On The Force or On The Tag: Part II

Read Part I of the series here.

Read Part III of the series here

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. 

This pic doesn’t do the field justice. Rickey Henderson Field is a treat. 

Goddamn, do I love being on a baseball field. It didn’t take very long into our first practice of the season for that realization to slap me across the face.

There is a rhythm to a baseball practice that folds perfectly into a long summer evening. Its signature characteristic is held in a pause, like that moment before a rocking chair returns forward, when momentum gathers. The pause is in every fundamental phase of the game. You can feel it in the moment between when a pitcher sets and starts his delivery. It’s right there, after an infielder releases a throw across the diamond to first to complete a double play. It’s with the outfielder, too, as he waits for the fly ball to drop after he tracked it down, his feet set to catch and throw back to the infield in one motion.

Once the techniques have been explained and strategy and positioning has become instinct, baseball practices come down to repeating the moments immediately preceding and following these pauses. That’s where the rhythm comes alive. 

But finding this rhythm with a team takes some time together. It takes – you guessed it – practice, and if there was one thing made clear to me when I had met with Glen, the league coordinator and umpire from part 1 of this series, it was that this league wasn’t about practice. Quite plainly, this league was about players getting in the requisite amount of games in order for the best of them to qualify to play in All-Star tournaments. The coach of said All-Star team: Glen.

A ten-game season with no more than a practice or two with fifteen year olds who weren’t playing travel ball (as I understood at the time)?  I hauled the jerseys and equipment bag to the back field at Caldecott, genuinely worried that I was about to coach kids who had no interest in the game but had agreed to play one more season only after their parents insisted that they “had to do something this summer” or get a job.

And what All-Star league were we even talking about here? It’s hard to keep track of all of the leagues in youth baseball. There are leagues named after Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken; there are leagues associated with veteran organizations (the V.F.W., American Legion); there’s AAU and the post-Little League divisions of Little League. And then there’s club ball.

Had I been asked to coach a team, or was about to oversee a five-week tryout?  

I hung the uniforms on the fence, noting the the absence of uniformity in youth sports. But that was OK, because I also had an unused, homemade fungo bat that a woodworking buddy of mine had given to me.

Hand on the bible – I was as excited to use this new fungo as I was to meet the players. Hitting a grounders and fly balls with a wooden fungo puts the soul at ease. Some garden. Some meditate. Some drink. Give me hitting fungos for my mental health.

As the first of the players meandered back to the field, I knew that I had to make some concessions immediately. I was a stranger – to the players and the league – and this was casual baseball. Five weeks, ten games. We didn’t have time to start from beginning on anything. I wasn’t building a program, but I didn’t just want to only fill in a lineup card either. I would have to find that middle ground as I went.

The view of the San Francisco Bay from up near the Caldecott Tunnel on a summer evening is postcard material. It’s one of those moments that washes away any gripes about the cost of living, the tech soul-sucking, and general superiority complex that come with the Bay Area. The sun inches down into the Pacific and behind San Francisco far off on the horizon, and you fall for the beauty of it all for the ten thousandth time.

The fields at Caldecott, however, were dreadful. They were depressing, dry, deserted landfills of bad hops and knee injuries. There were those little colored flags the power company uses to indicate buried wired littering the outfield. I was told that a water pipe had burst up by the fields, which led to a dispute between I believe Parks & Rec Department and the Utility District. As they argued, every blade of grass on the field had shriveled and died, and every gopher within a 100-mile radius helped tunnel out the entire outfield. The fields were beyond repair. A million dollar view wasted over a busted water pipe.

Beautiful view. Bad photo. Dangerous field. 

It was with that marvel of a backdrop and on that lawsuit of a field where I met six of my players. The Warriors were playing in the NBA Finals that night, so the other eight guys on the team didn’t show. It was an optional practice. Like I said, casual baseball.

  • Larry  (C, P)
  • Ricky (LHP, 1B)
  • Abe (OF, P)
  • Steve (3B, P)
  • Bill (Utility, P)
  • Hank (SS, P)

In their minds they were all pitchers, anyway. They saw the new coach as an opportunity get an inning or two in before I would realize they were imposters. As far as I could tell, we had one pitcher for sure: Ricky, the tall lefty with a whip of an arm*.

It didn’t take long for my concerns about the players’ collective interest to dissipate. I knew we were going to be just fine halfway through our warmup game of catch. These guys knew what they were doing. They weren’t there out of obligation. They enjoyed playing the game – it was evident in how they carried themselves. They knew each other, and they at least knew to play catch in the outfield. I could work with this!

