On the Force or the Tag: Part IV

On The Force or 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 earlier sections:

Photo c/o Jay Kurtis (third from left, back row of players). Youth All-Star teams leave an amusing footprint. At least six of the players from my ten year-old “All-Star” team (if you can even call it that at such a young age) didn’t play baseball by the time they were in high school. I’m first from the left, front row.


The league coaches were to meet at a cafe after our Sunday game – game eight of the season – to discuss all-star selections. Despite there being a vintage sports bar with the sturdy name George & Walt’s no more than half a mile away, we were to meet at a cafe at four in the afternoon. Is there anything more Berkeley than that?

After a close win earlier that day, our team had improved to 7-1 on the year. Larry, our catcher, even hit a no-doubter home run to left. I couldn’t have been happier with the players. They were starting to pick up on how I managed a game – always the aggressor, always putting the pressure on the other team to make plays – and guys were seeing the same opportunities I saw. Hank didn’t need to be told to try to drop down a bunt for a hit. Abe would give me a look while he took his lead from second base, as if to say “They ain’t holding me, coach…” I’d give him a quick nod and he’d steal a bag.

We were getting to know each other’s tendencies just as the season was coming to an end. I was also just getting a sense of where the guys was as a players – what their strengths were and how I could help their weaknesses. I wish we had ten more games and a dozen practices. I walked to the cafe with best guesses on all-star selections and no understanding of the inner workings and politics of the league. At least I had the latter.

By the grace of god, the cafe was closed. We found an Italian restaurant with a circular table in the front corner and ordered a round of beers. The Five Families, it was not. Glen, the ump from Part I, coach of the green team, and coach of the all-star team, was running the show. There was Bobby, the coach of the grey team and local high school athletic director, and two other dads that helped with the All-Star Team. I can’t remember meeting them prior to the all-star selection.

The great thing about sport is that it’s a meritocracy. That’s the bullshit line they feed you. In reality, there is nepotism, politics, and cliques at every level of baseball (and every other sport), from coach pitch all the way to the professionals.

There was a dad up the cul-de-sac from where I grew up that stacked a coach-pitch team. I was nine. Brothers, fathers, relatives of elite players magically find jobs within organizations or take up roster spots in the minor league system. Jake Mauer, older brother of Joe Mauer, was drafted in the 23rd round by the Minnesota Twins the same year Joe was the number one overall pick coming out of high school. Jake was an excellent D-III player, but hit .256 with 0 home runs and 82 RBI in over 1,000 minor league at bats spread across five seasons. Was another team really going to draft a D-III position player in the middle rounds? In basketball, does Austin Rivers get as long of a leash in the NBA if his dad isn’t Doc Rivers, his coach and GM? We all know the reality here.

And yet I walked into the selection meeting holding onto this cliche – sport is a meritocracy.

Glen started the meeting by informing us what positions were already filled unless we had any objections. He had this tick where he’d nod along to his own words when he spoke, and he always had this matter-of-fact tone that would trick me into almost agreeing with him. He could say something like, “You know, the Mazda Miata is a hell of a sports car,” and for a fraction of a second, because I wasn’t really listening in the first place, I’d start to nod before catching myself.

To be fair, he was coaching the team and he had the final say, but it was the exact opposite tone that ought to be set for a meeting like that. I barely knew my team; I was not going to start cutting down players from other teams.

Glen also also found a way to work into the conversation that this group of all-stars was one win away from the World Series last year.

I heard “World Series” and my instinct was to think that must be good, but I caught myself.

I finally realized he was talking about capital ‘L’ Little League. Our players were 14 and 15 – they were are a couple years removed from the games ESPN airs from Williamsport. Turns out Little League has divisions all the way up to 16 year-olds.

As I mentioned in previous sections, after the traditional Little League (10-12 year olds) there are a bunch of leagues teenagers play in. Club teams also really start proliferating at this age, so I didn’t know whether or not the team’s previous success was impressive. Was it the equivalent of the NIT, the NCAA, or a made up tournament that’s an excuse to get 16 teams from across the country to fly to some random town for a week and stay at a Holiday Inn with a water park next to it*. I couldn’t be exactly sure where this league fell on the competition spectrum, but there was zero chance it represented anything close to top tier baseball for 14 and 15 year olds. There were some solid players, but there was just no way.

