Thursday, September 1, 2011
This Sweaty and Unkempt Corpse is Managing YOUR Kids!
My wife took the below picture as I staggered through the front door of Stately Bootleg Manor this past Saturday. It was 95 degrees and from 12:00 PM until 1:30 PM; I'd been immersed in my first organized practice as manager of a Little League baseball team.
Wait...what? You hadn't heard? Well, I guess I need to turn back the lightly-read blog clock about two weeks -- to a time when the look on my visage was much less vacant and I was able to breathe with my mouth closed.
Back on August 13, I signed up my seven-year-old son Jalen for our Little League district's fall season. You might remember that Jalen played last fall and -- after a rough, occasionally frustrating start -- he rebounded well, holding his own against mostly (slightly) older kids.
According to league rules, Jalen was eligible to move up a level this fall (from "A" to "AA") where the age range shifts from 6-8 to 8-10. Over the summer, he and I spent several Saturdays and/or Sundays practicing with some of the fathers and sons we'd met during our time in Little League. Most of the fathers had sons of their own -- the same age as Jalen -- who were moving up to AA, but I decided to keep Jalen at the A level.
Physically, Jalen's not ready. Emotionally...ditto. Before the start of the new school year, we put Jalen in a two-week baseball camp. When Mrs. Bootleg went to pick up Jalen on the last day, one of the instructors suggested he might be better served to only come half-days..."until he could better accept the inherent failures built within the game". Now, the youth baseball-instruction racket is not an inexpensive endeavor. When any business -- in this economy -- essentially tells you they'd rather NOT take your money...yeah.
On August 16, all of the families on Jalen's fall team received the following e-mail from the league's director that read, in part:
Your team is fortunate enough to have four parents who indicated their willingness to coach this team. However, I'm looking for one parent to come forward and be the manager of the team. This person would serve as my main point of contact for rosters, schedules, equipment, etc.
A few seasons ago, Jalen was stuck with a disinterested Little League manager who couldn't be bothered to hide his contempt for the gig...or the kids. He's the reason why I've coached on every one of my son's teams since then. He's also the reason why I immediately volunteered to be the manager for Jalen's fall squad -- but, with a caveat.
My reply e-mail to the league director inadvertently taught me my first managerial lesson: when it comes to youth sports, if you begin any correspondence with "If you can't find anyone else..."; the search for whatever role you're referencing is OVER and the job is yours. It seems league directors aren't interested in considering multiple candidates...just the first one.
The next day, the director provided me with a list of my players along with parents' names and contact information. He suggested I call each family and formally welcome their kids to the team. So, over my lunch hour, I hastily scrawled down a few talking points and called the parents.
Over the years, I've become extremely ill-at-ease when making phone calls to people I don't know. Perhaps I'm flashing back to my first job out of college (business-to-business cold calling). Perhaps I'm flashing back to my current job (negotiating defense contracts -- often over the phone -- with Government officials who have no use for me and no respect for my profession). And, it didn't help that one of my players on the list included names for his father and stepfather, but just one phone number.
Thankfully, the mother of another player had this song set to play after I dialed her number, but before she picked up. I got the part with the soothing Lil' Wayne lyrics:
Uh...girl. I turn that thang into a rain forest.
Rain on my head. Call that "brainstorming".
Yeah, this is deep...oh...but, I go deeper.
Make you lose yourself. Finders keepers.
Not surprisingly, now that the team had a manager, a few of the other fathers were quick to offer themselves up as coaches (free from cumbersome responsibilities like making line-ups, lugging equipment and running practices). My favorite request came from the grandfather of one of my players. His e-mail (subject: "My PLEDGE To You") was almost entirely in all caps and featured 300 exclamation points. He ended with "WE'RE IN IT TO WIN IT!!!", which I believe was last used just before the invasion of Normandy.
My friend Smitty smartly suggested I emulate the Florida Marlins managerial methodology.
