Thursday, January 28, 2010

My First Day as a Little League Dad

The call came in on Tuesday evening:

"Hi, I'm one of the coaches with RB Little League. I'm pleased to tell you that Jalen's been drafted by the Athletics' Rookie Ball team!"

Wait...I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's go back to mid-November when I signed Jalen up for the official, capital letters version of Little League. I handed over a check for $165 and when I inquired about trivial issues like "when does the season start?" or "where will my kid be playing?" or "what is the next step?"; I was told to check the league -- whoops, League -- website.

I had been checking
the website semi-regularly leading up to sign-ups and -- much to my wide-eyed surprise -- the site had not been updated with answers to my questions in the 10 minutes it took for me to drive home from sign-ups.

A few weeks later, the website had news of a free baseball skills clinic for 6-9-year-olds on January 9 and formal tryouts on January 16.

Over the past year or so, Jalen and I have spent nearly every Sunday afternoon outside playing baseball. I have no idea how this weekly tradition began, but we've got the routine down cold: after 10 minutes, I abandon my plan to drill Jalen on the fundamentals -- usually with an expletive at the end. ("Point, step and throw, Jalen! Point! Step! And...ah, f*** it, do what you want, Jalen. Do what you f****** want!") I'm kidding about one of those expletives, of course.

The remaining 90 minutes are spent indulging Jalen's inexplicable desire to pretend he's every single member of the Oakland A's lineup from whatever random year pops into his head. It's my job to remember which way Joe Rudi (1970s) batted; where Carney Lansford (1980s) hit in the batting order and explain why left-handed mashers like Jack Cust (today) like the ball low in the strike zone. Jalen's all about authenticity in his imitations.

J incorporates all this information into a mock ballgame where I always seem to be pitching, he always seems to be hitting and, when it's over, he bursts through the front door to tell Mrs. Bootleg that he beat me again.

The skills clinic on January 9 was my first real interaction with other Little League parents. Most of 'em knew each other from seasons past and quickly formed into little privileged cliques. They talked to each other about their kids' athletic progress while warily assessing the achievements of other children -- all in a passive-aggressive display of one-upmanship.

The tryouts were the following week. Now, there's an exceedingly convoluted set of divisions in Little League. At the simplest level, they're based on age and ability. At the seediest level, they're driven by agenda and politics -- not unlike the
country music industry. There were only two options open to Jalen (from the League's website):

(1) T-Ball - Instructional League. No score kept. Emphasis on beginning skills and FUN [emphasis, theirs]. Hitting off of Tee and then coach soft toss. --- Recommended ages 5 thru 7

(2) Rookies - Training and Development league. Emphasis on basic skills and basic game strategy. Introduction to competitive baseball. Recommended ages 6 thru 9. Machine pitch then player/coach pitches. Score and standings kept with playoffs and tournament at end of season.

Obviously, there are no tryouts for t-ball -- with their emphasis on FUN -- so I brought Jalen down for the Rookies exhibition.

When we arrived, the age group ahead of Rookies was still going through their tryout drills. The kids were taking three swings off a pitching machine; fielding a pop-fly shot out of the same machine; throwing across the diamond and running from home to second. Aside from the baserunning drill, most of the kids were abominable at everything.

I can say that because my son was only abominable at one thing that day.

Believe me...I don't want this to sound like I'm making excuses for Daddy's precious little guy, but J had never even seen a pitching machine before, much less hit off one. And, since he doesn't actually turn six until early February, he was one of the smallest kids in his age group. So, he probably had two strikes against him when he did the ONE thing you never do against a pitching machine: he took the first pitch! J didn't lift the bat off his shoulder, then gawked at the catcher's mitt with a look that said, "Wait, where the hell did this ball come from?"

Jalen did swing at the next two offerings...eventually. By my unofficial estimate, he was about six seconds late on both swings. On Twitter, I compared him to the
greatest athlete of our time. From there, Jalen looked pretty good running (natch) from home to second and -- shockingly -- showed decent form in fielding three ground balls at shortstop.

After our allotted five minutes, we received the equivalent of the "we'll keep your resume on file" speech from the League president and were sent on our merry way. J was pretty bummed about his hitting until an immediate ice cream intervention solved all his problems. T-ball, here we come.

But, wait! Scroll up to the top of this post! Jalen actually made the Rookie league team?! And, he's on the A's, again?! I was later told that the coach who selected him "liked his fundamentals". After talking to the coach, me and Mrs. Bootleg took sides: she was at the tryout, too, and...let's just say she didn't agree with the coach. Meanwhile, I was just south of ecstatic. For a few minutes.

Upon further consideration, I agreed with the wife. Jalen wasn't ready for Rookies and the thought of him learning on the fly -- and possibly turning on baseball before his teenage friends eventually force him into football and basketball -- didn't appeal to me. When I called the League to let them know we wanted to keep J in t-ball for the spring season, I was told he might not be able to be "released" from Rookies. Released! They eventually relented, but...yeah.

I just hope this experience doesn't turn me on baseball.

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