I will give Glen credit; the dude was not afraid. At one point pretty early on he told Bobby plainly that Bobby’s son wasn’t going to make the team. At first, Bobby agreed, saying that it was his kid’s fault anyway. He had struggled with his grades and hadn’t played ball until the league started.

It was a refreshing response that quickly soured. Within twenty minutes Bobby had pivoted his son’s lack of playing from a weakness to an untapped potential. He sprinkled in his case for Junior to make the team as the conversation meanered between roster decisions and last year’s team being, you know, one game away from the World Series.

If AJ was going to be the shortstop, then Junior might actually not be a bad choice at second since they played together already. They turn a nice double play.

He really is  just getting into form and was surely going to be better in the all-star tournament.

He does better against better pitching.

I’ll say one thing – you won’t be hearing from his dad if he’s sitting on the bench.

I sat back and enjoyed the show, noting that not one guy questioned whether or not Glen’s son was in fact the best catcher in the league. Glen’s son was a perfectly fine player, but I’d seen Bill (not our usual catcher) catch three innings for us in the game earlier that day and it was clear he was already a better catcher than Glen’s son, who also happened to be left-handed**.

In that moment, I failed. I should’ve asked the table, “Are we sure Glen’s son is the best catcher?” For all of the parents who spend their summers watching the coach’s kid hit lead-off, for all the kids who take their turn sitting out innings while the coach’s son somehow avoids it in all the meaningful games, for the grandparents who drive to god-knows-where to some god-awful tournament to watch their little lamb of love get two at-bats all tournament – for all of them, I should’ve asked.

I wimped out, and before long it was my turn to make a case for my guys. Maybe that’s the tax we pay the moms and dads that volunteer all of their extra time to coaching.

“Right off the bat, these are the guys on my team that I think earned it,” I said. “I’m not looking at what positions are up for grabs. These guys played best in the eight games I’ve coached.”

“OK, but we have specific needs.” Glen nodded along to his own words. “Honestly, we’re just looking to fill a couple spots.”

“I’m going to tell you who played well, and you can do what you want with that.”

I made my selections.

“How the hell is Larry not even up for a nomination?” Glen asked.

I knew it was coming. Larry’s home run earlier that day guaranteed this was coming. The kid made solid contact for the third time all season and all of a sudden I am an idiot for not nominating him for the all-star team.

As a catcher, he was passable in all areas but didn’t stand out in any. Glen’s left-handed son was a bit better than Larry behind the plate. Again, this was an assessment based off of 8 games and one practice, so I’m not saying Larry didn’t have talent or the ability to be a very good catcher. I’m just saying I hadn’t seen it at that point.  

There were the obvious choices – Ricky, Bill, Abe – and then there were the secondary guys – Jim, Hank, Steve.  I also nominated Mikey, a clear second tier guy. He was a versatile player that could give some innings on the mound, play multiple infield positions, and he’d always battle at the plate.  

Glen was surprised, then said flatly, “that’s great to hear.” He hemmed and hawed, and the imminent ‘but’ hung like a rain cloud ready to burst.

“We just had some problems with Mikey’s dad in previous years.”

There it was.

“What kind of problems?” I asked. The smell of bullshit was as strong as a bag of rotten lettuce.

“You know, wanting to know if his kid was going to play in a particular game. Complaining about playing time. Stuff like that.”

“I couldn’t tell you who Mikey’s dad is,” I said. “So no issues this year, for what it’s worth.”

Bobby jumped in. “I don’t have time for parents like that. Life’s too short.”

Was it a coincidence that Mikey could play second, just like Bobby’s son, as well as pitch?

“Plus, he’s not available from July 9-13, and that’s the first week of our tournament games, so…”

I conceded that it was Glen’s team, but I reiterated that Mikey could play a versatile role on a team that would be playing a bunch of games in a short amount of time, and that other players being considered would be missing time as well.

“What about Zack?” Glen asked.

