Friday, June 3, 2011
The LL Chronicles #9: An Ignominious End to the Impossible Dream
With a first round loss in our playoff opener, the "Rookies" Division Red Sox stared into the daunting proposition posed by "double elimination": win out or go home. The Red Sox stayed alive by outslugging our next opponent, but still needed three more wins just to play for the championship and FIVE more wins to take home the title. On Wednesday, we faced the A's...
The Umpire Problem -- Nearly ten minutes after the scheduled 5:00 PM start time, the umpire was still in the middle of an extended pre-game discussion with the two managers. I ambled over just in time to hear the end of the ump's improvised rewrite of our field's ground rules. The same field that every team in our division played on all season now had newly-delineated "dead ball" areas where -- in the event of an errant throw -- baserunners would be awarded an extra base.
And, before finding the off ramp on his power trip, the umpire took it upon himself to redefine the strike zone. The strike zone that's clearly defined IN WRITING by Little League Baseball, Incorporated. It's been nearly 15 years since an umpire so blatantly stained the game. (And, nearly 25 years since such an obviously questionable official was involved in a sporting event of this magnitude.)*
* -- To be fair, I should mention that the umpire, ultimately, did not negatively impact the game for either team. Also, in the interest of fairness, I should mention that Danny Davis was JUST as shady as Earl Hebner.
One Jalen, Two Outs -- In the top of the second inning, with one out and a runner on first base, the Red Sox were already down by four runs. My seven-year-old son Jalen stepped to the plate (batting seventh...don't GET me started) and popped out to short right field. All season long, whenever one of our players reached first base, I leaned over and recited the baserunner's mantra (with less than two outs): "If it's in the air, you freeze. If it's on the ground, you go." All. Season. Long.
As Jalen kicked the chalk in disgust and turned in towards the infield grass on his way back to our dugout on the third base side, I noticed another Red Sox player jogging in the vicinity of third base. With my attention focused on my temperamental son, I failed to notice that our runner on first didn't freeze. Not at first base. Not at second base. I've grudgingly agreed to a 95/5 split of the blame between the baserunner and myself. All season long!
Sad Face -- It's the bottom of the second inning and the little boy who made the aforementioned baserunning mistake looks devastated. This is an odd sight because he's unquestionably the most cheerful player on our team and -- to his credit -- never seems to take the game TOO seriously. He appears on the verge of tears as he stands solemnly on the infield dirt. Before the first pitch, I sprint over to him and apologize for not calling him back to the bag. He nods softly and doesn't really respond to my reassurance that there'll be another chance. Was it something I said?
Someone ELSE Said Something -- Just before the top of the third, the Red Sox manager called everyone together for an impromptu in-game meeting. His message -- in so many words -- was "be nice to your teammates". It took me less than two seconds to put two and two together. I motion to my son for our own impromptu in-game meeting:
Me: "Jalen, were you mean to Jack?"
Me: "What did you say?"
Jalen: "I told him it was all his fault and 'If it's in the air, you freeze. If it's on the ground, you go.'"
Well, then. At least SOMEONE was listening. In all seriousness, I felt horrible for Jack and embarrassed for Jalen. When I was J's age, I had the same over-the-top attitude towards sports and my teammates until I learned two things: (1) You'll be miserable most of the time and (2) One day you're going to pick the wrong teammate to call out. Trust me (and my face) on that. Thankfully, Jalen apologized.
"My God! That's...that's Kharma's [sic] music!" -- Jalen struck out in his next at bat. As he slowly trudged back to the dugout, dramatically dragging his bat in the dirt, who do you think was the first person to greet him? Jack emphatically threw an arm around Jalen's shoulder and said, "You're TOTALLY going to get a hit next time!" There's more than one way to care about baseball, Jalen.
And, Speaking of "Face"... -- The Athletics had opened up an eight run lead by the bottom of the fifth inning. Team defense had been a problem for the Red Sox all season long -- and we were especially icky in this game -- but, we kept the A's off the board heading into the final inning. Unfortunately, one of our defensive stops was inadvertent as our shortstop took a bad hop off his face. As I escorted him off the field to administer first aid, his left eye began to swell. After a few minutes with an ice pack, however, he got right back to his position. Naturally, the next TWO balls were hit to him and he literally ran away from both of them.
The End -- Trailing 15-7 in the final inning, the Red Sox rallied for four runs and cut the Athletics' lead in half. With one out, Jalen (TOTALLY) got a hit to load the bases. The next batter popped out to short right field for the second out...and Jack was doubled off of second base for the final out. Our third pop-out double play of the game. Red Sox lose, 15-11.
Afterwards, more than one of our players asked me, "When's our next game?" I'll assume those kids didn't hear Jalen's "I can't believe we're eliminated" lament. Before long, the Red Sox turned their attention to the junk food and juice boxes provided by the assigned "snack mom" and were looking forward to the postseason pizza party this weekend. Even Jalen had moved on...with the help of this postgame Rickey Henderson reenactment.
Believe it or not, there was a time when I wanted nothing to do with coaching youth sports. The politics, the parents, the ego and the immaturity. But, after the game, Jack walked right up to me and said, "Thanks for coaching me this year, I had a lot of fun!" I replied, "You're welcome, Jack. I had a lot of fun coaching you." To which, he responded, "Don't tell the other coaches, but you were my favorite!"
For the third time in two hours, Jack nearly brought me to tears.