On The Force Or On The Tag: Part I

On The Force Or On The Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.

The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. 

Read Part II here

Read Part III here

In the third year of Little League, our team changed from the Indians to the Red Sox. Kent Anderson is second from the right in the back row. I am first from the right in the front row.


We had the bases loaded, two outs, and down one run in the bottom of the 7th (the last inning in high school baseball rules). Mike, a utility player with a decent stick, was at the plate. In that moment, there was nothing I wanted more as a coach, as even a baseball fan, than for Mike to experience a walk-off hit.

I wanted him to square up the pitch and send a line drive into the outfield. The ballpark would pause in silence while that ball floated like a satellite. The infielders would only be able to turn, look up, and wait. Mike would be tracking the ball as he glided over first base, knowing that his run meant nothing in the last inning of a one-run game. The other base runners would be crouched, suspended between bases. The home plate umpire would stand up with his mask in his right hand as the blood delayed its return behind his knees. Parents would sit up straight. In that moment everyone, everything, waits for a baseball to skip across the outfield grass. Only then can chaos resume.

That’s the picture I held in my mind standing just outside the coach’s box on the third base side of the diamond as Mike started his at-bat.

There aren’t many feelings in this world as pure and good as that one. Looking up from Yosemite Valley for the first time, realizing you’ve met your future husband or wife, the first moment of parenthood, I assume – I’ll grant you these are bigger, more important feelings. But if we’re only measuring purity, then a walk-off hit is right up there with the best of them. I’ll put my next paycheck on it.

Leading up to Mike’s at bat, this particular game had the tempo of a dirge. No youth game, in any sport, for any reason, should take three hours. Each team had tried to lose several times by donating extra outs and base runners by way of walks, errors, and hit batsman. Goddamn, there is a surplus beanings in youth baseball.

We’d made three errors in the top half of the seventh inning alone – two of which were dropped fly balls with two outs and the bases loaded. The opposing pitcher then proceeded to hit two of our guys and walk two more, which brought us to Mike’s at bat with the tying run on third and the winning run on second.

Mike did not hit that line drive that makes the world pauses, but he did his job. He slapped a grounder between short and third. At the U-15 level, just putting the ball in play is a positive. The chances of a team fielding, throwing, and catching the ball can’t be higher than sixty percent. Maybe that’s not the case in club ball, but it sure was the case in this city youth league.

With two outs, the runners were moving on contact, so even the easiest play for the shortstop on a grounder to his right – the force at third –would be bang-bang, and the already close playwas made more chaotic by our baserunner’s aversion to sliding until the last possible moment.  He hurdled towards third like a puppy, awaiting my instructions on what to do.

What to do was obvious. Slide! “Down! Down! Down!” I shouted, waving both hands at the ground.

There was a bit of a pileup between the runner and the third baseman. They fell over the bag into foul territory at my feet, and the third baseman dropped the ball. He picked it up and tagged the runner for the third out of the inning. Game over. We lost, 11-12.

Most folks at Rickey Henderson Field were OK the game was over – the parents, the players, and certainly the awaiting men’s league teams, who had begun trickling onto the field, eager to get their game started. There I was confronting Glen, the umpire who also happened to be a league coordinator and senior division all-star coach.

You, reader, ought to know a couple details before we dig into the argument that is about to unfold:

  1. I may have also given Glen a little business on another bad call at third base earlier in the game.
  2. Our team is undefeated at the time. It’s not everything, but a chance at perfection, no matter how minor, has value. It counts.
  3. It’s a safe bet my recollection of the conversation with Glen has me sound more succinct and stern, and generally quickeron my feet than how it actually played out. I’ll cop to that up front, but that’s the perk of my narrating the story.

“How is he out?” I asked.

“He’s out. Now don’t.”

“How?”

“Come on!”

Both hands are on my hips at this point. “Was he out on the force, or was he out on the tag?”

“He’s out.”

“Third base dropped the ball, Glen. If he’s out on the force, then you’re telling me third base dropped the ball after the play was over.”

The ump shook his head and tried to cut me off. He’d just umpired a three-hour youth game. He was done. I was not.

“Hold on, hold on, hold on. I’m just asking, because if he’s out on the tag after third base dropped the ball, then the force is no longer in effect. He did drop the ball, which is why he tagged my guy. If the force is no longer in play, then the lead runner crossing home plate before the out is recorded counts, and we have a tie ball game.”

I took a breath. “So was it on the force or the tag?”

He stared through me for a moment. “I didn’t see the dropped ball, OK. If you want, I can ask the base ump.”

