Three months ago, I agreed to manage my seven-year-old son Jalen's Little League team.
Three years ago, I could've never imagined myself agreeing to such a thing.
Little League managers are supposed to be patient and paternal. They teach without screaming and paint everything with positivity. (I could've assigned any imaginary standard and I'm still not sure how I'd stack up.) But, I gave it a go and I'm glad that I did.
If you're interested in wins and losses, the Blue Team finished 6-3.
If you're interested in the experience, you should keep reading. After all, I learned a lot.
How to Write a Lineup -- As Mrs. Bootleg can attest, my favorite aspect of managing was cobbling together the batting order on the mornings before our games. On game days, I'd wake up well before our habitually early-rising son, put on a pot of coffee and commandeer our upstairs office – statistically reconciling my players' previous performances at the plate with my managerial gut instincts. My wife accused me of "over-thinking" – obviously, an absurd allegation.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to making out a Little League lineup. Last fall, Jalen played for a manager who kept a static batting order all season long in an attempt to maximize run production by having the more talented kids hit in the top half of the lineup. This past spring, Jalen played for a manager who mixed-and-matched the batting order for every game – regardless of individual skill level – up to and throughout the playoffs, where we were eliminated in short order.
My approach blended the grown-up accountability of the former with the kid-appropriate socialism of the latter – and an undetectable hint of nepotism.
On Opening Day, after using a pair of preseason practices to assess my team's talent, I penciled in Jalen as our leadoff hitter. After that – and in strict accordance with the Old South's wildly successful "separate but equal" initiative – I rotated the more experienced kids from first to sixth and the less experienced kids from seventh to twelfth. Before you judge me, know that this idea was driven by my son who struck out in his first at-bat as a leadoff hitter – swinging at pitches that were over his head. While he ended up 3 for 4 on the day and helped us to a 16-8 win; the value of first-inning runs at this level cannot be understated. Jalen hit sixth in our next game.
Now you may judge me.
How to Assemble a Coaching Staff -- After agreeing to manage my son's team in mid-August, there were two other fathers and a grandfather(!) who volunteered to be my coaches. Sometime between then and our first game on September 11, two of the coaches reneged on their commitments. ("I didn't know there'd be games on Sundays", said one. "I didn't know this would be competitive", said the other. "I thought it would be more fun…like t-ball.")
On the morning of our first game, I asked Mrs. Bootleg to be the team's bench coach. By the end of the season, her responsibilities included bench coach, electronic scoreboard operator, intermittent snack bar attendant and dugout disciplinarian. She did an awesome job at keeping the batting order intact and playing team parent, but she remained shaky on scorekeeping until the end. ("So, if the run scores from third base before they get the out at first base, it doesn't count? Is that a rule?")
How to Build a Blood Feud -- It didn't take long for my Blue Team to find a rival. In our second game of the season, we fell to the Orange Team on a Saturday morning marred by trash-talking from the opposing kids and melodramatic bellyaching from their coaches on every close call. In the top of the second inning, one of my players was tagged out at home plate on a bang-bang play. The Orange Team's manager sprinted from the dugout and argued that, in fact...the runner was out. Yes, you read that right. When I told him the runner was called out, he spat up a sheepish "Oh..." and sprinted back to his bench while pumping his fist -- more than a little reminiscent of this.
In the season's fifth week, we met the Orange Team again. My kids didn't play well that day and --truthfully -- we deserved to lose. The plodding game pace meant that the top of the final inning began at 3:15 PM -- 15 minutes before the scheduled start time of the game following ours on the same field. As the visitors, the Orange Team sent their first two batters to the plate. Then, with a six-run lead, their manager pulled his team from the diamond -- citing the need to cede the field for the 3:30 PM game.
To be clear: we weren't going to win the game. But, some of my kids -- especially MY kid -- were champing at the bit for one last chance. I unsuccessfully argued that since the 3:30 PM game was the last of the day, the two teams involved could wait 10-15 minutes without concern for running out of time. In return, I received a dismissive "I don't think so" from their manager. Afterwards, as I seethed from the driver's seat, Jalen was busy reading my mind as he reminded me, "We've only got one more chance to beat those guys, Dad." My reflexive parental tut-tut in response came too quickly to be anything other than a lie. ("I don't care about wins and losses, J.")
