Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up." --Bob Lemon

Today, I worked with Major League Baseball’s Pitch, Hit & Run event here in town. Go like them on Facebook. I don’t get all thrilled about kids in general, but I LOVE little baseball players. I was initially slated as the coordinator for the event, which meant I would float and get to see all the stations in action. However, it was scheduled for yesterday, and it rained yesterday, so we were shorthanded. Ultimately, then, I was positioned at the pitching station. Pitching + Me = Perfect. So despite not getting to see everyone, here are some of today’s highlights. These are some of the things that made me think that while we’re gearing up for today’s stars to kick off their season (tonight or) tomorrow, these kids are the game’s future. If that’s the case, baseball’s future is as bright as it can be.

1. The “baseball players.” When I first got to the park, a gaggle of kids was simultaneously signing up and punching each other. They were wearing matching fitted caps with elaborately embroidered logos, and I instantly recognized them as the guys who live, eat, and breathe this game. The caps were from a travel team, and their coach was not far behind them. They were 13-14 years old, and they’d decided—bar none—that they were baseball players.

As they filled in the forms, they asked me a bunch of questions, from, “Do I have to sign this?” to, “What happens if I win?” I answered them and noticed that they were ribbing each other for every single question.

One kid asked if he had to use a heavier bat than he normally did. My answer, “Well, yeah. This is MLB. You have to use Prince Fielder’s bat.”

“Who’s Prince Fielder,” the kid asked.

His team was DONE. Over it. That kid will never live that down. They laughed at him, and it reminded me of the “Some lady named…Ruth” scene from The Sandlot. The one kid even said, “Dude, SHE knows who Prince Fielder is!” and indicated me. I told him I knew more about baseball than they all did combined, and that started the next wave of ribbing as they started to ask questions and realize I was, in fact, right.

I instantly gained a fan club. I like having fans. Even if they are jerky little kids with 70 mph fastballs at 14 years old. See number two.

2. “Hey, Verlander, good job beating your big-mouthed buddy over there.” When that group came to the pitching station, they were still at each other. One guy stepped on the back of another guy’s shoe when he was warming up, immediately sending him into orbit. Another guy called his teammate “too fat” to pitch and promptly got his ass kicked. It was their schtick. I loved it.
So the first of their group toed the rubber and nailed the zone four times out of the allotted six. It made that heavenly “POP” noise that a well-oiled fastball makes, and I thought, “I’m watching my own friends ten/fifteen years ago.” It was that moment right as they started to rise above the other kids they played with, and you can always tell the ones who have a shot. These were the ones.

The next guy came up and zinged it about ten miles per hour faster than his predecessor. It moved the strike zone poster and pushed the L-screen off balance a little. I wasn’t sure what to say to this kid who just blew my hair back. His teammate, though, knew exactly what to say: “I’d take you YARD on that, man!” followed by a quick mime of just what it would look like when he did. The kid pitching kicked some dirt in his teammate’s (Babe Ruth from now on; he had that kind of air) general direction and went back to work. The next pitch was high and inside, the kind of thing that would have made a right-handed high school kid pee just a little bit. I know it made ME.

Babe Ruth had a field day with that. “Charge the mound! Charge the mound!” and the other teammates laughed. The pitcher shot him a look and set again, this time sizzling the ball right down the pipe. People at the running station and people walking by both stopped to watch.

The next three were all on the mark, almost identical to the first two strikes. All just as hard. If this kid has a curve ball and a good change, he is set to be lights out. His five strikes led the day, and when he finished, Babe Ruth was a bit quieter.

So when they walked by me to leave, I said, “Hey, Verlander, good job beating your big-mouthed buddy over there.” The rest of the team sent a collective, “Ohhhhh,” followed by, “She called you Verlander!” They bounded away, the kid with the arm at the center. He looked back at me and waved.

One day, I’ll say I saw him before he was even a high school varsity player. No one will believe me. That is, if he doesn’t throw his arm out hitting 98 by 16 years old.