We had one hour, which is 45 minutes after warming up, and we were going to spend it getting as many swings, field as many grounders, and shag as many fly balls as possible.  There were two options of how we could approach the practice: reps or situations, and we simply didn’t have time to work on situational defenses like bunt coverages, first-and-third plays, and tandem cuts. Hell, we needed to review the most obvious signs for bunt (belt), steal (sleeve), and hit-and-run (both sleeves) before we could to worry about middle infield read plays.

I hit fungos with my new bat and threw batting practice in the cage. It was sublime to be back in that paused rhythm – it was in the batting cage and across the infield. 

crack hit a grounder

hop hop hop

field grounder, set

throw then catch

crack hit a grounder

hop hop hop

field grounder, set

throw then catch

 

Give me a Gatorade, a bag of seeds, and a five-gallon bucket of balls and leave me to it. I’ll throw batting practice until it’s too dark to see.  

I should point out that there were two other volunteer coaches on this team: Jeff and Paul. Like me, they were in their 30s (maybe younger) and had no prior affiliation with the league. Super smart guys and enthusiastic, but I don’t know how much baseball they played growing up. Quite honestly, a they had a hard time throwing a baseball smoothly, they had an even harder time hitting fungos, and I would find out at our first game that neither of them knew how to keep a scorebook. It was never discussed, but I just assumed head coaching duties from the jump.

Paul couldn’t make the first practice, so Jeff (a lefty) and I switched off throwing BP and hitting infield/outfield to the guys. With six players, it worked perfectly: two guys would hit in the cage while the other four players took grounders and fly balls.

I was standing behind the protective L-screen in the cage when I looked over to see Jeff choking halfway up my brand new, homemade fungo. He was hitting balls off the end of the bat. He was hitting handle shots. I was sure that the next swing would be the last and the thin-handled bat would crack, breaking my heart along with it. I would find out at the end of practice that Jeff had popped a blister while using the fungo. His blood was splattered up the handle.

The Matt Scanlan fungo (@scatmanlan), complete with some blood specs up at the top of the taped handle. 

Bleeding blisters and terrible field aside, the practice was a complete success. There was some talent on the team, but I was more encouraged by the personalities amongst those six player. I wouldn’t say any of them were confident – a little cocky, sure, but what fifteen year-old is truly confident? Instead, they wanted to be confident. They weren’t afraid to ask me about the Warriors-Cavs NBA Finals, or crack a sarcastic joke. If guys missed a grounder, they asked for another one before I moved onto the next guy.

I could work with that.

I had come to the practice worried about all the crap outside of the lines. The act of running the most basic of practices reminded me what matters is throwing BP and hitting grounders and, even if for just a moment, finding that rhythm with the players. I also left knowing what I could effectively coach in ten games: I would reinforce that desire in them to be confident, and do so enthusiastically.

***

Coach the practice, manage the game.

Show me a coach yelling out adjustments to the hitter in between pitches and I’ll show you a guy that could never hit or can’t remember what it feels like to be overmatched at the plate. Show me a coach that thinks the secret to getting a kid to throw strikes is to yell at him to throw strikes, and I’ll show you a team that’s tuned out its coach.

As a whole, a baseball game is slow, but it’s won or lost in moments of complex intricacy and bursts of speed. A player has to be loose, quick, and precise at the same time. In other words, baseball is are about reacting. Consider all of the body movement that goes into a pitching delivery. Every part of the body – from toes to fingertips – needs to be in sync in order to hit a specific portion of the strike zone. A pitcher might have a mantra, but he’s not thinking through every speck of his delivery on every pitch

Or consider the timing and hand-eye coordination needed to, as Ted Williams put it, hit a round ball with a round bat squarely. Then imagine trying to do that while the coach yells about watching for the curveball moments before the pitch.  

Someone can’t simultaneously react and think about how to react. The how – the coaching and instruction – takes place before the game. You study before the test. During the game, a coach manages the situation, and players react. Bad coaches coach during the game.

Before our first game, I promised the guys I wouldn’t coach during the game. We could talk situations between innings, but I would not instruct the players on pitching or hitting. I remember calmly making that point, but I was so damn excited.