Zack was a left-handed hitter who always wore an Orioles t-shirt under his jersey. You could see all the tools and the mentality to be a key player on a solid team, and he was the only one to show up for a voluntary batting practice session earlier that week, but there was no way around it – he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat in the month we’d been playing. His hitting was obviously correctable – he wrapped his bat on the load and landed on a straight front leg on his stride –  but there was simply no way he earned a spot on an all-star team this season.

His father, a really nice guy who saved my ass by keeping the book during the games, just so  happened to be the on the league board.

I articulated Zack’s struggles at the plate and his lack of a distinct position. Glen told me he could see Zack play the same role he did on last year’s team (the team that was one game away from the World Series) as a pinch bunter and runner for late-game situations.

I held back a laugh. I came into the meeting confident it would be some measure of a farce, but it was at this moment – the moment when I was being sold the merits of a pinch bunter on an all-star team – when I realized exactly how much of a waste of time this was.

It wasn’t long after when the waiter came by and asked if anyone needed another beer. The group hesitated.

“I’d love another Lagunitas,” I said. The other dads, looking for an excuse to say yes, joined in. If I was going to sit through this meeting, I might as well have another beer while it happens.

Pic c/o Jim Lang. The Lions Club All-Star Tournament was an honor. A self-contained weekend tournament at the Chaska Athletic Park in Chaska, MN (one of the best fields in the entire state, pictured below). If you look closely, you’ll see a bleach job under my cap. 

 

No, baseball is not a meritocracy, but it has the same shape as one.

Here’s the truth: baseball is a meritocracy for Tier One players. Their skills outshine the politics, cliques, and all other forms of youth sports poison. There’s never a debate about Tier One players like Ricky, Bill, Abe.

The meritocracy crumbles when we get to those Tier Two players – Mikey, Hank, Jim, Zack, Steve. Adults start pulling up bullshit about parents (not the kids) or thin rationale like pinch running or bunting ability. It’s pathetic to hear an adult use flawed logic to crap on a kid.

What about putting Mikey on the team based on how he played this season instead of keeping him off the team because of what his dad did in previous seasons?

Put in the right situation, Tier Two players make good teams great. Put in the wrong situation, Tier Two players quit before high school.

Hovering above all of this is a universal sports truth people forget all of the time. Tier One kids rarely stay Tier One throughout their teenage years. Tier Two players can become Tier One over the course of a single season. Kids fizzle. They grow at different times. Their interests change. Coaches – good and bad – will label a kid, and that will stick to him far longer than it should.

I was lucky enough to be taught the expectation of success when I was ten years old. If I did my job, then I’d be in a moment to succeed. We would practice those moments, and success would come more times than not. This is the single most valuable piece of baseball I carry with me to this day. When parents and coaches start horsetrading for a meaningless all-star team, they are messing with that equation of success for the Tier Two guys, and that’s where meritocracy is most needed***.

The selection meeting was an odd way to cap an otherwise great week. Joe pitched his ass off for four innings in a close game. To see a young lefty like that pitch backwards – using his off-speed stuff to get ahead early in the count, then freeze hitters with a well-placed, two-strike fastball – is uncommon. He knew he had something special going, and it was a treat to cheer him on as his dad watched from over my shoulder.

I was able to work one-on-one in the cage with Zack for an hour on Friday and actually coach. Before that hitting session I had wondered if Zack was losing interest in the game and going through the motions a bit, but I learned that he was just down because he was struggling at the plate. He was there to get better, and he left the cages with a much improved swing that day.

I got to see Bill catch, and immediately realized he was supposed to be catching all along.

Those were the moments that mattered to me. Those are the reasons you want to coach, but I know that making the all-star team mattered to the kids, and that’s why that meeting was the worst part of coaching this past summer.  

***

Larry hit a bomb to left on the sandlot-esque field in the game before all-star selections. Guess who’s name came up at the all-star meeting? Talk about recency bias. 

Let’s assume for a moment that this season started differently. Instead of receiving a roster a few days before the first game, let’s pretend there was a tryout, and I filled the role of Kent Anderson playing catch with kids. What kind of players would I look for? How would I assemble a team at the fourteen and fifteen year-old level?

