02/28/2013 07:25AM ● Published by Style
Illustration by Aaron Roseli. © Style Media Group
I’m coaching first base.
All week in practice, we worked on diving headfirst back to base to avoid being thrown out. It was a new move to most of our team. While some got it quickly, others were hesitant, apprehensive about it hurting a little.
Twelve-year-old Cooper had been among them, repeatedly sliding back feet first, each time explaining that it had nothing to do with being afraid of injury; he was just better at sliding back. OK, whatever. When you introduce something new, player resistance isn’t uncommon. If you exercise patience and stay on message, most will eventually buy in. Sometimes it doesn’t click until an actual game, when they don’t have time to think. I was hoping that would be the case with Coop, who is on base with me now.
The ball is pitched, our hitter takes, and Cooper’s lead off is just far enough the catcher thinks he’s got a chance. In a flash, the boy pops up and wings a dart down the baseline. Cooper reacts with...a quick foot-first slide back. A split second later, the throw arrives. He’s safe.
Cooper stands. As he dusts himself off I say good job, but then remind him, “Dude! Dive back to first. Remember?” With a small shake of his head and the kind of patient smile we reserve for the affably slow, Cooper replies, “Coach, I told you already, I don’t dive!”
Such are the best moments for your friendly neighborhood volunteer youth sports coach. Which sport, it doesn’t matter. For me it was Little League, but anyone who’s coached kids has stories, and it’s those moments, maybe even more than the occasional win, that produce the best memories.
Like the time another kid on our team, whom I called “Spider Monkey,” saved the day. I gave Dalton that name because he was a marvel of constant motion, which translated into impatience at the plate; it was the only place he had to stay still for even a few seconds. So when the pitch came, Dalton attacked with a wild swing that looked like a panicked man fending off a charging bear. With most kids, that’s something we would try to correct. But Dalton had excellent hand-eye coordination, and even though his swing looked anything but textbook, he could flat hit the crap out of the ball. So we left it alone. It was a close game: We had two outs with our tying run on third, the go-ahead on second. Dalton was on deck and our cleanup guy, Joe, was up. Joe was one of the league’s strongest hitters. The other team started pitching around him.
It was Dalton’s first year in “majors,” the highest level of Little League as it’s played on the smaller field, and he’d never seen anyone intentionally walked before. He asked me what they were doing. “They’re walking Joe because they figure they have a better chance of getting YOU out than him.” I then suggested that it was kind of disrespectful of Dalton’s abilities...and didn’t he agree? Dalton stared at me for a moment as Joe jogged down to first, digesting what I’d said. Then he narrowed his eyes conspiratorially and said gravely: “Do you want me to go ‘Spider Monkey’ on them?” Doing my best to not crack even the hint of a smile, I said yes. Dalton ripped the second pitch to the wall, scoring two, and we hung on to win.
As the days get longer and spring settles in, we turn our kids loose on ball fields – from Rocklin to Placerville – to hit, catch and spit enough sunflower seeds to carpet the Earth. This will be the first year in several that I won’t be coaching one of my son’s teams. Sam’s reached a level beyond my basic knowledge of the game; plus, like most 13-year-olds, he’s ready for a break from Dad. Coaching was always hectic, sometimes stressful, but now that it’s behind me I’m realizing how much I’ll miss it.
And it’s not the occasional win that I’ll miss the most.