Monday, June 20, 2011
The LL Chronicles #10: All Star Jalen (It's Just an Exhibition)
My son was selected for All Stars in his Little League division! This justifies all the weekends I neglected you for baseball, Aaron's wife.
-- June 7, from my Twitter feed
It had been an emotional morning for my seven-year-old son Jalen. With two weeks to go until my trip to New York City, I finally had to come clean. I told Jalen over breakfast that I'd be out of town for a few days -- from June 22 through June 25. "You're going to New York?", he responded. With the wheels turning right behind the surprised expression on his face, Jalen sprinted from the dining room and into the kitchen.
He briefly examined the 2011 Oakland Athletics magnetic schedule that's affixed to our refrigerator and exclaimed, "The A's are playing the Mets when you're there! Are you going to the Mets stadium without me?" Jalen's tone struck a delicate balance between incredulous, betrayed and bat-sh*t insane. His wild-eyed reaction reminded me of this. My post-disclosure tweet didn't do it justice.
That evening, as we were sitting down to dinner, I shared the news regarding his All Star selection. "I made the All Star team?", he asked in disbelief. He then stretched his little arms towards the heavens and jumped up and down with unrestrained elation -- sticking the landing when he asked, "Are you going to tell everyone on your blog?"
That is what I do, son.
My Enemy, J's Manager -- The All Star team managers were the two men who led their respective regular season squads to the championship game. The "West" team was helmed by the playoffs-winning Rangers manager. Jalen and his "East" teammates were guided by the Phillies manager whose team lost to the Rangers in the postseason finale. Coincidentally, our Red Sox lost to the Phillies in the first round of the playoffs. In my recap of that annihilation, I described the Phillies manager as "...one of those dads who condescendingly shouts unsolicited advice throughout the game to everyone from his own players to the opposing players to the opposing coaches and even the umpires."
J's Manager, My Man! -- Two days later, the East manager asked me to be on his coaching staff. "You were great with the kids on your team [during the regular season]", he wrote in an e-mail. "And it will be a joy to manage Jalen." What a nice man!
Corruption! Politics! Kids! -- From our league's district guidelines: "The Rookies managers will hold a meeting to select players for the Rookies Classic All Star Game. Managers will select at least two but not more than four players from each team." After finding out about Jalen, I texted another coach whose son was easily one of the best three players in our entire division. I was stunned to find out he didn't make the team. It's clear that Little League Baseball could give the corrupt country music industry a run for its money.
"We Talkin' About Practice! (Not a Game. Not a Game. Not a Game.)" -- During a pair of team practices in the days leading up to the game, Jalen's swing was clearly out of sync. Calling it "rusty" would be kind. In one at-bat, he looked like this as he chased a ball in the dirt -- with his bat hitting the ground -- and took off for first base before realizing he swung and missed. Two hours before the game, I offered to throw batting practice to Jalen. "I don't need it", he replied. "It's just an exhibition." Obviously, my son understands the rich tradition of insufferable, overconfident African-American athletes. I didn't push the issue. Instead, I made a mental outline of my sympathy-free "I told you so" postgame speech.
Form-Fitting Orange -- We unintentionally completed Jalen's prima donna motif by arriving 15 minutes late for practice. Most of the team's All Star jerseys had already been handed out – and all of the medium-sized shirts were gone – so, Jalen wore #4 in a small. My son stands a tick over four feet tall and weighs around 60 pounds. His miniature pot belly comprises 45 of those pounds. As Jalen s-l-o-w-l-y pulled the bright orange "East" jersey over his head, the threading appeared to be fighting for its life while simultaneously asphyxiating Jalen's torso. Here is a surprisingly accurate artist's rendering of my son's fully-uniformed upper body.
Star Treatment -- Ours was the second of three All-Star games on the day and the district pulled out all the stops for the kids. We were on the "Majors" field with a grass infield and working electronic scoreboard. All of the players' names were affixed to their individual spots on the bat and helmet rack. There was a public address announcer who called out the names of the players before their at-bats and – as game time neared – it was clear that this would be the largest crowd most of these kids had ever played in front of. I turned towards Jalen and gently asked if he was nervous. "I hope they announce my name every time I bat!", he replied. A-a-a-and, we're good.