To begin, Rickey Henderson Field (pictured at the top of this post) was the opposite of our practice field. Some of the real heros of youth baseball are the grouchy maintenance guys or the retired volunteers who make it their daily mission to maintain a beautiful ballfield. These fellas are uptight about things like properly folding a tarp, but one cannot argue with the results. It’s more than worth it in exchange for the joy of playing on a diamond with a lush green infield and a clay mound. Buy your local version of this guy a beer the next time you see him. Get him a nice cigar.

I had seen six of our players at practice the night before, but amongst all of them I had the worst idea of who should play where and bat when in the lineup. These guys had been playing against each other or together for years, so I handed the scorebook to the the first player to show up – Mikey – and told him to fill it out. We won 11-0, so I think Mikey had it right.

We made one error and walked no more than four batters. Five extra base runners is not that bad for a youth team. The other team gave us ten extra base runners – five walks and five errors. 

I didn’t do much in that game. There’s not a ton to manage when you’re up big and your pitchers are throwing strikes. Best thing a coach can do in that situation is grab a handful of seeds, let the guys play, and keep track of a good thing and a thing to work on for each player.  

One player in particular stood out. Bill pitched the first four innings and hit cleanup. His body was growing faster than he could keep up with, and every part of his game had some grunt to it. My kind of player. He went up to the plate to drive something. He toed the rubber to strike the batter out. I was embarrassed that it took me – a lifelong catcher – until the last game of the season to realize this guys was a born catcher. He had the mentality for it, and most guys don’t. 

The second game of the weekend was far less of a lean back affair. We were down to the rich kids with coordinated bat bags until our last at-bat. Strikeouts absolutely killed us, especially with runners on base. You have to make the opponent make a play in the field. Again, the odds of a team fielding a ball, making an accurate throw, and catching that throw in time to get a runner hustling out of the box cannot be more than sixty – maybe seventy percent – in youth baseball.

It was a close game, and I felt my old player juices goings. There was some chirping going on from the other team’s bench as Ricky was dealing, striking out pretty much everyone in his relief appearance. It was remarkable their bench was talking shit while their teammates struck out. Also remarkable was how easily I let this chirping get to me and how quickly I forgot that I was twenty-one years older than the players.

After he ended the inning with another strikeout, I met Ricky at the foul line with a fist bump and more or less told him that’s how you shove it up their asses.

I have no problem with the sentiment of my message to Ricky. That is how you shut up a bench. The way I communicated it was something else – that was me chasing a feeling of being a player. I loved those moments of friction back in the day, but those are the types of games-within-the-game that players own. Coaches need not apply.  

Of course there are times when a coach showing his competitive fire can wake a team up. This was just not one of those times.

It wasn’t until Jim’s two-out, opposite field double off of the fence that we got a run across. It was a 3-1 count, so he sat on fastball. Most impressive is that he didn’t try to pull the outside pitch on a 3-1 count. Not many teenagers are looking for something out over the plate to drive the other way. The other team called timeout after his hit, so we were able to chat quick chat.

I asked “how did that feel?”

He shook his head, smiled, and said “unbelievable!”

Hell yeah, it did.

We ended up winning the game 5-4, scoring three runs in the bottom of the seventh thanks to two errors, two hit batsman, and two walks. You can’t make this up, folks.

I left the field knowing I had a good group of guys. I also left the field shocked. Not one of our players at the first two games knew how to keep a scorebook**. This would not, could not continue. 

Most of all, I left thinking about Tony Lang and Jay Rabeni (my brother and brother-in-law). These guys made coaching look fun.

***

Joy, enthusiasm, and garbage bag jackets. Tony Lang (first coach on the left) and Jay Rabeni (second coach from the right). These two kept the game fun at all times. Yours truly (first row, first on the left) was still mourning the end of of Kirby Puckett’s playing career, as indicated by the ’34’ on my hat. Dave, Sr. is the super tall pitching coach and dad to Big Dog (the super tall kid). John Kurtis (last coach on the right), older brother of Jay (middle row, first from the right) also helped out that year. 

Looking back on it, Tony and Jay were just pups in their mid-twenties when they coached our team for three years growing up (ages 13-15). If wealth was measured in zest, then I haven’t come across wealthier men than Tony and Jay when they coached.

They were great because they loved it as much as us players did. When Tom Stanoch would glide over and make yet another diving play in centerfield, it was all Jay could do to keep himself from running out there and giving him a high five in the middle of the game. When Jay Kurtis and Elmer made another double-play look routine, Tony was pimping it on their behalf from the dugout, saying something along the lines of “too easy.”

