Tryouts for the 2012 Spring Little League season will be held this weekend and my seven-year-old son Jalen will attempt to move up to the 8-to-10-year-old division. I was asked to come back and manage a team after leading Jalen's fall squad to a .667 winning percentage. (Hey, they wouldn't keep score if they DIDN'T want me to incessantly mention it.) I'm taking a wait-and-see approach on my next managerial gig, but thankfully, the memories from this past fall are still fresh in my mind.
Before I blog-embark on another season of "Baseball Jalen" tales, I wanted to revisit my son's fall team and share their individual, uh…scouting reports. As always, don't be fooled by any prickly assessments below. These were a great group of kids that I enjoyed tremendously – for the most part.
Joseph -- Always cheerful and never without an ear-to-ear grin, Joseph fit the "good chemistry/good teammate" cliché perfectly. He never complained when I penciled him in to play the more unpalatable positions and he contributed enough with the glove and the bat to become one of my more indispensible players. Speaking of his bat...late in the season, he ditched his 27-inch stick in favor of a 30-inch model. The three inch difference might seem negligible, but at the plate, it appeared he had traded in his bat for a boat paddle. Eventually, Joseph choked-up enough to completely negate the extra length. This eerily-accurate artist's rendition might better explain the imagery. MLB Equivalent: Placido Polanco
Abhi -- In an early season game, the Blue Team was clinging to a 9-8 lead in the top of the final inning -- two outs and the tying run on third base -- when the opposing batter hit a weak dribbler up the third base line. Abhi, who was playing catcher, ran up the line in pursuit of the ball as the runner on third broke for home plate. Somehow, Abhi scooped up the ball and reached back in time to tag the runner who had just passed him on the base path. An ecstatic Abhi struck a pose similar to this over the fallen, sobbing baserunner.
Abhi might've been too intense for an eight-year-old as he was the one driven to tears after an excruciating loss in which he struck out to end the game. In the dugout, one of my coaches -- an older man with a thick Boston accent -- consoled Abhi (AH-bee), but kept mispronouncing his name as "AY-bee". "My name is ABHI!", he shrieked before storming off. I don't know about Abhi, but the whole scene cheered me up. MLB Equivalent: Ivan (pronounced "eee-VAHN") Rodriguez
Jake -- The left-handed half of my regular 3-4 middle of the order, Jake was never hard to miss. He'd erupt in over-the-top mock excitement whenever I played him at a position he liked (first base) or over-the-top mock disappointment whenever I played him at a position he didn't like (everywhere else). Jake wore blindingly tie-dyed tank tops to every practice and established unbreakable Little League single-season records for flatulence, belches and all other qualifying bodily functions. Before you roll your eyes, keep in mind that the fall season is less than half the length of the spring season. Less than half! MLB Equivalent: Matt Stairs
Nicholas -- The right-handed half of my regular 3-4 middle of the order, Nicholas was the quiet, inconspicuous response to Jake. Built like a baby bull with bright blonde old-school Eminem hair, he could hit a ton. On defense, however, he would've been the first seven-year-old designated hitter if our league allowed it. He shuffled after fly balls as if he were stuck in the mud. He'd bend down for groundballs with a groan, a grimace and what appeared to be an adolescent arthritic hip. In all seriousness, few players made me smile more. (With or without the infamous Nickel Piss anecdote. But, mostly with it.) MLB Equivalent: John Kruk
Garrett -- There weren't many players on my team who tried harder to hit the ball. Unfortunately, there weren't many players on my team who were less successful at it. Garrett picked up a few hits early in the season, but then went into a prolonged hitless slump at the plate that he was never able to shake. My coaches and I tried everything from extra batting practice before games to hitting wiffle balls off a tee behind the dugout during games. I even tried my hand at amateur psychology by ensuring he always hit in front of a pair of five-year-old teammates who'd never played above tee-ball. Nothing seemed to work. Late in one game, he returned to the dugout stone-faced after another strikeout and told me, "Coach, I don't want to hit any more today, but I will if you really need me." Sometimes this game sucks. MLB Equivalent: Darin Erstad
LB -- I never learned what "LB" stood for, but the obvious and, admittedly, laziest guess is "linebacker". He was only five-years-old and couldn't have weighed more than 40 lbs., but he approached the game of baseball with a football player's mentality. He desperately wanted to go behind the plate to catch, but the protective equipment didn't fit him. Instead, over the course of the season, he ended up on the business end of three separate collisions with baserunners elsewhere on the infield. Each time, he'd scrunch his face up -- mightily fighting back tears that never dared to materialize -- and refuse to leave the game.
