Monday, May 21, 2012

Annals of the game...

The 2012 Cardinals celebrate a hard earned victory, photograph by Carmen Sierra Rodriguez
The outlook wasn't good for the Warren Park Cardinals. We had a great season last year when we were a senior team in the Rookie Division. This year we've moved up a division and now are a Freshman team in the Minors. We lost our star pitcher to another, more competitive Chicago Park District Little League, as well as some of our stalwart players who couldn't move up with us because of their age.

On the plus side, we got back a star player from two years ago who has developed into a great pitcher in his own right, and is also a better all around player than last year's model. When he pitches, we are competitive, when he doesn't, well not so much. We also gained some promising 11 year old additions from other teams that didn't advance into the Minors.

My boy's sheer enthusiasm for baseball more than makes up for whatever skills he may be lacking up to this point. He's often the first player to show up at games and practices and is always the last to leave. This is his third season in little league, all of them playing for the Cardinals.  He may not be the best player on the team but he's good enough to have played all the positions, even the most difficult ones, catcher and pitcher. What would become the last game of last season was a playoff match between the Cardinals and the Reds. My boy was the starting pitcher.

Baseball is a game played mostly in the head, no matter how good you are at hitting, fielding, base running and above all pitching, if you can't get it straight upstairs, you're sunk. My son naturally was nervous to start the big game. But he and I worked hard to develop his mechanics and accuracy to the point where he could get the ball over the plate often enough and hard enough to be a fairly respectable pitcher at his level. Of course there's a big difference between pitching a baseball to your dad in the park with no one around, and pitching to a live batter, several spectators, and most importantly your teammates all counting on you, in the biggest game of the season.

Things went pretty smoothly in the big game, that is until his very first pitch, which hit the batter in the foot. It went downhill from there quickly. Pretty soon my son was just tossing the ball to the catcher in the hopes of it somehow finding the strike zone. When it did, which was not often, the batters were able to pounce on it. Mercifully in the Rookie Division, there is a five run limit per inning, which came quickly. Our head coach replaced my son, also mercifully in the next inning and his replacement (the little brother of our current star pitcher), pitched magnificently, shutting out the Reds for the rest of the game.

Redemption time came in bottom of the last inning with our team down by only one run, and the heart of the order coming to bat, my boy leading off. Unfortunately, he feebly grounded out to the pitcher. The following two batters also grounded out, one of them in spectacular fashion having been robbed by the first baseman. That was how our season ended.

There is a famous line from a popular movie called A League of Their Own. If you recall, it goes something like this:
There's no crying in baseball!
But it's not true. The late A. Bartlett Giamatti who among other even more impressive things, was once the commissioner of Major League Baseball, wrote this about the game:
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."
The chill rains of fall came for us by mid-July last year, and there were tears.

But kids are resilient and all was forgotten by everyone, well almost everyone. At our first practice this year, our head coach took me aside and said: "Does that bad performance in the final game last year still upset your son?"

"Not in the least," I told him truthfully.

This year we're facing much tougher competition and in the higher division we have new aspects of the game to deal with, namely leadoffs and base stealing. At our level that means a batter who reaches first base will almost certainly reach third after the next two pitches. In some ways it's much more fun to have low expectations for your team because the good things are great and you're never disappointed by the bad.

Our first game was against the champions of our division last year, who also moved up to the minors. Behind our fire-balling star pitcher, we eked out a victory which was helped along by the game being called early because of rain.

The second game would be a rematch against the Reds who are now in Cubs clothing. My boy was the starter. A little shaky at first, he got some help from his fielders in the first inning and got out of the inning allowing two runs. The second inning was a different story. He managed to get the first two batters out and it looked like smooth sailing. The third batter fought him tough, fouling off a bunch of pitches, and eventually walked. After that, one batter after another reached base, either by virtue of a walk, an error, or another new aspect of the game for us, the dropped third strike. That one is especially cruel for a pitcher whose strike out is erased if the catcher can't hold on to the ball. The catcher then has to spring up, find the ball, and throw out the batter at first in order to record an out, not an easy task at this level. Soon my son was back to carefully tossing the ball instead of pitching. In our division, the maximum number of runs is now six, a number that was eventually reached in that inning, all coming after two outs.

Then came the rain and that game was postponed for a later date.

The next two games were against a new team in the division, the Pioneers, an all girl team. I joked to people that this was a lose/lose proposition for our boys. If they lost, they'd have lost to a team of girls. Sexist as that may sound, if you've been an eleven year old boy at some point in your life, you understand. If on the other hand they won, they'd have beaten a team of girls. Big deal.

As soon as I saw the Pioneers, I knew I was wrong, it would be a big deal to beat them. They took the field with poise and confidence, during warmup the players fielded, threw and caught the ball with the ease of seasoned athletes. In short, unlike our rag-tag squad, they looked like ballplayers. Not only that, half of them were bigger than me, they were 12 and 13 year olds but looked like they could be in high school. Their coaches also had a very calm, professional demeanor about themselves, making the Cardinal coaches especially me, look like greenhorns.