Players were already packing up and walking off the field to their parents behind the backstop. The paunchy men’s leaguers with too many armbands were already playing catch in the outfield and trying to avoid the inevitable hamstring tweak by jogging across the outfield. There was zero chance I was going to ask the base ump, who I think was maybe fifteen, to weigh in and overturn a call that would restart the game. Did I mention we’d been playing for three hours? We didn’t deserve to win if we left it up to one call on a messy, weird play. I was already late for a going-away-party anyway.

Months later, I think about why I kept on the umpire? Of course I wanted to win the game. More than that, I wanted Mike to know the feeling of a walk-off hit, and that moment was over – impossible to get back – whether or not the game should have been. As a consolation, or perhaps a consequence, I wanted the ump to at least know he was wrong.

The truth is I’d already won. I’d spent the morning coaching a baseball team for the first time in 14 years.  It’s the best.

***

Before we proceed, you should know a few things about baseball and me.

Baseball is the first love that I discovered. I didn’t come from a “baseball family”. Nothing was expected of me within the context of baseball. I found the game, and I loved the game. Simple as that.

There are more moments of perfection in baseball than anything else I’ve come across in my life. That was the case when I was ten, and it remains true. The numb inertia of turning on an inside fastball. The sting of a scab rolling up your elbow on a headfirst slide into second. The smell of pine tar. The lethargic game of catch in shallow outfield before game two of a double-header. The heat and the dust and the smell of cut grass and the distant cigar all swirl around you like a spirit.

The game was everything to me until I accepted I wasn’t enough for it to be everything. I was still a teenager when I knew I was a college baseball player at best. Fast enough, big enough, powerful enough, quick enough. They all matter, and I didn’t possess enough of any of them, but ninety-five percent of baseball is about quickness. Power without quickness is easily neutralized. Speed without quickness doesn’t factor in too much in a game where bases are only 90 feet apart and the ball is always faster than the player. Size without speed, power, or quickness is just someone playing the wrong sport.

I was quick enough defensively, but as a hitter I couldn’t convince my body to wait for my mind to recognize the slider is actually darting eight inches outside of the strike zone. I couldn’t hold off from making an ugly, lunging swing off my front foot. Worse yet, I had just enough hand-eye coordination to put that pitcher’s pitch in play as a weak grounder to second base.

What followed college was a decade when I stashed baseball away like crumpled mementos of relationships past. The metaphor between baseball and life was cliché, and so were the lessons therein. The twenties version of me figured it was time to grow up. Gone was the kid with pictures of Kirby Puckett carefully torn from Sports Illustrated and taped to my bedroom walls.

I was busy writing a (bad) novel. I was playing in a (inexperienced) band. I was a young Minnesota dude living in San Francisco, dammit. There were women to meet, places to be, a life to live that would impress folks back home over the holidays. Baseball wasn’t in the script for this California odyssey.

I was a little up my own ass in my twenties, in case you hadn’t noticed. Me and a good chunk of you readers, but that’s ok.

Photographer most likely Amy Hansen.

From a catcher for the Minnesota Twins to the author of the next great American novel or – because I didn’t want to limit myself as merely the next great American novelist – the next Dylan. I had traded in one cliché aspiration for two somehow less likely clichéd aspirations. Turns out, that is not a terrible approach to enjoy your twenties.

I’m 36 now, and not long ago I came back to baseball. You grow up, and if you’ve lived a charmed life like I have, you are allowed to come full circle. You have the luxury to believe that the kid with Kirby Puckett pictures taped to the wall didn’t vanish after all, even when you realize that Puckett was just some flawed dude that was really good at a game and really bad to women.

Baseball remains the activity I have spent the most time doing in my life, the subject about which I know the most, and the “trade” in which I achieved the highest level of proficiency. But these are not good enough reason to come back to a childhood passion. The real gold lies in the lessons from the game. They translate to everything. This is not revelatory but for the fact that it’s actually not a bullshit line from a youth league registration pamphlet.

Kent Anderson’s Little League mantra – every ball’s coming to me, know what I’m going to do with it – remains the best professional, financial, relationship, and baseball advice I’ve ever come across.

***

Kent Anderson (left) popping the collar and John Traeger (right). Photo courtesy of Jay Kurtis. 

Kent, Tony, Jay, and Coach – I would not feel the way I do about baseball if it were not for these men. I got lucky with great coaches at pretty much every phase of my baseball life. From Little League through college, I had mentors that knew the game, could communicate the game, and fed my passion. In large part, they are the reason I think about baseball metaphors and axioms when I’m in a conference room listening to fluorescent lights buzz.