3. “Holy crap. He hit it out!” and “Does this say 6 seconds?” When I first met with the coordinator of the event, he showed me the scorecard, which doesn’t go beyond 275 feet for the hitting score or lower than 6 seconds for the girls’ running score. I asked him if anyone had ever made them have to rethink the scoring, and he said, “Nah. Not even close.”

Today, that changed. One of the kids I’d befriended earlier cleared the fence, and his tale made its way through all the stations and all the parents almost instantly. This reedy kid with huge feet and shaggy hair just OWNED a baseball and scored so high that math had to be done to determine how to score it. 

Then a girl made it from second to home in six seconds flat and immediately bounded into the pitching line like it was something she did every day. It probably is. She was 12. She was a lousy hitter and an even worse pitcher. I’d never discourage someone from playing ball, but it might not be too late for her to call up some Olympic coaches and start talking track. On the other hand, she’s young enough to learn to hit, and who needs to pitch when you’re setting base paths on fire? 

4. Do it like I showed you.” Early in the pitching event, twin girls walked up to the line. I noticed them right away because one was wearing Under Armour baseball pants and a Yankees tee, had a dirty broken-in glove and even dirtier cleats. Her face and hands, pants and tee shirt were covered in clay, and the day had just started. While they waited, she had her glove resting on her cocked hip like it was an extension of her arm. She walked like a young athlete and watched the other players with intent.

On the other hand, her sister—identical in every biological feature—was her polar opposite in presentation. She was dressed in skinny jeans, sandals, and a black fitted tee. Her hipster glasses were perched on the end of her nose, and her hair was significantly shorter than her sister’s but was carefully styled. She stood with her feet crossed and her arms folded, shifting once in a while and looking mostly at the ground. 

When the first twin approached the line, she looked natural in her set, her windup, and her delivery. She hit the strike zone twice, which was good for her 11- and 12-year-old group, and casually walked back to watch her sister. Her work was not done. 

The skinny-jean sister hesitated as Under Armour handed her the glove she’d been wearing. She took it and fumbled to put it on her hand. She wasn’t sure what to do at the rubber, so her sister whispered and gestured, “Do it like I showed you. Come on. You can do it.” The girl sighed and nodded at her encouraging sister and awkwardly approached the rubber. She took another deep breath and set, wound up, and…

…nailed the center of the strike zone.

Her reaction? Nothing.

Her sister was visibly amused. On the next one, she set up just as awkwardly as the first and let another strike fly. It was almost outside and high, but it got in there. Painting the corners. 

She missed the next one. Then the next one. Neither time was her miss a big one. No flying over the L-screen or rolling on the ground. They were the kind of misses any pitcher experiences. The girl was totally unfazed. 

Her final tally was four, and she quietly walked off with her sister who was simply ecstatic for her sibling. She was patting her on the back and leaping alongside her, replaying each pitch as if her sister hadn’t been the very one who threw them all. 

I wonder if the first sister talked the second one into joining the team.

5.  “I’m sorry it’s dirty.” Toward the end, a small blond boy wandered up with his arm outstretched, scorecard dangling from his hand. As he handed it to me, he looked at me sideways and said, “I’m sorry it’s dirty,” in the sweetest voice to ever come from a child’s mouth. He was genuinely sorry his score card had gotten dirty on a baseball field. His body language showed me that he was greatly disappointed in himself and expected the same from me. I said, “Eh, no worries. If it’s not dirty, you’re not playing hard enough.” His posture and demeanor instantly changed, and he flashed a huge smile and suddenly became the most confident kid on the field. He proceeded to hit the strike zone twice, and I am convinced that if I hadn’t been such a fan of his clay-covered score card, that final tally would have been a zero. I learned something about kids in that moment. They just want someone to be on their side. That’s all. It was so simple to do. 