I think back to our practices, and it was all about reps. About that rhythm. Infielders would take grounders for half an hour, outfielders would be working on their angles until dusk had turned to just plain night. Hitting was an assembly line of drills. We would alternate between soft-toss, reverse toss, back toss, two-tee drill, and live pitching in the cage. Dave, Sr., the manager and dad to Big Dog, would be concocting his next Tom Seaver lecture/demonstration with the pitchers off on the side. And so it went, the same practice, more or less, for three years. It was the best.

Photo courtesy of Matt Lang. A lot time spent in these cages growing up.

There were a lot of elements that went into making that team the most fun I ever had playing baseball. The parents genuinely liked each other and were swept up in Tony and Jay’s enthusiasm just like us player. The players appreciated each and every guy on the roster. We were’t all best friends, but we were a team. It also helped that we were just young enough so that no one was really worried about the next step. But at the center of this was Tony and Jay’s enthusiasm. Everyone could see how much they loved being there. It was infectious.

But here’s the thing – as passionate and enthusiastic as they were – neither Jay nor Tony ever lost sight of the game’s relative importance. It was always a game. It was game to win, to improve, and to take pride in; but it was always a game.

A couple stories come to mind when I think about them as coaches.

Timmy Fisher is on the mound pitching at Concordia Academy. I’m catching, and I had caught Timmy since we were in Little League on Kent’s team. At that point I know him as a pitcher backwards and forwards. When Tim had it going, he just found outs. For all of you Giants fans, he had a little Johnny Cueto to his game with the variations to the delivery, which is hilarious when you consider Timmy was fifteen.

When Timmy didn’t have it going, he’d let anything distract him, whether it was the umpire’s zone, the state of the mound, a button on his jersey. Timmy also didn’t understand the notion of a filter. He acted on how he felt 100% of the time.

So the game at Concordia is not going well and Timmy’s throwing a bit of a tantrum on the mound. Tony comes out to pull him. Timmy doesn’t even wait for Tony to get to the top of the mound. Instead, he drops the ball and walks off, passing Tony on his way to the dugout. A stern conversation in the dugout no doubt followed, but I remember Tony laughing about it shorty after the incident. It was a such a Timmy reaction, and only he could make that funny. Tony didn’t take it as an affront to his coaching. Timmy disrespected him – yes – but Tony knew it wasn’t about him. Timmy was just pissed off and he hadn’t learned how to sit in that without doing something stupid. 

Jay was the same way, too. He got into Eric Wikstrom one time for not sliding into third on a close call. I mean, Jay was in Wik’s earhole, rated R style, giving him everything he had, but I can’t imagine Wik ever questioning whether or not Jay liked him. Not for a second.

I know they taught us technique and refined our approach, and thinking back on it I am astonished at the amount of time they gave to that team (we must have played 35 games a summer at least), but no specific tips remain as clear as much the joy. The joy we had playing for them and the the joy they had coaching us.

I come across players and parents from that team every now and again when I’m back home. Hell, Jim Sabean, Jesse’s dad, recently knocked on my parents’ door one afternoon while he was working on a power outage down the street. The memories from those summers always come up. They come up quickly, and always with a smile. – PAL 

Read Part I of the series here.

Read Part III of the series here

A couple notes here (as if I haven’t written enough): 

In the overview of this series, I make it a point to call out the importance of my having no prior affiliation with any of the players and the league in which I coached. Obviously, that was not the case with Tony and Jay. You might think I’m cutting it both ways here, but I do think there is something different in an older sibling coaching. What I know is true, and what I know the players and parents from that team will tell you is that Tony and Jay were there for all of the kids.

I also want to call out that Tony and I spent my entire youth in the cage and working on defensive catching drills. Jay would throw to me, and so would my other brother Matt. All of them were so generous with their time, because all I wanted to do was go up to that cage and hit. This series isn’t about the bond of brothers over baseball. Maybe that’s what I should write about next, but this series is about coaching teams, not just me. – PAL

Additional footnotes:

*Ricky told me later in the that he could catch. My response was he had two responsibilities on this team: throw cheddar and hit nukes (this came right after the LSU’s Todd Peterson made headlines by lying to his coach about hitting in high school in order to get an at bat in a key college game)

** Hank, who wasn’t at the first two games, did know how to keep a book and restored a shred of my faith in young baseball players.

 

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3 thoughts on “On The Force or On The Tag: Part II

  1. Pingback: On The Force Or On The Tag: Part I | 1-2-3 SPORTS!

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

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

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