had fielding the pitcher’s position, who caught it just as their runner hit third and started towards home. Our pitcher position player stood there with the ball in his mitt as the runner crossed the plate. Coach Y jumped up and down wildly crossing his arms to make the safe sign. TIE SCORE TIE SCORE TIE SCORE, he yelled, hat falling off his head, lifting his player in jubilant bear hug.
“Blue,” I shouted from the coaching box, “our pitcher had the ball. It was a dead play.”
Jake leaped out of our dugout like Leo Durocher and went to take up my protest.
“Dead ball,” she yelled. The pitcher had the ball.
Coach Y groaned “Oh noooo!!!” Their player went back to third, on the umpire’s orders.
The next batter struck out.
We didn’t score in the next inning, and the Yankees picked up three in the top of the third, to go in front 6-4. Bottom of the third, I went back to my place at the third base coaching box. Most Coach Pitch games went 3 innings, but there was a time limit and Steph, er., Blue, told us this would be our last at-bat. Our team had played hard, but they were getting discouraged. We had the bottom of the line-up coming up and we had to score 2 runs to tie, 3 to win. Jake, who was pitching, was having trouble with the strike zone, as well.
To make matters worse, the first batter was Jake’s son. Supposedly, Jake used to be quite the player in college, nearly got drafted. But, his son didn’t catch the genes, and worst of all, he was afraid of the ball, even when his dad threw it in there for him. We all felt bad about that, and in this case, we were already thinking one down. But, he surprised us by closing his eyes and hitting . a wicked line drive back at the pitcher’s mound, nailing their fielder in the gut. He grabbed his stomach, went down with a thud and started rolling around in agony. We all rushed to the mound.
Coach Y was the first one there, and everyone on the field crowded around, except for Jake’s son, who stood fixed to first base like someone might take it away. Jake bent over the injured player, gravely asking him if he was okay, if he could breathe alright. But, there was a slight twinkle in his eyes as he saw me standing there, as if to say, “Did you see that line drive?”
Finally, the injured fielder picked himself up.
“Shake it off,” Coach Y told his player “you’re okay.” He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Look at you, you held him to a single.” The boy smiled.
As I walked back to the box, Coach Y sidled up to me.
“Nice shirt, man.”
“Thanks.” It was my vintage San Francisco Seals jersey. “Think the Giants are going to do it again this year?”
“I don’t know. I like the Phillies. I thought they were going to do it last year.”
“Yeah, but the Giants played small ball.”
“That they did. And, they played like a team.” He paused. “I’d like to see a game out there someday.”
“The park is beautiful,” I offered. “Great view of the Bay. My son saw his first big league game there.”
“Sweet.” Our next batter was at the plate. “Is that him?”
“No, he’s on deck.” Coach Y nodded.
“What position is yours?” I gestured towards the field. It was the sort of thing that usually pops up at birthday parties. Which child is yours? It’s a funny phrase. When I got divorced, I interviewed a hard-balled lawyer who cut me off in mid-sentence and said, “Listen, you need to remember, it’s always ‘our’ child, it’s never YOUR child.” He was known to be extremely successful and his advice was aimed at winning. I decided on a negotiator instead, but I always remembered that line, because inadvertently, he taught me an important life lesson about our children.
Our player took a mighty swing. Two strikes.
“None of them and all of them,” Coach Y finally answered.
I didn’t get it and I guess he read my face. “My wife and I don’t have any kids. But, I love baseball. And, I love kids.”
Our player struck out, which took us back to the top of the order and our best hitter, one of those kids who was born wearing batting gloves and cleats. Sure enough the first pitch came in and he swung with confidence, hitting a sharp grounder past the second baseman. The right fielder was slow getting to the ball. Jake’s son had been going on contact and he motored around second base easily while the ball lay in the grass. The right fielder picked it up and finally threw it towards third. There wasn’t anything on it and it started bouncing in the general direction of the shortstop. Jake’s son was looking at me as if he expected me to wave him home. Maybe I should’ve. But, I didn’t, I held him up. He slid, although he didn’t have to, and I think that made him nearly as happy as getting the hit in the first place. I gave him a high-five. Jake glared at me from the mound and whirled his finger in the air, which was the sign for waving ‘em in.
“It was a close play,” I offered.
The truth was, I didn’t feel like waving kids in anymore, unless it was a clean play. We had men on second and third, no outs, and if we couldn’t score two runs and tie the game, we didn’t deserve it. That’s baseball. As it turned out, the next batter struck out, my son legged out an infield hit to load the bases and two more guys went down. We left them loaded and lost 6-4. But our kids played hard and I was proud of them.
After the game, my son and I went out for ice cream. We were talking about the game and he was excited because he had two hits in two at-bats, and they almost won. He was jumping around from idea to idea, processing the events of the day, trying out how it sounded, listening to what I thought.
“I heard you talking to our manager about how the other coach is getting kids ready for the next league.” His ice cream was melting, so he stopped and took another bite. “But that’s not really true, because major league players throw players out on those plays. So, it wouldn’t work.
Before I’d been glad about how hard our team played. Suddenly, I was glad they lost.
“You’re right,”I told him, “And, that’s why you’ll be a great coach someday.”
“And a great dad,” he said.
I’m not sure where the last line came from, or if I fully understood all the connections he was making, but I didn’t doubt a word he said, because ultimately, I lear. I. I was sure of one thing, though, that I learn as much from him as he does from me. And, then I thought of Coach Y. My son just smiled and finished his ice cream. I heard thunder in the distance and pretty soon the rain started falling again. A little bit of rain is good. It clears the air, dampens the earth, and when it’s over, brings a newness to the world.