Tuesday, June 17, 2008


In Which We Play to Our Strengths...

Well, my fellow Tweeters got an early alert, but last night was the final game in the tournament for my son's Little League team. Thomas's team, the Reds, showed great promise early in the season--power hitting and some solid pitching. But long about mid-season, when the rains started and games were delayed, they lost their momentum and ended up in the basement (and in these parts, that's a mighty soggy basement).

Thomas in particular seemed to suffer a crisis of confidence. His pitching turned sour in his second turn on the mound and the coach never put him back in there. When Thomas asked if he'd have a chance to pitch any more, the coach answered, "I don't think so, Thomas. We're coming up on the tournament and I've got to start playing people to their strengths. Do you understand?"

(I just happened to be clinging to the outside wall of the dugout like a howler monkey and so overheard everything.)

Thomas understood. There are three absolutely outstanding pitchers on the team--two of them devastating lefties. With practice, Thomas might improve, but there wasn't enough time this season.

And then the coach demonstrated why he's such a good coach.

"So, Thomas, what are your strengths?"

My son looked up. "I'm good in the field." He said.

"No, you're great in the outfield," he answered. "You know how many players on this team have consistently shagged flies from deep left and center? Only you. Last game, when that ball went over third base's head and it looked like the other team would score, who dug it out like a hero and snagged the ball, Thomas? You're a solid infielder too, so I'll probably alternate you between outfield and shortstop or second. Okay?" Thomas allowed that was okay.

I've had some mild arguments with other parents over the increasing competitiveness of baseball as the kids age, but I have to say, 9 years old is just about the right age to be exposed to the rigor of competition, to start facing up to some limitations, and realizing that in life others are going to make judgments about you and place restrictions on you. I'm not saying the coach was right in his opinion about my son and his potential or strengths. I'm just saying it's not a bad age to be faced with some challenges, such as resolving to excel in an area and change the opinions of others, or resolving to play to your strengths and absolutely own that thing at which you already excel.

Growing up, I tended to be the former. I hated it when people pigeonholed me. I often misconstrued it as being underestimated (which was not always true) and so became obsessed with proving people wrong. But as time has gone on, I've come to accept the joy and pride that can come from honing what gifts you may have (large or small) and learning to master them. Thomas, already wiser than his old man in that regard, opted to play to his strengths.

So we've spent many nights practicing in the back yard, me throwing impossible fly balls every whichaway, pegging line drives, lobbing awful bouncing grounders at him. Thomas's outfield instincts are generally pretty solid for his age, but he recognized that for infield work, he was going to have to be less timid about getting in front of the ball, and definitely more aggressive about tagging runners. As the season wore on, the opposing teams were becoming increasingly belligerent, sliding with spikes out, runners deliberately charging basemen to get them to drop the ball, that sort of thing. During a mid-season game as shortstop, Thomas had been knocked a good one in the hip by a churlish little thug from the Yankees and it left a mark on him in more ways than one.

As we headed into tournament play, things looked difficult for the Reds. They had sunk so far in the standings that they were going to have to win every game they played in order to make it to the final round of the tournament, which was not a handicap for some of the higher ranked teams, who could afford to lose at least one or as much as two games and still have some wiggle room for advancement. But over the course of the past two weeks, my son's teams did phenomenally well, winning every game. Until Saturday, when they lost--and lost hard--to another team.

We thought that was the end, but then something unexpected happened: another team dropped out of the tournament for reasons that have yet to be made clear to me--one rumor held that one of the coaches went nuts on an umpire or one of the parents and the team was barred from the tourney, but another rumor (I think this the more likely one) is that too many of the players were going away on summer vacation and the team no longer had enough players to play.

Whatever the reason, it created an odd little hiccup in the standings, which was resolved by allowing Thomas's team into what was now a two-game final round. In the first game, the top two teams would duke it out for first and second place. In the second game, Thomas's team, the underdogs by a long way, would get to play for third or fourth place. Although, of course, we all know there is no fourth place. Fourth place is the goat, man.

Oh, and just to make it interesting, they were going to be playing against the Yankees.

"Oh, they're so mean and rough, Dad," Thomas told me one night not long before the game. "I hope coach keeps me in the outfield. I don't want to be anywhere near Number 6--that guy who hit me before."

Kind, loving Dad that I am, I responded, with all the compassion I could muster, "Hey buddy, you gotta man up and be aggressive. You gonna let some nose-breathing Yankee own you?" I asked. Clearly, I've been a Red Sox fan for far too long.

For some reason, my son, who is an anxious child, did not take quite as much comfort in this counsel as I had hoped, and so I had to temper it by reminding him to play to his strengths, just as his coach had been telling him, to trust in the countless hours of practice we'd spent together in the back yard.

"And don't be afraid of the ball when you're batting. Get a little closer to the plate when you're swinging," I added. Hey, never said I was a perfect Dad.