The game went as could be expected. Their first few batters pounded the ball, stole bases at will on every pitch, and the team took a decisive lead from which they never looked back. Their fielders made all the plays they needed, while our fielding was a comedy of errors. To add insult to injury, between plays, their runners took advantage of every lapse of concentration from our infielders who were unaccustomed to such brazen base running.

In other words, they gave us a clinic. I told our guys before the next game to watch the Pioneers closely, and learn from them.

Game two against the Pioneers was two days later and our number one pitcher got the start. Anyone who doubts that pitching is at least 90 percent of baseball, has never been to a little league game. I warmed up our pitcher before each inning as our catcher that game, my son, put on his gear.  Frankly I was a little scared for my own safety, this kid throws hard. I estimate his fastball's speed flirts with 70 mph. The girls were no match for him, he allowed only one or two legitimate hits. Only with the help of some errors and dropped third strikes from my son, were the Pioneers able to score three runs in five innings. I had a sneaking suspicion that was confirmed by our coach's score card, that every Pioneer out was by strikeout. That's a better percentage than Kerry Wood's record setting 20 strikeout performance against the Houston Astros in 1998.

Unfortunately, our pitcher reached his pitch limit of 85 pitches after the fifth inning, meaning that the coach would have to bring in a reliever, my son...

Combining its physical and psychological demands, I'm not sure if there's anything more difficult in sports than pitching a baseball. True it's a team sport, but each play begins with the pitch. The pitcher is all alone on the mound with only his thoughts and fears to keep him company. It's kind of like a golfer before a shot or tennis player before a serve. The difference is that an entire team's success or failure hinges on every pitch. To be a successful pitcher, in addition to having "good stuff", you need to be able to ignore everything else in the world but one thing, the next pitch. The object for the pitcher is to make it possible for the batter to hit the ball by throwing strikes, but at the same time to make hitting the ball difficult by either throwing very hard, or throwing in parts of the strike zone that are difficult to reach with the bat. Beginning pitchers are asked only to throw strikes, that is throw the ball 40 or 48 feet and have it pass through an area that is 17" wide, the width of home plate, by a height that is defined as the distance between the batter's knees and his chest, which in my son's case, (I just measured), is about 24". A big time pitcher can do that over and over again in his sleep but for mere mortals, adults included, it's not so easy to throw a ball that distance into an area a little over two square feet. At my son's level, most batters can easily hit a pitch that is softly thrown through the strike zone. Since throwing breaking pitches like curveballs and sliders is strongly discouraged (for health reasons) for young players, pitchers need to throw the ball with velocity to get outs. Most people assume you throw a ball with your arm, but that's only a fraction of it. If you've ever wondered why pitchers go through such exaggerated motions merely to throw a baseball, it's because they employ every inch, every joint and practically every muscle of their body, to extract every inch of velocity out of the ball.  That's why a puny guy like Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants can throw a ball 100 miles per hour, while burly guys at a carnival hurling a ball with all their might into a machine that measures the speed of their throw, struggle to break 50mph. In other words, it's all about the mechanics.

Like a golf swing, there are about 15 things you need to know in order to pitch a baseball; things such as, where to line up your feet, getting the proper leg kick, fully extending your throwing arm, holding your hand palm side down while at full extension (the knock knock position), squaring your shoulders, keeping your elbow above the shoulder as you throw, the length of the stride, the final flick of the wrist, the follow through, and so on. I was never a pitcher, (outside of softball which is a much different skill), so I'm learning all this stuff myself. But I've played some golf, and I know you can't possibly remember all that when it's time to take your shot, or make your pitch. To become a pitcher you have to practice, doing it over and over again like a machine, ad nauseam. It's no different than doing scales on the piano, tedious but necessary in order to a master the skill. Since there are only so many hours in a day, there are limited opportunities to get outside to practice pitching. Fortunately, my son the consummate baseball man, pantomimes baseball motions on his own, night and day, which gives me ample time to critique his technique.

It's paid off as now my boy has lost some of the bad habits that were once etched into his delivery. That's all well and good but again, there's the issue of facing a live batter in a game. Fear is the missing element when you're practicing. I'm an OK piano player when I'm practicing, but tighten up whenever I have to do it in front of people. If I have to think about the notes I need to play, my brain freezes up and I can't play. In pitching there are a lot more fears than not playing the right notes. One of the most debilitating of them is the fear of hitting the batter. If you think about not hitting the batter, chances are good that you will. In the game against the Cubs, my son's biggest problem was that he constantly threw the ball way outside to avoid hitting the batters. To address that problem, I found a brilliant drill on the internet that forces the pitcher to throw the ball over the plate while facing live victims, I mean batters. The drill is simple; at practice place two batters, preferably coaches, one in each batter's box on either side of home plate. The pitcher has to throw the ball between them. If he hits one of the coaches, who cares, coaches are expendable. The point is that getting hit by the baseball is simply an inevitable if unwelcome part of the game. Anybody who steps into the batter's box understands that, even girls. I reminded my son of that when he expressed the particular fear of hitting a girl with a pitch, if and when he was faced with that situation.