How to Celebrate/Settle Down my Son -- My son has come a long way from last fall when he struggled mightily at the onset of the season. Jalen made enough consistent contact to ultimately settle in as the team's #2 hitter. His defensive fundamentals and throwing arm earned him semi-permanent residency at shortstop. My son, however, was most excited by the fact that many of his teammates wanted to imitate him. No, not the hitting or the defense. They were more impressed with J's comical scrawls of eye black and exaggeratedly-worn high socks.
Obviously, there's an inherently subjective curve that comes with any parents' analysis. So, let's bring my son back down a few pegs by pointing out that some of his throws from shortstop missed the first baseman by 50 feet, almost finding the faces of a few adults loitering behind foul territory. (Jalen's reactions were usually a 55/45 split between pride and embarrassment.) The high socks thing was an irritant from time to time, as Jalen would fastidiously adjust them after running the bases or playing the field or just sitting on his butt in the dugout. And, while I tolerated some of my son's diva tendencies; I drew the line when he once called time out after getting on base with a single, s-l-o-w-l-y removed his batting gloves and nonchalantly tossed them at my feet.
How to Teach the Game -- On September 30, immediately after our fourth game of the season, I was approached by the father of one of my players. His eight-year-old son was new to baseball but, by the end of the first month, he'd become a decent little hitter and was one of the few kids who wanted to play catcher. (Trust me: for a Little League manager, finding a child who wants to catch is akin to finding $50 on the street.) His father had previously emailed effusive praise my way, convinced that I had somehow "taught" his tall and naturally athletic son to play the game.
On this day, he introduced me to his friend -- who just so happened to have a son of his own who was new to the game. "Coach Aaron can teach anyone how to play baseball", the father beamed. This was all the sales pitch his friend needed. After a few phone calls and some roster-bending, the Blue Team had its newest player: a shorter, less athletic, FIVE-year-old version of the child I "taught" how to play baseball. The following week, I asked the little guy's father if his son had played any baseball before. "No", he replied. "But, he's played cricket." Great.
How to Hide a Child on Defense -- When I was my son's age, right field was where the defensively-challenged children
How Not to Encourage Nicknames -- At an early practice, one of my players wanted me to refer to him by a new nickname he had given himself: "Psycho". This was during one of our always-challenging afterschool practices, where the kids -- confined to classrooms all day -- treated it as an extension of recess. Coincidentally, "Psycho" was wearing a tie-dyed tank-top with his baseball pants. I'd mention he was our only left-handed player, but I'm sure you already knew that. I politely refused his pseudonym, since I knew if it got back to his parents, seven-year-old "Psycho" would throw me under the bus.
Later in the season, while coaching first base, our dugout had gotten particularly rowdy and unruly. As I walked over for a half-hearted reprimand, one of my biggest and strongest kids met me at the fence. Nicholas appeared to be near tears. "Coach Aaron", he began. "Everyone in the dugout is calling me 'Nickel Piss'." I nearly collapsed a lung from all the laughter I somehow stifled. I'm convinced even the slightest titter from me would've branded poor Nicholas as "Nickel Piss" for life. (This could still happen, but it won't be on my watch.)
How to Hold It Together When My Team Nearly Blew a 13-2 Lead -- For the first five innings on October 22, my Blue Team put on a proverbial baseball clinic. Our bats were big while our defense bent, but never broke. My mother made the 100-mile drive south for the game and Jalen couldn't have been more excited to play in front of his grandma. At the start of the sixth and final inning, my kids led 13-2.
And, then our defense broke.
I'd stationed one of my more glove-dependable players at shortstop and watched him make three errors on balls hit by the first four batters. With the bases loaded, my catcher remained a squatting statue on a ball that was hit approximately 18 inches from home plate. Even the other team's worst hitters were reaching base. I know this because they're the kids who invariably received the loudest and longest ovations when they made even a modicum of contact.
As our lead continued to shrink, a small parade of my players' parents peered into the dugout and broke out the rhetorical comedy. ("Are you nervous yet?" and "Do you want ME to push the panic button?") With the score now 13-7, the middle of the order was due up for our opponents. I called out to Jalen in centerfield, "Move back! This kid can hit! Don't let anything get by you!" Sure enough, the batter lashed a line drive up the middle. Jalen charged the rolling ball while curiously waving his bare hand in the air.