The game started just as work was ending for me, so I was a little late getting to the park. Almost 40 minutes late. By the time I got there, the news was grim: the nose-breathing Yankees had scored six runs in their first at-bat. We had three runs. Within another inning, it was 8 to 3, in favor of the Yankees. Things looked very bad indeed.

I edged over to the outside dugout wall and did my Spider-Man impression. I peered over the top and saw Thomas sitting inside and hissed to him. He looked at me with a grimace of pain and worry.

"This is my last time playing baseball, ever!" he said.

Oh crap! I thought. "Why? What--?"

"It's too much. And now we're losing. I hate it!"

I was nonplussed. Clearly my aggressive-Dad talk had been useless, but so had all my years of being the decent, hey-no-strain-it's-just-a-game Dad. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe 9 was too soon to be putting a boy through the wringer.

"Listen," I finally said, "you just focus on what the coach tells you and do your best. It is just a game you know."

Thomas looked at me evenly. "Dad, that is such a load of crap." Then he turned his back on me and I slunk away.

And then, as so often happens at this level of play, things suddenly turned around. The Yankee pitching fell to pieces. Slowly, we began racking up the runs. By the third inning, it was 8 to 6, Yankees, with two outs on us, as Thomas came to bat. He managed to get to first and advance a man to third. As he touched his base, he briefly, tensely waved to me, who was hanging limply over the fence on the first-base line. "Be ready to steal," I rasped hoarsely, having already yelled my lungs out in the last inning and a half. I guess he took me literally, because the moment the ball left the pitcher's hand, Thomas bolted, barely sliding safe to second. But it put him in perfect position for the next batter, who belted a line drive between first and second. The man on third scored and the third-base coach signaled Thomas to wait. He didn't. He charged on as the Yankees threw the ball home. The catcher snagged it, turned to tag...and Thomas limboed under him, sliding home. The game was tied.

Wait, it got better. This new development so flummoxed the Yankee pitcher that he walked the next runner. With two men on base, the next batter hit a ball deep to right and stretched a triple into a freaking home run. It was now 11 to 8.

It was like a dream--a dream where I was whispering "I can't fucking believe it!" quite a lot. The inning eventually ended with our team at 12 to their 8, but there were still two more innings left to play.

Things got really tense next inning, as the Yankees came up to bat. Why? I'll tell you why: because the coach suddenly took Thomas out of center field (where he'd been doing some great back-up for the infield but had had no serious challenges hit out to him all game) and put him at second base.

From way over on the first-baseline fence, eyes crossed, tongue hanging out, I was still cognizant enough to see my son's tense face. He was exactly where he didn't want to be. He kept sneaking glances over at me and I had no idea what to say. Finally, I just cried. "Remember what you practiced! Do the work! Be aggressive!" Dear God, I'd become a walking cliché. Or a tone-deaf cheerleader.

Thomas wasn't the only one who began to get tense. Two Yankee batters struck out, but three scored, making the tally 12-11, our lead hanging by a thread. With two outs and a man on third, and our team smelling the smell of goat in the air, guess what nose-breathing Yankee stepped to the plate?

I saw Thomas go rigid as his nemesis, Number 6, began his practice swings. He was a chunky boy and, if memory served, a good hitter. He bludgeoned home plate with his bat a couple of times and yelled, "C'mon! C'mon!" to the pitcher. Thomas stood stone still with anticipation.

On his second swing, Number 6 sent the ball right over Thomas's head, and it looked like the Yankees would tie it up. The man on third began trotting home. But Number 6 wasn't trotting. As the right fielder scrambled for the ball, Number 6 bulled around first, charging for second.

And I swear to God, as the outfielder snapped the ball to Thomas, I saw that nose-breathing little Yankee bastard change his course on the baseline so he could plow into my boy.

But the outfielder had thrown the ball just a smidge too hard. Thomas took one fateful step back, just out of the path of the bull, caught the ball, then swung around blindly to tag the runner.

And caught him right in the nuts.

Number 6 dropped like a stone and across the park, men and boys alike joined in the chorus of the Great Manly "Ohhh-hhhh-hh!"

Except for the umpire, who simply shouted, "Out!"

Thomas, good guy that he his, stayed on the field as his teammates headed in, leaning over the player who had once been his nemesis. The coaches converged, there was some hubbub, but none of it was over the low blow, which even an unbiased spectator could see was made blindly and innocuously.

Still, it was a sweet moment.

Of course, Dad that I am, I would want you to think it was that play that made the game, but in fact there was still another inning to play. We didn't score anything in our at-bat, so when the Yankees took their last turn (this time with Thomas in centerfield), there was still every chance they could tie or win. What really carried the day was some stellar pitching as the Reds hurler managed to strike two Yankees out. The last batter hit a bouncing grounder between first and second base, but the right fielder quickly relayed it to first and that was the game.