So the time came for him to face the Pioneers, the mighty girls squad that killed us in our first game, but were down 8 runs to 3 with one inning to play, thanks to the brilliance of our young ace. It was my son's job to keep them from scoring five runs to preserve a victory for our ace and our team. I don't know which of the two of us was more nervous. While the Cardinals were at bat in the top of the inning, I warmed him up. He was throwing strikes with some heat. Then it was time to take the field. Again I took my place behind the plate to warm up the pitcher as the new catcher, coming in to replace my son, donned his "tools of ignorance." My boy's first warmup pitch was about five feet wide. Then he started to get into the groove getting the ball over the plate. I made sure the pitches landed squarely in the pocket of the catcher's mitt, enhancing that satisfying pop sound indicating to everyone on both benches that there's some heat behind the pitch. He looked good.

I hoped that no matter what happened, he would continue to pitch the ball as hard as he could, not letting his fear of hitting a batter get the best of him. He did just that. Unfortunately even his hardest pitch was at least 20 mph slower than our starting pitcher's, and the girls had no problem hitting them. That was not a surprise. The first four batters reached base safely, either by getting legitimate hits, or through our bad plays in the field, and one dropped third strike. Soon enough the score was 8-7 and victory looked very much in doubt. But my boy was still pitching with a sense of purpose, and that was all I cared about. At this point we were at the bottom of their batting order which is normally occupied by the weakest hitters on the team, although their weakest hitters would probably be in the middle if not the top of our order. One batter grounded out to third and my son struck out another. At that point there were two outs, and nobody on base, we were still one run ahead, and the last batter in the order up to bat. But she was the only left handed batter in their lineup and I could see my son having difficulty pitching to her. His first two pitches to the lefty were several feet outside. I told him not to be afraid to pitch inside which he did, and the batter had to quickly get out of the way. I took that as a good sign. I thought this was a good time to have him call time to tie his shoe, just to give him a moment to gather his thoughts. The next pitch was a strike. The smugness over my coaching acumen was short lived as the next pitch was high for ball four and now the top of the order came to bat representing the winning run. Two pitches later, as had been the case all day, the base runner would end up on third, 70 feet away from scoring the tying run. Still my boy was hanging tough against the best hitter in their lineup. On the next pitch she swung hard, getting just a little too much under the ball. It was a popup between third and home. My son and the third baseman (the starting pitcher) both charged the ball at full speed, coming very close to a head on collision. But my normally quiet young man yelled in a voice that everyone in the park could hear: "I GOT IT".

Which he did.

Now of all the accomplishments in my professional life, books published, gallery shows and the like, none of them sticks in my head more than those few game saving plays or game winning hits I made on the ball field, (perhaps because they were so rare). Needless to say, you can imagine my feelings when my son caught that ball to end the ballgame. I whooped and hollered, tossed my cap in the air, charged the field, and along with the Cardinal players, mobbed my son. Then after the customary exchange of handshakes and "good games" with the other team, being caught in the moment, I joined our kids in a celebratory run around the field. As I approached home plate, I was met by our scrupulous head coach with a disparaging look on his face. He shook his head and chastised me for being unsportsmanlike to our opponents by "rubbing it in." I thought I was merely showing enthusiasm for our team and my son, but then feeling terrible, I immediately went over to the Pioneer coaches to apologize for my indiscretion. Fortunately they had no idea what I was talking about, and went on to compliment my son. They said to me: "well at least he could have dropped that ball!" Relieved I went on to tell them how much I admired them and their team, and how much I wanted their players to be models for our team.

People say they don't approve of children's sports in part because of parents who get so wrapped up in the games, making up for their own inadequacies and disappointments by living vicariously through their children. I don't know about that.

Most parents I know, including some very successful folks, consider their children's accomplishments to be much bigger deals than their own. That's the way it should be. Insignificant as sports may be in the big picture, I think that participating in team sports is a great experience for children. Not only for obvious reasons like developing hand-eye coordination and getting them out of the house and exercising; team sports build self confidence (if the parents and coaches are doing their job), and teach kids how to be a part of a group bigger than themselves. My son is normally quiet and withdrawn but as catcher and sometime pitcher for the Cardinals, he is forced into the position of being one of the leaders of the team. He has also been forced to overcome some of his fears and self-doubts.

It's easy to be a coach, you get to sit there and tell the players what to do and what not to do. The players are the ones who are asked to do things that go against human nature. Try hanging tough in the batter's box as another kid is throwing the ball at you as hard as he can. Or fielding a ground ball that is coming at you fast, taking unpredictable bounces, by putting your body in front of it, rather than stand to the side and hope against hope that you can somehow put your glove on it. Or try being a catcher, or a pitcher, perhaps the most difficult, and dangerous fielding position of all. It's the kids that do all the hard stuff and I couldn't be any prouder of our team, and my son.

There will be many more disappointments than successes this year for the Cardinals. That's part of the game, just as it's part of life. But it's those disappointments that make the successes all the sweeter, which is another valuable lesson that all of us, players, coaches and parents need to learn.

I'm not visible in that picture at the top of this post which was taken just after our victory against the Pioneers. It's because I was twenty feet off the ground.

I still am.

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