This past Friday night, Mrs. Bootleg and I celebrated the birthday of a dear family friend. She was my wife's matron of honor at our wedding. She dispenses appropriate amounts of ball-busting my way, while maintaining a wonderful rapport with our eight-year-old son, Jalen. And, her job as an international flight attendant means that we receive periodic hand-delivered coffee from Columbia.
So, of course we took good care of her last Friday. We dined at Donovan's Steakhouse in La Jolla and, to mark the occasion, my wife finished an additional full glass of wine to go with the half-glass she usually consumes in social settings. Since she only stands 4'8", the end result of her evening was equal parts "cautionary" and "high comedy". Here's an artist's rendition of Mrs. Bootleg sitting in the passenger's seat position on the drive home.
I cut myself off after one measly Maker's Mark Manhattan -- dutifully poured to the very top of my old-fashioned glass! -- and an additional, albeit puzzling post-dinner chaser. Our dinner reservations were at 7:00 PM and 12 hours later, the wife and I were pulling into our community park for Little League pictures at 7:00 AM.
Followed by Little League Opening Day ceremonies at 7:45 AM.
Followed by our game at 10:00 AM.
Now, I suppose there's a valuable lesson to be learned in quickly transitioning from an evening of adult imbibing to a morning filled with nearly 400 children. But, I doubt it's as valuable as what I've learned in my first six weeks as manager of my son's Little League team.
(Yes, I know I wrote an identically-themed post late last year. Pipe down and enjoy the first new material I've written in nearly a month!)
"Your Son Puts on Quite a Show!" -- Proving that life imitates Bud Selig's short-sightedness, our team had already played two games prior to the official "Opening Day". My eight-year-old son Jalen has pitched in each of our games and performed surprisingly well -- striking out seven in four innings. As a pitcher, he's added to his collection of crowd-pleasing schtick by unleashing one of these with every pitch and mixing in the occasional Arabian strikeout celebration in which J gestures towards the heavens. Insufferable? Absolutely. And, this is the "toned down" version.
Black History Month is Every Month -- Prior to our game last Wednesday, I handed out jerseys to my kids. Our league issues the same twelve numbers to every team, presumably settling on the most meaningful and iconic digits in the history of Major League Baseball -- even though Rickey Henderson's "24" isn't available, but "58" (Jonathan Papelbon? Justin Duchscherer?) is. Jalen took the field with "5" on his back -- his favorite number. Before the first pitch, the umpire approached me:
Umpire: "I'm surprised you didn't give your son [Jackie Robinson's] '42'. There's a lot of history there."
Me: [Awkward laughter] "Yeah...but, J's always liked number 5. He was really glad to get it."
Umpire: "Well, I coach a team at the next level up. I make it a point to teach them about the history of the game, too."
If that short conversation wasn't surreal enough, I should point out that it was a Hispanic guy lecturing me on "Intro to Negro Sports Heroes". Never mind that my son could dorkily run rings around both of us when it comes to MLB history. When I referenced this exchange on Twitter and in subsequent conversations, I received a treasure trove of retorts I should've said...but, this one from m'man Sam was my favorite:
"Is Jalen the first black kid to play in this Little League?"
Speaking of Umpires... -- Has anyone else ever noticed that the three worst MLB umpires over the last 25 years are African-American? Honestly, would you dispute the names CB Bucknor, Kerwin Danley and/or the late Eric Gregg? Well, the umpires at the Little League level are giving them a run for their money. The strike zones randomly expand when innings are running long and then mysteriously tighten up for no real reason. During our second game, the first base umpire immediately apologized to me -- both times! -- after missing consecutive calls at the bag.
And, I'll give you three guesses as to which of my players has been the most demonstratively irritated at the umps. I'm morbidly looking forward to Jalen's eventual first ejection and mandatory one-game suspension. If only because I expect Mrs. Bootleg to get thrown out as well for her reaction to her baby getting the boot.
The Dad Factor -- Back in January, during my introductory round of phone calls to the players' families, I spoke with the father of a 10-year-old boy who believed his son was too good for this level of Little League. At his first practice, it was clear that this kid could mash a little, but had no feel for any other aspect of the game. He couldn't throw, he couldn't catch, he couldn't field and he couldn't run. I plugged him into the third spot of the lineup and assumed he'd produce as many runs with the bat as he'd give up with the glove.
Instead, his at-bats are a sad indictment on overzealous sports parents. The biggest and strongest player on my team turns nervous and tentative as his dad stands ominously -- arms folded, barking orders -- behind the backstop. Consequently, when this kid is in uniform, he's an emotional and behavioral mess. (That's gotta be worse than fathers who blithely exploit their children for lightly-read blog fodder, right? Right.)
The Dad Factor II -- After our most recent game, the father of one of my players chatted me up as I exited the dugout:
Father: "Hey, coach. I noticed Justin hasn't gotten a chance to pitch yet. Just so you know, he's been practicing at home and I think he's ready to try."
Me: "Justin will get to pitch in our next game. I had to bump him from today's game when..."
Father: "Do you think he could pitch the first inning? He'll have to leave early next week."
The Pitching Debut -- Drew is already one of my favorite players on the team...and he just so happens to be the smallest player on the team. His arm, however, is not small. Last Wednesday, just before the start of the fourth inning, we had a short conversation:
Me: "How's your arm, Drew?"
Drew: [Terrified] "WHAT?"
Me: "Do you think you can pitch this inning?"
Drew: [Still terrified] "I'm not ready!"
Me: "You'll be fine. You've got a strong arm and I know you're ready to pitch."
Drew: "OK, coach."
Believe it or not, Drew struck out the side -- after loading the bases on two walks and a hit -- and didn't give up a run. His ear-to-ear grin as he bounced off the mound is the early leader for my favorite non-Jalen moment of the season.
The Pitching Debut II -- On Saturday, one of my other players made his first appearance on a pitcher's mound. Kengo had previously flashed an above-average arm during infield drills, so I was anxious to see if it carried over to pitching. He (VERY) reluctantly took the ball to start the fourth inning with our team trailing by a run. As Kengo began his warm-up pitches, I noticed my centerfielder in tears with his face buried in his glove. I jogged to the outfield to find out what was wrong:
Me: "Are you OK, Jeff?"
Jeff: "I didn't pitch good." [He got clobbered in the previous inning.]
Me: "Well, I'm proud of you for hanging in there. You're one of my best players and I know you'll be..."
Kengo: "Hey, Coach?"
Me: "Kengo?! What are you doing out here? Why aren't you warming up?"
Kengo: "Can I switch with someone else? I don't want to pitch."
Me: "You're pitching. Go back to the mound. You'll be fine. [Turning to Jeff] And, Jeff...you'll be fine, too. "
Even though Kengo appeared to be holding his breath the entire time, he pitched a scoreless inning. As he walked off the mound, the vacant look on his face registered somewhere between "traumatized" and "petrified". He didn't say a word for the rest of the game. The next day I received a really sweet e-mail from his mother insisting that Kengo was a little nervous, but excited to pitch. She went on to explain that he didn't seem excited because it's inappropriate to show emotion on the field in Japanese culture.
I think the first thing I'm going to tell Kengo before our next game is that he's not pitching. I'm guessing he'll show some emotion at that.
The Secret of Baseball -- I spoke too soon. Drew's high-wattage smile only spent a few days as my favorite moment of the season. In Saturday's game, my least-experienced player got hit by a pitch with the bases loaded -- forcing in a run. As the next batter stepped to the plate, the runner on first shouted, "Don't swing! Try to get hit by the ball and they'll let you go to first base for free!"