A Sinking Feeling

July 28, 2011

It’s a little league axiom: “Every kid wants to pitch.” 

Andrew is no different. He had pitched over the past two years, getting through 3 good stints and getting roughed up once. He had completed 4 innings benefitting from nervous hitters and line-drives ending innings.

Sure it was modest success, but his record was better than mine. At his age I was pitching in the Ho-Ho-Kus (NJ) little league, 4 or 6 team.  I was the Falcons’ best starting pitcher. In fact, the only pitcher. And I still share the worst win-loss record for little league in New Jersey history – 0-10 or .000. So when Andrew announced he wanted to pitch I wasn’t going to tell him he couldn’t.

But I was concerned. First, he is an 11-year old in a league for 11- and 12-year old kids. They get first shot. Second, the A-Train is neither big nor aggressive. Finally, he just didn’t look like he had the arm strength.

With about 5 games left Andrew told his coach he wanted a chance to pitch. All kids in the TOSA league are given a chance to play any position. The coach assured Andrew he’d get a chance.

There were three games left – a scheduled game for Monday; a rain-out on Wednesday; the season finally on Thursday. We would be vacationing Thursday. Andrew expected to pitch either Monday or Wednesday.

Now the most important thing a little league pitcher can have is control. Most players at 11-years old are unreliable fielders. Most catchers are sentenced to the position. Walks abound. Runners frolic around the bases. Andrew’s Red Sox had won a game 20-13 and lost another by 15 runs.

But success could come by knowing half the batter are hesitant (scared), doesn’t have a swing (hacks) or don’t know the strike zone. If a pitcher throws strikes he can get by or better.  

Andrew, Micheal nextdoor, and I prepped him. I paced off the 50 feet creating a chalk spot on the drive way for the rubber to a plate. We eliminated the “windmill” his wind up and faced him at the plate. He’s righthanded so we pushed him to target the plate by extending his left arm using the “eagle spread.” Turn the hip, follow through and touch the ground with his right arm. Easy.

Sure. Right.

Time for the secret weapon. Andrew would grip the ball to create a “sinker” effect. And it worked. He threw 30 over two days. Seventy-five percent  dropped. He was ready.

Wednesday night came. Andrew informed his coach he was ready. His coach told him he wouldn’t be pitching. He didn’t even have Andrew in the line-up. The coach had Andrew down as on vacation.  

Andrew didn’t know what to say or do. It was all I could do to rip the guy’s head off.    

But the Red Sox had a bigger problem. The game was scheduled for 6pm. At 5:30 there were three teams limbering up. The coach had the boys at the wrong field. The Red Sox forfeited.

The coach pronounced was a great opportunity to practice with a scrimmage. They would play 6-a-side and a Dad would ump behind the mound. Teams would change after 3 outs or 4 runs. The coach divvied up the teams as the 11-year olds vs the 12-year olds. Great.

In the first inning the younger guys went down with out a run.

The coach for the youngsters club announced, “Andrew, you are the starter.” I quietly blessed him.

Andrew trotted out like Tim Lincecum – without the stuff. He warmed as we had talked. The batters were snickering.

Then Andrew was quickly up 0-2 on the first batter. The older boys were laughing at their peer before he hit it hard back at Andrew. He muffed it.

The runner got to 3rd on the next two pitches – both strikes. The third pitch was a strike but fouled off.

Andrew was throwing strikes and the sinker was working.

The next batter popped the ball up ten feet among the first basement, second baseman and Andrew. It’s little league. The three of them allowed another to call it. None made the play.

Two errors. A run in. A man on first. 

Andrew coaxed Cameron to produce the same pop-up. This time the first baseman called the pop – and dropped it.

Three errors. Two runs in. A man on first. 

The next pitch resulted in a ground ball for a force at second. Andrew was throwing strikes. The ball hadn’t left the infield, and the big guys were having a tough time. The sinker was working.

Big Charley stepped in. The kid could hit, evidenced by his home runs during the season. He would belt one in the playoffs.

But Andrew didn’t seem impressed. He was focused. And he and Charlie battles for about 5 pitches, all strikes. Andrew didn’t have the velocity for a strike out. Charley couldn’t make good contact.