On August 19, I attended the league's preseason manager's meeting. No less than three other managers separately needled me about getting sucked in. When I explained that this was a "one time thing", their reactions were (in this order): (1) laughter, (2) "I thought the same thing." and (3) "I'll bet you $20 right now that you're managing again in the spring." Ours is a resigned fraternity, it would seem. I only had one question for the director.
Me: "My player list has someone on it who just turned five in June and has never even played t-ball. This is a mistake, right?"
Director: "Nope. We planned to have a fall t-ball league, but couldn't get enough kids. So, we moved a handful of t-ball players up a level."
Me: "But, this kid's never played t-ball."
Director: "You'll figure something out. We've got to find a way to keep these kids before football and soccer takes them from us."
Obviously, I was annoyed, but it's not like he could tell me the truth ("We already cashed his parents' check.") Besides, if I do say so myself, I've done a decent job of coaching previous players who didn't have much -- or sometimes any -- experience. Sometimes, all it takes is being there for them.
Our first practice was scheduled for Saturday, August 20, but I couldn't be there. I had a long-standing commitment from a few weeks back to attend Stone Brewery's 15th Anniversary Celebration and Invitational Beer Festival. And, it was GLORIOUS!
More than 40 different breweries were represented, featuring over 100 beers. I finally tried Stone's vanilla bean smoked porter and it was totally worth the wait (mildly sweet on both the front and back ends, underlying smokiness that never overpowers). Stone's cherry chocolate stout was equally awesome. I'd bought up every bottle in North San Diego County, but had it on tap for the first time. Bitter, sour...sensational!
Oh, don't look at me like that. There WAS a member of the Cameron Family who coordinated all of the coaches, kids and baseball equipment at the practice I couldn't attend. Yup...Mrs. Bootleg. She did the best she could, but I don't know if I'd invite her back (sample text from her: "No one brought any baseballs.") These are problems an interim manager has to solve on his (or her) own, honey.
Our next scheduled practice was on August 27. This past Father's Day, Mrs. Bootleg bought me a pair of books on baseball coaching by former Major League players Cal and Billy Ripken. Both books are heavy on the saccharin and condescension, but I find myself pouring over them whenever I have free time. I quoted it so much to my wife, that she finally replied, "You didn't even LIKE Cal Ripken when he played."
True, but his book has an entire "sample practice" that he encourages us to imitate! It fits right into our own 90-minute practice window! Anyone else remember that 20-year-old episode of The Simpsons where Bart is incessantly quoting "three-time soap box derby champ Ronnie Beck"? I'm finding ways to force "19-time All Star Cal Ripken says..." into my family's dinner table conversations, too.
"19-time All Star Cal Ripken says I should keep open lines of communication with all my players' parents."
"No, no...I'll eat it. I guess I don't have a choice. But, I hear 19-time All Star Cal Ripken prefers freshly shaved parmesan cheese on his pasta rather than the grated processed stuff you bought, sweetheart."
"How do you KNOW that 19-time All Star Cal Ripken doesn't have two beers before dinner?"
At practice this past Saturday, I broke the kids up into smaller groups and rotated them through three stations -- as suggested by 19-time All Star Cal Ripken. This kept the kids moving and eliminated a lot of the loitering that seems to be a part of every other kids' baseball practice. We have 12 kids total and I'm pleased to report only two injuries from my first practice: one little boy took a ball off his bicep and on the very first drill (running through first base) I tweaked my back when I broke out of the batter's box and ran up the first base line.
Unlike my player who was hit by the ball, I didn't cry.
Believe it or not, I'm actually glad I volunteered. The structure of our team is almost evenly split between more experienced players and younger boys who, at first glance, seemed willing to learn. The parents have been great, so far, and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't scribbled a few mock batting orders in the margins of my legal pad during the hours when I'm presumably negotiating defense contracts.
Yes, this sweaty and unkempt corpse is managing your kids.
Thanks for the opportunity.