First off, I would need a small roster. Give me twelve players, then everyone – players, coaches, parents – knows that all the players are going to get plenty of time on the field. I eliminate a source of stress and awkward conversations right away. If the kid makes the team, the kid’s going to play a lot. I never understood having a big roster at the youth level.

I’d put together a team of guys that can pick it in the field and pitch over guys who can swing it. A team can manufacture more than enough runs to win at the high school level. I want a team that takes away hits, extra bases, and runs.

I’d look for versatile players, which is obvious when you consider I’d only have three guys on my bench. I’d coach them to be very good at one position and at least know what’s going on at a second position. Substitutions are way overused in the youth game (no doubt due in part to rosters that are too big). It is so often the case that baseball players get locked into one position at an early age and never learn how to play somewhere else. Just because a kid caught when he was eleven does not mean he should be the de facto catcher when he’s fifteen. This rigidity has never made sense to me. This also makes for a more interesting summer for players. Specialization in youth sports is boring and absurd.  

Aside from starting pitching, I’d need five or six kids that can throw strikes and give me an inning here or there. Give me a guy with a live arm and we can teach him to spot a fastball and mix-in a changeup. 

My three best defensive players would play catcher, shortstop, and centerfield, regardless of where they played in previous seasons. I also would not stick a liability at first base. A first baseman can save a lot of extra bases at the high school level.

We would be the aggressors in all phases of the game, especially on the basepaths. We would make the other team execute under pressure.

At the high school level (call it ages 14-18), the game’s currency is bases. A walk equals an extra base (more if there are already base runners) for the offense and against the defense. An error, a missed cutoff, taking the wrong angle on a ball in the gap – these all lead to extra bases. Sure, there are teams out there that can rip at the plate, but the vast majority of games are won in part due to the giving or preventing of extra bases.   

With that in mind, I’d keep track of the following stats:

  • Team, Individual On Base Percentage (OBP)
  • Team, Individual Fielding Percentage
  • Team, Individual Strikeouts (hitters)
  • Walks + Hits / Innings Pitched (WHIP)
  • Team +/- (think of it like hockey or basketball)
    • Team Extra Bases Given (errors, walks, missed cut-offs, etc.)
    • Team Extra Bases Taken

In practices, I would channel Tony and Jay and we’d get into the rhythm of reps: double-plays in the infield, tracking fly balls in the outfield. Tee work, soft toss, cage work. I’d like for each player to get fifty swings and fifty defensive reps every practice. I’d channel Kent and drill team defense until it became a choreographed dance with all nine players moving based on where the ball is hit. We’d also make sure to take BP on the field at least once a week and crank the tunes loud, because there is nothing better than a pocket full of sunflower seeds, jamming to some tunes and shagging batting practice.

Practices would never be longer than ninety minutes.

And in the games, I’d take Coach Holm’s lead and trust my players. I’d manage the game, but I’d enjoy the hell out of having a an up close view of them taking control of a ball game.

Maybe it was dumb luck, or maybe Glen was nice to the new coaches afterall, because if I was able to put together a team, it wouldn’t look all that different from the team I was able to coach this year. – PAL

Read Part V: “The Other Coach”

Footnotes:

* Per the Little League site: “The culmination of the International Tournament is the Senior League Baseball World Series, featuring teams from around the world. All expenses for the teams advancing to the World Series (travel, meals and housing) are paid by Little League International.”

**Here’s a great article that attempts to explain why there are zero left-handed catchers in Major League Baseball.

***Our team had 6 players play on the All-Star Team. Mikey was not one of them. Larry and Zack did make the team, which won the Northern California tournament before losing out in the Western Regional.

****After reading Part II (link below) Jay texted Tony and me the following:

..I would literally be staring at the clock in my  office willing time to move faster so I could bolt out a 5:00 and get to practice or a game. Loved every second I coached that team. Loved the way Tony managed a game and prepared practice to maximize time. One of my favorite memories was bribing you guys to be better bunters using Big Macs in concentric circles with $1, $5, $10 distances to get you guys to focus. Will never forget going to McDonald’s with Tony to order 22 Big Macs…

Catch up on the previous sections: 

Part I, Part II, Part III

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3 thoughts on “On the Force or the Tag: Part IV

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

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

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