That said, I cannot gloss over the other implied truth. I also love the game because I didn’t suck at it when I was eight. More importantly, I was recognized as having some ability, and that recognition at an early age is everything. Think about how many of our interests or lifelong pursuits are launched by an early recognition of ability. A fourth grade teacher says a kid with low self-esteem has a knack for math. A music teacher tells a new trumpet player she has excellent tone. A baseball coach sees some raw talent in a swing and doesn’t over-coach.

There are thousands, if not millions, of solid Little Leaguers who never sniff high school ball, but there aren’t many kids who were terrible in Little League that stuck it out and became a varsity starter. A player must experience some success and recognition early on – even if it’s just one person who sees it – for even the hope of playing high school baseball.

Kent was the first coach to see it in me. We had a catch behind the batting cages at Bruce Russell field on Roselawn Avenue in Roseville, Minnesota. I was there with what felt like hundreds of other kids trying out for the Majors division, the competitive 6-team league for kids between ten and twelve years old. It being April in Minnesota, I remember it being grey and wet and blowing on my fingers to get some grip and circulation. And I remember the lines.

There were lines of kids strewn about the field – one wrapping around the batting cage, another in left field waiting on dads to hit decent fly balls so the kids could track down a deep one, spin, and throw a strike to the cut-off man. There was a line at shortstop for coaches to get a look at how kids fielded a grounder. Three pop-ups, three grounders, and ten swings in a batting cage. Sixteen opportunities to determine if you were one of the two dozen kids picked to play in the good league with real jerseys, a grass infield and a snack shack; if not, your destiny was all-dirt infields and t-shirt jerseys. Such is life.

What if the guy running the pitching machine spent six pitches adjusting the location during your turn? What if you got a bad hop fielding grounders? There is a fair amount of chance when you’re dealing with a sample size as small as a Little League tryout.

But there’s little left to chance in playing catch, a fact I’m sure wasn’t lost on Kent when he asked me to have a catch behind the batting cage. I’d guess we threw for five minutes. He asked me…hell, I don’t know what he asked me; I was excited. The coach of the best team in the league – the younger, non-dad coach who drove a red BMW convertible – was playing a real game of catch with me. He wasn’t looping them into me – he was throwing left-handed darts. I was catching with two hands, moving my feet, focusing on the center of his chest and trying to make the perfect throw on a line every time.  Kent was a lanky guy with a big frame surrounding his floppy glove. It was impossible to miss his target.

Kent drafted me to play on the Indians, which became the Red Sox when folks spoke up about the name. Kent and John Traeger’s team should’ve been the Yankees, as the Indians dominated the league for the better part of two decades. I am almost certain Kent and Traeger drafted me in part as result of that catch with Kent. It’s plain to me now why it was as important as any other part of the tryout.

When you play catch—the most fundamental component of the game—you can make all of the important assessments about a ten year-old’s ability to play and improve. How do the feet move? What’s the attention to detail and the ability to focus? Is the throwing motion natural? Does the kid catch the ballor stop the ball with his glove?  Is there a semblance of eagerness, of urgency? All of these questions can by answered just by playing catch with a kid.

You can coach a kid up in a lot of ways. You can teach him how to stay down on a grounder and throw a slurve. You can even teach hitting to a certain extent. But you can’t teach a kid to throw, and you can’t coach someone into caring about a game of catch.

Kent and Traeger’s Retirement Party invite from my mom and Kathy Kurtis. Note the lack of area codes on the phone numbers. A combined 55 years of coaching Little League. 

Kent coached Little League for eighteen years. His most reliable tools were simplicity, repetition, and clarity. In his quiet, stoic demeanor, he expected us to succeed and then we expected to succeed, and then—guess what—we succeeded. For a ten year-old to have that mindset rewarded with tangible results is a positive experience not easily forgotten. In my case, that mindset was rewarded time and time again throughout my baseball life. It’s no longer just a memory about making a great play or getting a clutch hit as a kid. That Little League lesson has come to define how I approach my day, my life.

My expectations haven’t changed since I was ten. I expect to succeed, for good things to happen to me. It’s astounding when I pause to think about it.

Twenty-six years later, I want Mike to know that same feeling. That’s why it matters if the runner at third was out on the force or on the tag. – PAL 

Photo c/o Jay Kurtis (third from the left, and one hell of a shortstop). I am the short kid next to Jay. I played outfield when I was ten and eleven. After that, it was only the tools of ignorance for me. 

Read Part II here

 

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4 thoughts on “On The Force Or On The Tag: Part I

  1. Pingback: On The Force or On The Tag: Part II | 1-2-3 SPORTS!

  2. Pingback: On the Force or the Tag: Part IV | 1-2-3 SPORTS!

  3. Pingback: On the Force or the Tag: Part V | 1-2-3 SPORTS!

  4. Pingback: On the Force or the Tag: Part III | 1-2-3 SPORTS!

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