He was just as passionate on offense. A decent little left-handed hitter, LB never really embraced the inherent ebb and flow of the game's successes and failures. After one at-bat (an RBI groundout) LB walked back to our bench and flung his batting helmet the entire length of the dugout. I took one step towards him, when his mother -- a currently-enlisted U.S. Marine -- left the stands, stormed past me and marched into my dugout to deal with LB. Let's move on. MLB Equivalent: Any adorable, yet terrifying MLB team logo
Harshal -- His dad informed me that Harshal's only previous athletic experience was cricket. This was after the first month of the season, as the little guy didn't join our team until the fourth or fifth game. After he entered the dugout for the first time, he noticed Jalen's high socks and immediately pulled his up over the baggy legs of his ill-fitting baseball pants. The end result was more Jane Fonda than Jackie Robinson. Harshal, by the way, was also hilariously terrified of me. He'd meekly call out to his dad whenever I stepped in his direction and my coaching – delivered to him gently, always on one knee in my best imitation of a paternal tone – bounced right off his frightened face. I'll always remember him for (1) the RBI infield single that scored the go-ahead run against our archrivals and (2) the odd way he'd nod in acknowledgment of something I said – not up and down, but instead side to side. I think you better recognize. MLB Equivalent: David Eckstein
Justin -- My first prima donna! Justin was fundamentally sound on defense, a terrific hitter...and he knew it. He'd stare down any teammate in the vicinity of second base who failed to cover the bag when Justin was readying a throw from shortstop. After the final out, he'd walk right up to me and orally itemize his in-game accomplishments in hopes of securing some recognition in my postgame speech to the kids. And, after our first loss, he loudly proclaimed to no one in particular, "I wish I was still on my spring team. We won the championship." He also lost his cap at some point and absolutely bawled like a baby during the 30 seconds it took for me to reach into the equipment bag and give him another. I thought you should know. MLB Equivalent: Jack Parkman
Jazz -- YES…like the Autobot! Five-year-old Jazz was roughly half the size of Justin with twice the ego, but none of the insufferable attributes. Trust me…the "characteristic mathematics" check out. Jazz wore gold chains around his neck and a single batting glove on his left hand – at all times. His cheering section was easily the largest and loudest (naturally) in the league as every Jazz at-bat was accompanied by a cavalcade of cell phone camera clicks and "Jazz-EE, Jazz-EE" chants. In one game, he tried to stretch a single to very, very shallow centerfield into a double. He was out by 50 feet, but, as I'm sure he'd be the first to admit…he looked good doin' it. MLB Equivalent: Deion Sanders
Jason -- Halfway through the season, Jason settled in as my permanent leadoff hitter – an odd accomplishment when you consider baseball was often the last thing on his mind. On defense, he'd dance around in small circles and carry on animated conversations with the air around him. At the plate, he'd goof off for a few pitches (wearing his batting helmet backwards or using silly, intentionally-twisted batting stances) before whacking another hit. He was completely resistant to my discipline, but during one game, he acted up in the dugout on my wife's watch. Mrs. Bootleg was my de facto bench coach for most of the season and let's just say she got him to sit down. No, I won't explain. MLB Equivalent: Manny Ramirez
Aiden -- He and I got off to a great start when he begged out of our first game after one at-bat. No reason…he just didn't want to play anymore. Later in the season, he ran afoul of my de facto bench coach by scaling the chain-link walls of our dugout before Mrs. Bootleg…"got him to sit down". It wasn't long before I simply shifted my focus to the kids who wanted to be there. What's that you ask? Why didn't I exhibit the same indifferent attitude towards any of the other kids who acted up? It's because the other kids could hit. Have none of you ever watched professional sports and the double-standards that define them? MLB Equivalent: Milton Bradley
Collin -- He always swung the bat with ferocity and his intimidating "game face" -- an omnipresent scowl with one or two missing front teeth -- reminded me of... this guy. (Just in the face! Just in the face!) After the first month of the season, Collin's swing got really long. But, before the strikeouts could pile too high, he took my intricate advice ("Relax, Collin. Nice level swing. Free and easy. See ball, hit ball.") to heart and turned his fortunes around. MLB Equivalent: Dustin Pedroia
After the season, Collin handed me an envelope with a card enclosed that read:
Dear Coach Cameron,
Thank you for being my coach. I had a lot of fun on your team. I think our team played well. I learned to swing level, not like in golf, from you. I hope I can be on your team again.
And, sometimes this game is great.