Tuesday, September 28, 2010
The LL Chronicles #1: 10 Thoughts on Fall Ball
Back in January, my son Jalen tried out for the "Rookies" level in our local Little League district. Here's a brief description of this level reprinted from my earlier post:
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.
And, some of you might remember how Jalen's tryout went:
J had never even SEEN a pitching machine before, much less hit off one. 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?"
Even though Jalen was drafted onto a rookie level team, I opted to keep him in t-ball for one more season. Immediately after the final out in Jalen's final game, his coach made a beeline towards me and said, "Jalen's ready for the next level. He might be the most intense little boy I've ever seen."
J's coach was being exceedingly magnanimous. My son was the only player on his t-ball team who regularly abandoned his assigned position (say, for example, right field) to cut in front of his teammates, so that he could snatch groundballs and/or throws intended for a different position (let's say, first base). He yelled at his five and six-year-old teammates. He bowled over catchers. He would even stop on the basepaths – in between bases – and wait for the throw to come in, so he could justify sliding into the next base.
Looking back, I'm not sure if the words from Jalen's coach about "the next level" were encouragement or an ultimatum. Regardless, I signed my son up for "Rookies".
(1) Wait…the WHAT Team? -- Thanks to youth football and soccer, Little League Baseball's fall season pulls in just a fraction of the players who sign up for the more traditional spring season. The "Rookies" level only fields three teams. The good news: Player registration fees are 30% less expensive for the fall. The bad news: There are no Major League Baseball-licensed team names or uniforms. The blog fodder: Instead, there's a "blue" team, an "orange" team and my son's squad…the "white" team. (Don't look at me like that. You'd have thought less of me if I didn't mention this.)
(2) Laboring -- With Jalen's first game less than a week away, I took him out for an impromptu one-on-one practice on Labor Day. He'd been struggling with his first real go-round on the pitching machine, so I offered up my scrawny right arm as a reasonable facsimile. Usually, I just soft-toss the ball to Jalen and watch his comical Herculean swings. This time, though, I wanted him to be ready for the 40 mph pitches that the machine would be feeding him. Of course, replicating that kind of speed required almost maximum effort from my upper body. Now, I don't know how long we were out there or how many pitches I threw. However, in the three weeks since, whenever I've tried to throw more than 10 pitches, my elbow and forearm feel a LOT like this.
(3) Opening Day! -- Jalen's first game was on Saturday, September 11. The fall season would be played on the "Majors" field, which meant relatively pristine grounds-keeping and a fully-functioning electronic scoreboard over the right-centerfield wall. The simplistic technology was akin to 1970s Texas Instruments, but my son – mouth agape – must've stared at that sparsely-lit black and red rectangle for over a minute. Primitive man wasn't this fascinated by the first appearance of fire.
Unfortunately, the rest of the kids were equally mystified by another piece of electronic equipment: the pitching machine. Our team scratched out a 3-1 win, but after a 3-run first inning, the pitching machine didn't give up a hit the rest of the way – included in the futility…Jalen Cameron, who went 0 for 2. After his second strikeout, my mother – who was visiting for the weekend – tried to climb down the bleachers and come into the dugout to console her grandson. Speaking from embarrassing personal experience: she's still got it.
(4) Coach Demotion -- Before the first game, I agreed to help out and coach third base. I tried the "placid dad in the stands" bit last spring, but by the end of that season, my wife and I could no longer sit together. It seems one of us couldn't stop pacing while simultaneously shouting helpful hitting AND defensive suggestions to his (or her, or her!) only son. However, after the first inning of the first game, one of our other coaches moved me to first base coach while he took over at third. As he explained, "You gotta be aggressive when you're coaching third. We should've scored four runs that inning, but you were putting up the stop sign for everybody." Wow. And, in front of the kids, coach?
(5) Jalen's Rage -- Our second game was on Saturday, September 18. Thanks to a 9:00 AM start time, the field conditions were reminiscent of the Dagobah System. Undaunted, we slogged – and slugged – our way to a 10-6 win. Jalen went 0 for 3 with two more strikeouts and a groundout. After the game, he dramatically kicked over an ice chest. In the dugout. In the middle of the coach's congratulatory pep talk to the team. Of course, I disciplined him…while making sure not to piss him off.
(6) Officially a Slump -- On September 19, our team took the field for the second of back-to-back games over the weekend. Jalen had stopped listening to anyone's advice and was determined to end his slump by hitting the ball farther and farther into orbit. We won our third straight game, 9-4, but Jalen went 0 for 3…with three strikeouts. Mrs. Bootleg peeked into the dugout and saw him by himself, in tears, at the end of the bench. As his father, it tore my heart out to see how badly he wanted his first hit. As a blogger, I should point out that when Jalen swings and misses, he makes a hilariously exaggerated half-grunting, half-growling sound. 15 years ago, this would've landed him a record deal.
(7) The One-Man Outfield -- At least Jalen didn't take his troubles at the plate into the field. Late in Sunday's game, he was playing right field, when the opposing hitter smacked a line drive to left. Our left fielder barely moved until the ball was by him. The centerfielder then raced over to help out, but somehow became entangled – on the ground – with the left fielder. Everyone is focused on the two-car crash in left field, so no one notices the chocolate-brown blur racing all the way over from right field. Now, Jalen could've just bent over and picked up the ball. Instead, he turns towards his two teammates and…well, here's a surprisingly accurate re-creation.
(8) Solving the Slump -- I bought Jalen a 26-inch, 16-ounce (-10) bat earlier in the summer. It was only an inch longer and an ounce heavier than his t-ball bat, but he never looked comfortable with it. During practices, his hitting fundamentals were perfectly fine – the coaches and other fathers in attendance repeatedly praised his stroke even though he wasn't exactly stinging the ball. But, his swing looked especially slow during games. Now, I'm not naïve enough to think that a new bat can solve the old "can't hit ball" problem. But, thankfully, Jalen is! Hey, I told you guys to stop me. This one's on you. I went a touch longer (27 inches) and MUCH lighter (14 ounces, -13 bat drop).
(9) Solving the Slump II -- Last Thursday, Mrs. Bootleg took Jalen to the local batting cages while I was at work. What started as a series of innocuous text messages from her ("We're here!" and "Jalen has his new bat!") turned into an array of increasingly…expensive texts ("Don't be mad, but I think I'm going to pay for a private lesson." and "They invited Jalen to stay for the 4 o'clock class.") After I got home, I asked Jalen what he learned. "They said, 'Keep my head down' and 'don't move my feet'." Hmmm…curiously similar to what I'd been telling him every Sunday afternoon for 2 ½ years. So glad I'm one of those black fathers who stuck around.
(10) Slump Solved -- On a 98-degree Sunday afternoon, I had a feeling Jalen would break through. I took him out on Saturday and his swing had its snap back – including a line drive that cracked off my shin. We spent another half-hour together on Sunday morning and while I wanted to share my gut feeling with Mrs. Bootleg, I superstitiously kept it to myself. Jalen came up in the second inning and beat out an infield dribbler for his first hit of the season. He then exhaled, did 50 consecutive fist pumps and flashed that endless jack-o-lantern grin of his…before accepting a high-five from a certain first base coach. Later in the game, he broke a 4-4 tie with an RBI single, giving our team a lead we'd never relinquish in a 10-8 win. Jalen struck out in his final at-bat, but the ice chests stayed upright, the tears never materialized and the head coach rewarded J's efforts after the game.
It's been more than 72 hours…and he's still grinning.