The A-Train threw Charley one more sinker……..and it didn’t. In fact the fighter squadron at Mithell Field tracked the ball for about 15 miles. Charley trotted home.

Four runs in. Inning over. Pitching season over. But the assistant coach umping behind the mound asked “Wow, they couldn’t hit Andrew. What was he doing?” It was the best performance in the scrimmage. 

The Red Sox would get smacked in their only playoff game, done in by a 9-run inning tossed by the coach’s twins.

No matter. Andrew wants to play Fall Ball in late August. I have to start pacing off the 50 feet.

Realign This

June 23, 2011

I needed a serious diversion. It had been raining for days – a soaking, chilly Wisconsin weekend. Andrew’s little league games were washed out. Brewers telecasts were no help as the Crew were finishing a terrible road trip by getting pounded by the Sox in Boston. 

And then Major League Baseball gave me one of the great parlor games: Realignment!

ESPN was reporting a proposal in which the Houston Astros would go to the American League, giving baseball two 15-team leagues. There would be no divisions. Interleague play retained. Each league would have a 4-5 team playoff system culminating in a World Series.

I mulled it over. I had my own initial ideas. Why not? It couldn’t be any more rediculous than all the others. Besides, it’s a parlor game.

So,

Disband the Toronto Blue Jays. Baseball is the “National Past Time.” Well, it used to be – 50 years ago. But the Jays’ attendance is among the worst. And now the Rays are closest to catching the Red Sox and Yanks in the AL East. Here’s a trade? MLB disbands the Jays. The Canadians take back the Coyotes.

Disband the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays. Who would be inconvenienced? It appears “fans” in neither market would really miss the clubs (29th and 30th in home attendance). People might say, “You can’t go to South Beach all the time.”  Yes. Yes, you can. And Tampa, a winner, can’t attract more than 18,000 per game. Lets face it. The best attended baseball in the Sunshine State is Ft Lauderdale for Yankees spring training.

Combine the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s.Kansas City has been declining since the creation of refrigerated rail cars, right? OK, I’ve never been there. But you can only get there by rail road or Greyhound, right. OK. Still after 40 years the Royals can boast of  George Brett, and a blown call at first base. And,yeah, the Green and Gold uni’s and the donkeys were fun. Bando, Catfish, Blue Moon and Rudy were great. And LaRussa’s chemically induced Bash Brothers. But, it’s been more than a  decade since Money Ball and the Magical Been. The two can relocate to Omaha.

Combine the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals. Yes, the Nationals are the hottest thing going. Some one should tell the Capital’s residents. The Nat’s are drawing 23,000, 21th in the MLB. The Orioles are getting the same gate. I know. The Orioles have a real history, stretches of success and Washington deserves a chance. True. But not in this exercise.        

The Yankees and Red Sox won’t destrow the game for ever.  The Yanks’ roster is as old as I am (very old). And the Boss has passed. Will the kids be regular winners? The Red Sox? Well, if they were realigned to Finland that would be fine with me. But they’re entitled to a run every 95 years . I don’t think Phillies, Giants, and Rangers fans shouldn’t give up yet.

Fans will lose interest if 75% of all teams has no chance to go to the Series.  Right. Like all clubs in any year since 1900. Alignments won’t produce winners. Today’s divisions system doesn’t insure the Nationals’ success any more than 2 leagues insured the Senators success. It’s all about management and commitment.

How should Interleague play be treated? Easy. Eliminate it. 

In the end, here’s an outcome:

American League – East: Boston, NY Yankees, Cleveland, Detroit, NY Mets, DC-Baltimore.

American League – West: Texas, Houston, Omaha, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Chicago White Sox.

National League – East: Philadelphia, Atlanta, St Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Chicago Cubs.

National League – West: San Francisco, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, Colorado, Arizona, Seattle.  

And, after all of that, the Red Sox and Phillies go to the Series.

I don’t want to root for the Red Sox. Just the name makes me queezy. Sure, I will worrying about their prospects. But, frankly, I have no choice.

The Tosa little league season was about to begin. Andrew and I had gone on the web site when rosters were first posted. He was nervous wondering who had picked him, whether friends would be on his team, how the uni’s would look, and what number  he might wear. They are the concerns of many 11-year olds player.