You wouldn't think it possible to get so excited about someone taking third place, but let me tell you, third place beats the hell out of fourth place.

As we headed off to the party one of the moms was holding at her house (a party we would never find, sadly, since yours truly got hopelessly lost), we had a long talk about the season, a talk that was really a dance around a certain question, which I finally managed to ask.

"So, you think you're going to play next year? It only gets more competitive, you know. But you're certainly up to it," I added.

Thomas was silent for a long time. Finally, he said, "I don't know yet. Let me think about it."

I'm not a thinker. I'd have done a gut check and answered right away. But not Thomas. He was playing to his strengths.

Which, like taking third in a baseball tournament, was more than good enough for me.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

It's amazing how you get into your kid's games. There's one thing I hate more than bullies playing against your child. I hate biased or blantantly unfair referees.

You teach your kids about fairness. And there's an adult, demonstrating the opposite.

But not to take away from your son's exciting game. Congrats!
It sounds like you mix the right amount of coaching and enthusiasm without going overboard. I hope Thomas does decide to play again next year, but I commend you for not demanding he do so.
Now when you guys start talking about baseball, be it big league, minors or little league, since I understand this game pretty well, I generally enjoy posts like this. Tonight, as I started to read this, I admit I was tense and yes, angry. (Possibly a story for a post? We'll see.) But anyway, reading this, following Thomas and his travails, then triumphs, I could feel my tensions ease up, smiled, then laughed at your gentle humor and finished reading your post in a much, much better mood than before. I think I have the answer why it worked that way but until I get the words together and if it works, then post it, I'll know if my logic about this rings true. Confused? So am I but hopefully I'll get it cleared up in a post -maybe tonight, maybe later. Just depends.
Great rundown of Thomas' game!

That bit about feeling pigeonholed and underestimated really got me...I'm exactly that way. The minute I hear someone say I can't do something, I get pissed. :>
Sitting alone in a completely quiet house, I let out a LOUD "Whoo-hoo!" when I got to the "caught him right in the nuts" part. MM, that was a helluva story. Don't believe for a minute that you didn't inherit your dad's and Aunt's story-telling gene.

I did the same thing Bonnie did, glad no one else was here in the office!

Accident or not - it had to feel good (For Thomas) to get a little payback. I wonder who will be thinking twice about charging a player next season.

My son played about 4 games when he was 6, quit the moment he got hit in the face with a ball and refused to go back. There was no talking him in to trying again.
wow. and I get all excited when The Boy makes it through the day and comes home with both shoes still in his possession.

might be time to up the bar a little.
MM That was a GREAT post. Little league baseball rocks! (In more ways than one, apparently). From one Dad to another - congrats to Thomas. Our playoffs are in full swing!
Oh wow, good for Thomas! Sorry to see any kid get hurt, but Thomas was playing the game fairly, and it sounds as if Number 6 had it coming, changing course to run over Thomas like that!
I loved this story, too, and the values you're teaching your son (and he's teaching you) can be the best part. Playing to your strengths -- keep up your great posting!
Fun post. You know I love baseball, and that I also love a good revenge tale - even when the revenge comes about via a happy accident.

Short story concerning swipe tags. I was playing first base - this is only about six years back - and a throw from the shortstop went high and to my left. I jumped for it, caught it, and swung my left arm around to try and tag the runner going by. As with Thomas, I caught my man right in the 'nads. However, instead of him going down in a heap, I immediately felt a sharp pain in my glove hand.

I threw my glove off and my thumb was already swelling. Seems I had broken my thumb when he ran into my glove. It was a minor break, as breaks go; not so much a bone cracking as it was a tendon staying attached under stress, but pulling a small piece of the bone it was attached to off the main bone. It took the wearing of a small cast for a couple of weeks, but it healed perfectly (even though, against doctor's orders, I played a couple of games during that time. Fielding wasn't so bad, once I got the glove on over the little cast, but hitting was painful as hell. I digress.)

The funny thing about it was the ribbing the guy I tagged took from his own team. He got hit square in the jewels, but I was the one who got a broken bone? They called him "Superballs" and "Iron Testicles McGinty" and all sorts of other wonderful nicknames for the rest of the season.
I just wanted to say that's a wonderful post. I've read your blog for awhile, though I haven't commented (I've only recently gotten on blogger).

My six year old (also named Thomas) played baseball this year and it's been interesting reading your posts, especially as I have no idea about Little League and all the stuff that goes with it. Plus I'm a single mom, so I'm trying to pick up some good pointers because I've already gotten to the point where I'm "embarrassing" him (lord only knows how). :-)
You're being featured on Five Star Friday:
Wonderful post!
I am really glad I found your website. It's really refreshing to find blogs that keep me from being a good employee at work.
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