6. “Eh, why not?” While the boys had a large number of contestants with 3, 4, and 5 strikes in their final scores, the girls weren’t as consistently high. Most would hit once and then miss the next five in grand fashion. The older girls, of which there were very few, were more likely to hit the target, but the younger girls just didn’t have the confidence in their aim that the boys and the older girls did. I can’t speculate on the forces that cause such a discrepancy, but I have my theories.

At the very end, when every player in line had taken a turn, we started to clean up. That’s when I noticed the young girl hanging back a bit, kicking the grass. I said, “Did you pitch?” She looked caught. That’s the only way I could describe it. It was like she had been hoping to get by without throwing the ball, and I had called her out. I immediately felt bad so I said, “Come on. I’ll throw if you do.” There were no more kids around. It was just me and the other volunteers. She thought about it for a moment and then said, “Eh, why not?”

Then she proceeded to throw five strikes in a row. And hard. She looked completely surprised. She looked at me, and I smiled at her and said, “You just didn’t want to show the other kids up, did you?” She laughed and said, “Yep!” and threw her final pitch, missing by only inches.

As I filled out her card and gave it to her, she said, “I’ve never pitched before. That was fun!” And a new pitcher was born. I gave her a high five and told her to keep it up.

I hope she does.

7. “She’s never thrown a softball in her life.” And finally, my favorite moment of the day, the one that simultaneously took me back and made me think ahead. A couple years ago, Major League Baseball and Pitch, Hit & Run decided to limit baseball activity to boys and softball activity to girls, regardless of what type of team the player plays with regularly. Trust me. I argued this one. I was not alone in my objections.

About halfway through, a tiny girl walked up to the line. She was dressed in baggy grey baseball pants, dirty cleats, and a black jersey with her long, curly brown hair hung haphazardly from beneath her ill-fitting cap. She was an adorable caricature of every representation of every little baseball playing girl in every story ever told.

I felt like I was looking in a mirror.

As she approached the station, she nonchalantly reached out for a ball.

It was a baseball.

Boy, am I glad I wasn’t the one who had to tell her the rules. The guy I was working with sweetly explained to her that she was to throw the small softballs, and her dad, hovering nearby, turned to me and called, “So she has to throw softballs? She’s never thrown a softball in her life.”

I was sympathetic to his concern. He reminded me of my own dad saying the same kind of things so many years ago.

I apologetically but firmly told him it was a Major League Baseball rule and that I had questioned it, too. Then I turned to the girl and said, “Hey, listen. If you can throw that baseball like I’ll bet you can, this softball will be nothing for you to handle for one day. You’re aces. You got this.”

She smiled slightly and palmed the ball. She was still not convinced.

“I’ll tell you what, champ,” (yeah, I called her “champ”), “if you throw that softball six times, you can pitch baseballs to me later. I’ll be your catcher.”

Now she beamed, looked at her dad, and took her place on the line. She did alright, hitting the strike zone only once, but I can assure you it was because of the sheer size and awkwardness of that yellow planet her tiny hands were hurling through the air. It was a familiar feeling. I vehemently congratulated her and told her I’d be around if she still wanted to pitch.

Then I tried not to cry my eyes out.

Neither the shy girl nor the little baseball player girl took me up on my offer to throw with them. I'm a little disappointed that the little one didn't find me and the sneaky pitcher didn't make me hold up my end of the bargain, but in the end, it was a great experience, and I hope to stay involved with the event in years to come. I feel so at home on a diamond, and there’s something cool about seeing kids who still just play because it’s so damned fun to do. I want to see every single child who came out today play for their entire lives. I wanted to tell every single one of them to stay with it, no matter how hard it got and to remember that they were the masters of their own destinies, and if they wanted to play the game—if they truly loved the game—they should put every bit of themselves that they could spare into it and never apologize, never let anyone make them question it. It’s a beautiful game—the most beautiful game—and those kids deserve to fall in love with it as much as I have. They’ll be better people for it. 

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