We were scrolling the list for each team. “Hey, there’s Mathew’s team – the Tigers.” At that moment I noticed all of the teams represented an American League club. He had graduated from the “Minors.” I got it. Dad was a little slow on the up-take. Rays…..A’s…..White Sox…..Rangers…..             

How many of the kids would be enthusiastic starting the season with “Orioles” or “Mariners” on their chests. “Yankees” rolled by. Too bad. My team.

And there it was: Red Sox.  Andrew Nicol will play for the Red Sox.

I don’t like the Boston Red Sox. I have never liked the Boston Red Sox. Growing up in northeast Jersey I had no time for the Boston Red Sox. 

“Look, I’m on the Red Sox!” “That’s great,” I faked. “May be I’ll get ‘8’ like Yaz.” “Cool.” I was trying to sound excited. “Or Pedroia.” Sure. There have to be enough miscreants in the Boston clubhouse to cover uni’s for 13 kids. Or how about Manny? Frank Malzone?

Andrew sensed my mood. “It is just a uniform, Dad. We don’t get real ones. I’m sure we’ll get a red jersey and red cap.” He was assuring me that it was going to be all right. What was the matter with me?

“Of course this year I have to root for the Boston Red Sox because my team is the Red Sox.”

He’s out of the Will.

The Camp

March 7, 2011

It was Wednesday night, 7pm. Andrew and two friends were miles from home. In fact they had traveled 40 miles on frozen Wisconsin roads. They would spend the next 90 minutes in a vacant warehouse-like facility.

 They were at a once-a-week baseball camp – the Bigler Baseball Camp and Academy. Bigler has taught and instructed young players for years. These three boys were among a “class” of six, ages 12-9.

There are millions of youth “camps”, “classes” and “academies” catering to all interests and topics. Kids are participating in all sports, technologies (engineering camp), performing arts (ballet), and music (orchestra). These programs have purpose and intent. The kids aren’t going to camp to play soccer. They are at soccer camp to focus and improve their play. And the parents, at a minimum, support the purpose.               

Heck, we one time took week-long summer vacation combining lush, enjoyable Wisconsin and Andrew’s participation at Violin Camp. He had just begun playing. The “camp” was brutal. We had gone to relax. We quickly learned most “campers” were willing to travel any distance to attend. It could have been located in Gary, Indiana. I recall a rigurus schedule and very little laughing. In fact I remember several kids looking pained, pleading “Help me.”

We left after 2 days.

Bigler’s training facilities is located in a large open unit in a one-level commercial building in an remote business park. You entered in the back through an unmarked door. It is spartan. You have to really want to find it. The space could accommodate 2-3 pitching “mounds”, a wide area for throwing or fielding ground balls, and, of course, 3 batting cages. It looked as permanent as grounds used by a visiting circus.

But the boys seem not care. They are playing baseball. And the coaches were giving individual instruction.

How much does baseball training cost? The Bigler instruction is $500 for 12 weeks and once a week. Is it too much? I’m not sure. I think I hit 100 ground balls a weekend when Bill wanted to learn how to play. It cost me time, two good gloves, a bat and a field. Of course, that was 20 years ago and only pro ball players went to camp. But Bill wanted to practice and learn from his Dad. I’m not sure Andrew is in the place. How many times have you heard a parent say “They/he doesn’t want listen to me”?  The a good coaches’ experience and instruction is worth it.

 But what about practice? You can practice violin in your room. Instruction can happen in a church basement. There is no seasonality to Irish dance. You can dance all year. There is a weather component to year-long baseball development. There is a reason why LSU, Arizona State, and Texas have successful Division I programs. Kids in Wisconsin have 7 good months a year. Dad’s going to have to put a tarp up in the basement to retain the instruction.

 Of course, it could be a lot worse. We have friends immersed in youth ice hockey. Never.

But I love baseball. At this point, Andrew loves baseball. So despite the cost, time commitment, equipment and instruction, it’s what he wants. He has a passion – at this point. And parents should support their children’s passion.

Until the first time he strikes out looking. Then he’s out of the will.