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.

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.

We just got the roster for Andrew’s little league baseball team. This means one sure thing: Soccer practice begins this week.

When I was Andrew’s age (granted Nixon had just finished his first term) soccer was a Fall sport. It was an alternative to football. If my grade school coach hadn’t known the coach from Mountain Side, NJ, there would be no regular opponent.

Then kids played baseball in the Spring and Summer. And when you were not in a league you were playing wiffle ball in a friend’s backyard, hardball in a small field, or throwing against a school wall using a tennis ball. A cracked bat was worth gold because you had a stick ball bat.

We knew about soccer’s World Cup. It was something Germany, Italy, and every country in South America coveted. And the final was on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, taped and spliced into segments with track and field and equestrian events. NBC had the TV share – The Baseball Game of the Week.

No one knew Kyle Rote Jr. was the USA’s top collegiate soccer player. But you knew Joe Pepitone was a bust at first base.

Now soccer is played  year-round. Practice is two nights a week. There are at least 2 games each weekend. Families often have to choose church or soccer on Sunday morning.    

And soccer is as much a social event – sometimes more – than a sport. Parents line the “pitch” with lawn chairs. “Who knows the score?” “Who has the juice boxes?” It can be a play date with uniforms.

OK, that’s not fair. soccer is a great team sport requiring multiples skills. And kids should be encouraged to be the best they can – to work and value skills and effort. But they should play one sport or game at a time.

Andrew may have only 3-4 years of organized baseball left. I don’t think he’ll play in high school. He’s not a “Select Team” soccer player. He plays rec league soccer. He may make a choice.

You know which one his dad would choose.