Wednesday, June 1, 2011
The LL Chronicles #8: "Playoffs? Don't Talk About…PLAYOFFS?! You Kiddin' Me?!"
The regular season for the "Rookies" Division Red Sox ended earlier this month and the playoffs began ten days ago. With a generous and much appreciated assist from the league's double-elimination format; our team remains alive despite being outscored 41-24 in our first two tournament games.
Morning-ball -- Our first playoff opponents would be the Phillies – a good, but not great team managed by 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. The 9:00 AM start time only added to our collective annoyance. The Red Sox played some of their most unwatchable ball during the handful of regular season games that began this early. On this day, a dugout full of barely-awake seven and eight-year-olds – plus my son Jalen, who was usually in uniform by 7:00 AM for our Saturday morning match-ups – drifted in and out of sleep, saving their worst performance of the season for the first game of the playoffs.
Yes, One of THOSE Dads -- During the regular season, our team's manager constantly juggled the batting order – ostensibly so every player got a chance to hit in a different spot in the lineup. Towards the end of the season, our manager belatedly embraced a more merit-based batting order. Inexplicably, he reintroduced our children to socialism for the first game of the playoffs. Now, I know that most of the people who throw around accusations of 'socialism' are unhinged, agenda-driven lunatics, but come ON. "I'm batting LAST?!", replied Jalen incredulously after viewing the lineup card (and after hitting third or fourth over the past month). I couldn't possibly recreate my involuntary facial expressions from that moment, but the first few seconds in this clip are a reasonable approximation.
Mommy Issues -- Trailing by just one run in the bottom of the third inning, our kids began to rally. With the bases loaded, our sixth place hitter was due up. And, from the first base coaches' box, I could see our sixth place hitter sitting at the end of the dugout bench, sobbing into his hat. Despite being the smallest player on the team, he's actually one of our more resilient kids. But, at this moment and without any explanation, he tearfully refused to bat. After the inning, the other coaches -- not me, as Mrs. Bootleg can angrily attest -- coddled and comforted him, but still couldn't get him off the bench. As luck would have it, my mother had made the 100-mile drive down to see her grandson. In the bottom of the next inning -- with me coaching first base and in no position to stop her -- she walked over to the dugout and coaxed a response from Weepy McGee. Turns out he was sad because his mother couldn't make it to the game. Oh, don't you DARE empathize with him!
Bathroom Break -- Jalen was due up fifth in the bottom of the fifth inning and for the first time all season, he had to leave the bench for an in-game bathroom break. Some of our kids make multiple trips per game, so I was only mildly annoyed as I repeated one of the well-worn parental laments ("Didn't I ask if you had to go BEFORE the game started?") Without thinking, I entrusted Mrs. Bootleg with Jalen's restroom accompaniment. I realized my mistake when Jalen's turn to bat came around and he was nowhere to be found. My wife ran track in high school. Her nickname -- and I am NOT making this up -- was "Too Fast".* Today, she moves with the urgency of inertia.
* -- I only learned about "Too Fast" within the last year or so despite knowing Mrs. Bootleg since the mid-1990s. I responded as if she admitted to having an affair ("What OTHER now-ironic nicknames are you keeping from me?") There is no way my wife ever wanted me to know this. I probably shouldn't have shared it with you guys. If she asks, you didn't hear it from me. Cool?
19 -- Remember that old Bugs Bunny cartoon that featured the famous "Gashouse Gang" conga line around the bases? Well, that's what happened to us in the top of the sixth inning. The Red Sox allowed 19 runs to cross the plate and over the course of the half-inning each and every one of our players physically and mentally checked out of the game. Jalen -- our best defensive player -- fielded his position at a comically cinematic level. Another one of our players was chasing a butterfly around the outfield with his glove. After my 100th reprimand in his general direction, even I stopped giving a damn. My indifference was interrupted when the boy's mother began scolding him. Exasperated, she turned to me and asked, "Aren't you going to do something about this?" Final score, 29-8. Can't do much about that, ma'am.
With the loss, we fell into the inspirationally-titled "losers bracket". Our next opponents would be the Yankees -- a collection of really nice kids whose cumulative baseball ability was inversely proportional to their personalities. Before the game, I told Jalen to focus on having fun -- not wins and losses. Although, to myself, I was thinking: "If we lose to THESE guys..."
Still One of THOSE Dads -- I'm just a coach. I coach first base and primarily oversee our teams' hitting drills.** I'm not the manager. I don't make out the lineups. I do, however, know that batting our team's second-best hitter -- and, arguably, our best all-around player -- eighth in an elimination game is...oh, take it, Jalen. "I'm batting EIGHTH?!" Yeah, that about covers it.
** -- Oh, shut up, all of you guys that have ever seen me bat.
CRASH! -- In the third inning, one of our players reached base. Our team's best hitter -- batting seventh(!) in the order -- was up next. At this level, most of the fielders don't know where to stand and oftentimes inadvertently block the basepaths of potential baserunners. I kneeled down at first base, looked our player right in the eye told her, "When Steven hits it, you need to be ready to run. Be sure not to run into the first baseman." Who knows what happened next?! Thankfully, it looked worse than it really was. On a line drive to the gap, I watched our runner at first base turn her head to follow the ball. When she put her head back down... ohmygodohmygod. She was inconsolable for several minutes and Jalen practically leapt over her prone body as he volunteered to pinch run.
Did I Say "Best" Hitters? -- In the top of the fifth inning, the Red Sox were leading by a single run. With one out and the bases loaded, our two best hitters were due up in succession. Steven has a nice little swing, but sometimes tries to play a power game that belies his eight-year-old frame. He struck out in short order. Jalen was up next. I can always tell when my son is on the verge of a terrible at bat. Oftentimes, it's when he's imitating something he's seen on TV like Ichiro's pre-swing ritual or Kevin Youkilis' goofy stance. Sure enough, in the on-deck circle, Jalen is swinging two bats at the same time. Strike one. Strike two. Strike three.
Coach's Candor -- At the start of the sixth inning, one of the Yankees coaches approached me and said, "You guys have got this. We've got the bottom of our order due up and the first two kids haven't gotten a hit in three weeks." I found myself giving an awkward pep talk to the opposing coach, before I caught myself and wondered if he was trying to get our team's guard down. These are the thoughts that run through your mind during the Little League playoffs, y'all. And, sure enough, the Yankees first batter that inning got a hit. I knew it! Keep your guard up, Red Sox! Keep your guard up!
Still Alive -- The Yankees scored a run and had two runners on when Jalen fielded a slow roller to the right of the pitcher's mound. He turned and threw out the runner at third base for the final out. 16-12, Red Sox win. Jalen then immediately assumed the role of Tony Phillips, while our third baseman played Dennis Eckersley... and this happened.
Our odds are longer than long -- we'd have to win FIVE more games (without a loss) to win the championship -- but, for one day, the kids could celebrate.
And, I wouldn't mind celebrating five more times.