To this point, I'd been pretty stoic about the baseball Chernobyl unfolding in front of me. But, when the ball predictably rolled right under Jalen's glove, I turned away in disgust. I caught a glimpse of the "7" on the back of his jersey as he pursued the sphere that eluded him. E-8. 13-9.
After we recorded the second out of the inning, our opponents pushed across their 10th run. My first baseman (Nicholas) had a chance to end it, but he ranged too far to his right for a ground ball and couldn't get back to the bag in time. Making matters worse, he had to leave the game because the baserunner stepped on his foot. (I should've laughed at his unwanted nickname when I had the chance.) This led to one of my favorite conversations of the season:
Me: [To the bench.] "Jason! I need you on defense!"
Jason: "Yeah! I'm FINALLY playing first base!"
Me: "Uh, no. You're going into centerfield. JALEN! You're playing first!"
Jason: "Aww, but I..."
Thankfully, the third out came in short order, ending the agony as the Blue Team held on for a 13-10 win. Afterwards, I asked Jalen why he was waving his arm during his outfield error endeavor. "I was waving off the other fielders", he explained. "On a ground ball?", I asked incredulously. "Is Grandma still going to bake cookies tonight?", he responded.
How to Manage the Modern Ballplayer -- Two weeks before our final game, I received an e-vite to the birthday party of one of my better players. Earlier in the season, we played a game with a couple of no-shows. This required me to rework the batting order and adjust our defense on the fly. Joseph -- the soon-to-be birthday boy -- saw me struggling with the decisions and said, "You can put me anywhere on the field, Coach Aaron. I'm just happy to be playing!" I appreciated his overt team-first attitude and I let his parents know after the game what a wonderful little boy they're raising. And, that's why I felt so betrayed when I discovered Joseph's birthday party directly conflicted with the time of our final game. Obviously, Joseph was "...just happy to be playing..." with my emotions.
How to Win the Big One -- On October 29, we played the Orange Team for the third and final time. My bench would be completely empty as three of my kids were unable to attend. All of the absentees were fairly consistent hitters, so I suspected we wouldn't be able to out-slug the Oranges. Instead, I focused on defense by playing my Gold Glove group almost exclusively in the infield and rotating them through a handful of personnel permutations. What? This is how you win the big one! Our defense recorded three quick outs in the top of the first inning (including a terrific 6-3 putout). We scored two in the bottom frame: 2-0, Blue Team.
The Orange defense was matching us play-for-play as my kids could only stretch the lead to 3-0 by the top of the fourth inning. And, then our defense broke...again. I had to move some of my infielders to the outfield in accordance with the league's ambiguous, open-for-interpretation "every player must play at least one full inning in the outfield" rule. In the fourth and fifth innings, every groundball seemed to find one of my less-experienced players. They did not, however, find anyone's gloves. After the Orange Team finished batting in the top of the fifth, they led 5-3.
In the bottom of the fifth, the Blue Team rallied. We'd tied the score at 5-5 and up to the plate stepped Harshal. You might remember him from a few thousand words ago -- he's the cricket-playing five-year-old who's approximately half the size of my son. He popped a little infield single that somehow rolled into no man's land past the pitcher's mound. The go-ahead run scored and one batter later, we'd taken a 7-5 lead.
Top of the sixth inning. We were the last game of the day, so there'd be no time-limit tomfoolery. The first Orange batter smoked a liner down the first base line that Jalen caught with just a flick of his wrist. Once he'd completed his 15-second celebratory self-high five, he signaled to his teammates, "one out". The next two batters reached, but we got the remaining two outs we needed on the next two batters. A 7-5 win with invaluable contributions from "veterans" and "rookies" alike.
As it turned out, this was our last game of the season. Our November 4 game was cancelled due to rain, presumably freeing Joseph from the moral quandary of choosing between his teammates or cake and ice cream.
The day before the rainout, Jalen was sick and stayed home from school. He was still carrying a cold on the 4th when he told me over breakfast, "If it stops raining, I think I can play today."
"I don't think we're playing today", I admitted. "But, that's OK. We ended the season with a nice win."
"Yeah", Jalen said. "Remember that amazing catch I made last week against the Orange Team?"
"J", I responded. "I'll never forget it."