Syxx Pac! -- After two and a half innings, the East All Stars led 6-0. Jalen knocked in two runs with a single in the first and a groundout in the third. I'd never before coached a team that was so talented – top to bottom – with a collectively enviable baseball IQ to boot. In the bottom of the first, we turned an unassisted double play. In the bottom of the second, our right fielder threw out a runner at first base on what looked to be a sure single. In the top of the third, I was coaching first base and sent a runner to second on what I thought would be an easy double. The centerfielder closed on the ball quickly and fired it back to infield in the blink of an eye. Our baserunner would've been out easily, but he hit the brakes, turned around towards first and dove back to the bag just under the tag. I envy that kid's baseball IQ. (See?)
Time-Released Beatdown -- The West All Stars roster was better than ours on paper and they lived up to their billing by scoring eight runs over the next two innings, taking an 8-6 lead into the fifth. Jalen's earlier "It's just an exhibition" admonition rang hollow in my ears.
Kill the Ump! -- For reasons I'll never know, our district assigned a pre-teen as lead umpire for our game. Up to this point, all of our other umpires had been adults – usually managers from teams in older divisions. This young man had a fairly uneventful afternoon until the fifth inning. We scored four runs – taking a brief 10-8 lead – highlighted by Jalen's two-run single. Earlier in the inning, there was a dispute over a bad throw and whether our runner could take an extra base. (Ultimately, the call went against us, but after the inning, I was the only adult to shake the umpire's hand, apologize for the scene and thank him for his effort. This may or may not have come into play later in the game.)
"If I Gots to Choose a Coast, I Gots to Choose the East…" -- The West All Stars scored three times in the bottom of the fifth inning to take an 11-10 lead. We were down to our last three outs to start the top of the sixth. With one out, the terrified umpire had to make the call on a potential force out at second base. After our runner slid into the bag, the young ump stood petrified for several seconds. I am not exaggerating when I suggest it was similar to the first 30 seconds of this scene. After an eternity, he called our runner safe which elicited peals of disbelief from the West dugout. From the first base coaches' box (right in front of the opposing dugout) I shouted to the umpire, "Good call, Blue! You're tough, but fair!"
We pushed across the tying run. With two outs and the bases loaded, Jalen came to the plate. The crowd noise – for a Little League game – was incredible. Several parents and players from the 3:00 PM game began arriving, took one look at the scoreboard and apparently embraced us as the underdog. I could read Jalen's lips as he turned towards the catcher and said, "It's loud." Jalen swung and missed twice, awkwardly chopping down on the ball both times. On the next pitch, he poked one through the infield to bring home the go-ahead run.
BUT, WAIT! It was ruled "no pitch" – therefore the hit doesn't count, the runners return to their last base and Jalen comes back to home plate to finish his at-bat. Jalen was absolutely deflated. I took him by the arm and unleashed a torrent of ridiculous sports motivation techniques ("You did it once. Now, do it AGAIN!" and "They're afraid of you! They took your hit away because they're AFRAID of you! Now…make them pay.")*
* -- It's two days later and I'm still amazed that I fixed my mouth to spout such nonsense. I'm hoping it didn't stick with Jalen or else I'll have to use it all the time. "You ate your vegetables once. Now, do it AGAIN!" and "Your mom took the video game away because she's AFRAID of you! Now…make her pay." I really hope it didn't stick with him.
On the next pitch, Jalen beat out an infield single by a step – 12-11, East! It was J's fifth run batted in on the afternoon. We tacked on two more runs and took a 14-11 lead into the bottom of the sixth.
The West All Stars quickly put their first hitter on base with a single. Our second baseman – and one of my Red Sox players from the regular season – then recorded two consecutive force outs at second base. With two outs, the final West batter grounded out to first. Our kids deliriously celebrated, with Jalen – decked out in catcher's gear – doing his best impression of Robby Hammock, the catcher in this video.
As Jalen explained earlier…it's just an exhibition.