Friday, April 27, 2012

The LL Chronicles #17: The Worst Game Ever Played...and Won

Learned one of my players won't be at game today. He's performing at "Melody Makers" youth concert. I...should keep this from his teammates. -- From my Twitter feed, April 18.

Going into our game against the Cardinals, my Athletics were actually down three players.  Two of the three were Jason and Gautham -- who you might remember from the base stealing drill section in my last Little League post.  I may (or may not) have sent a celebratory text message to Mrs. Bootleg after hearing the news.  Unfortunately, there's no time to check my cell phone to confirm (or deny).

Top of the First Inning

My eight-year-old son Jalen was our starting pitcher and -- surely, to the surprise of none of you -- he takes this responsibility seriously.  The first batter for the Cardinals was a little boy named Joseph.  He just so happens to be one of Jalen's classmates.  As he approached the plate, Joseph waved out to the mound and exclaimed, "Hi, Jalen!"  The silent response he received from my son was akin to this.  I doubt Joseph had seen this side of Jalen during show-and-tell.  Three pitches later, Joseph had struck out swinging as Jalen punctuated the punch-out with a sudden, disdainful turn of his back to the vanquished batter.

The Cardinals' second batter witnessed the previous sequence from the on-deck circle and immediately burst into tears, refusing to come to the plate.  I initially assumed Jalen had actually intimidated someone, but as the game wore on, it became clear that this child cried before every at-bat and had to be practically dragged to the batter's box.  Knowing my son, the thought crossed my mind to run out to the mound and instruct Jalen NOT to throw a brushback pitch. Thankfully, the batter grounded out to shortstop on the first pitch.

Jalen got cuffed around by the 3-4-5 hitters, surrendering a single, a walk and a two-run knock.  But, his second baseman made a nifty diving stop on a groundball to stop the bleeding.  Cardinals 2, Athletics 0

Bottom of the First Inning

After our last game, I was told that my best hitter may have broken his finger.  It turns out it was only sprained and after a rainout the previous Saturday, he'd had more than a week to rest.  I don't want to imply that our roster couldn't withstand the loss of its most important offensive component -- at least not without referencing what happened to a team far greater than ours that lost its most offensive component.

My leadoff hitter singled and Jalen followed with a walk.  After a wild pitch moved both runners into scoring position, we tied the score on a pair of groundouts.  My team has gone through odd offensive droughts at inopportune times all season.  We needed a shutdown inning on the mound from my son so that our batters could build a little breathing room and...hey, where's that ominous music coming from?  Athletics 2, Cardinals 2

Top of the Second Inning

Jalen is back on the mound and bookends a pair of walks with a pair of strikeouts.  There are strict pitch count rules in Little League and two of those statutes were quickly becoming an issue.  As an eight-year-old, Jalen isn't allowed to throw more than 50 pitches in a game (unless he goes over during an at-bat to the last batter he'll face) and if he throws more than 50 pitches, the league mandates three calendar days of rest before he can pitch again -- making him unavailable for our next game.

On his 47th pitch, Jalen issues his third walk of the inning.  As I make my way to the mound, I'm unsure of who I want to bring in.  We just need one more out to escape the inning and with a potential force play at any base, I choose Jalen's teammate Kengo.  This would be his first pitching appearance since his reluctant relief role last month.  That inning left him in a catatonic state for the remainder of the game.  Looking back, I should've took Jalen's skeptical "Kengo?!" response more seriously.

As Kengo warmed up, I realized I f****d up.  The umpire had moved to the far right end of the backstop to drink from a bottle of water.  Kengo hit him with his first warm-up pitch.  The next few pitches were similarly nowhere near the vicinity of home plate.  When he finally threw a borderline strike, I attempted to make both of us feel better about my decision:

Me: "Kengo!  There you go!  Just like that!  Kengo! Pitchin' machine!"
Jalen [from second base]: "REALLY, dad?"

Me: "..."

(And, yes, I did shamelessly lift pep talk from Moneyball as my inspiration.)

The good news?  Kengo only needed 13 pitches to get out of the inning.  The bad news?  He used up his pitches on an RBI single, a 2-RBI single and a 2-RBI double.  At least he threw strikes.  And, fortunately, he had a supportive group of teammates who would put aside their own interests to console one of their own.  "Dad", Jalen said. "I think all of my runs should be charged to Kengo."  Cardinals 7, Athletics 2

Bottom of the Second Inning

The Cardinals were the last winless team in our division, but I resisted the urge to use that as a rallying cry for my kids.  Instead, I opted to incredulously mutter it to myself, repeatedly, with my arms folded and an occasional shake of my head.  If one of my players -- with their inquisitive little minds -- had asked what I was saying, it would've been impolite to stay silent, right?

With one out and runners on first and second, Jalen stepped to the plate.  My son tends to put too much pressure on himself in clutch situations.  From the first base coach's box, I shouted encouragement while concurrently worrying about a blown opportunity if we failed to dig into the Cardinals' lead.

On the first pitch he saw, Jalen lined a double to the opposite field.  The ball alternately seemed to hang in the air forever, yet it was low enough to the ground for me to see it pass right under my nose.  When it hit the chalk, Coach Aaron -- for some reason -- chased the ball down the line...and lost his mind:


I'm screaming this while literally running into short right field.  When I turn back towards first base, Jalen is already kicking up dust with a slide into second.  My hysterics reminded me of a skit from Chris Rock's old HBO show.  (Fast forward to the 0:49 mark. Also, NSFW! NSFW! NSFW!)  One out later, Kengo(!) brought home our second and third runs of the innings with a double of his own.  Cardinals 7, Athletics 5

Top of the Third Inning

Garrett had been one of our better pitchers all season long, so I brought him in to start the inning.  It usually doesn't take long to tell which version of Garrett we're going to get.  There's "effective, pitch-efficient Garrett" and "ineffective, throws-a-million pitches Garrett".  I'll let the reader decipher the data based on the result of each opposing at-bat that evening: walk, single, walk, strikeout!, strikeout!!  We're not done!  Double, single, single, single.  Hang on...I have to move to the top of the next column in my scorebook since the Cardinals just batted around. Walk, single (runner out trying to stretch it to a double).  36 pitches.  OK, now guess which Garrett we got?  Cardinals 12, Athletics 5

Bottom of the Third Inning

Remember the kid who cried before every at-bat?  He's now in to pitch for the Cardinals.  Tonight's second-inning Kengo adventure notwithstanding, I've pretty much used the same three pitchers all season.  It seems like we're either playing from behind or holding the slimmest of leads in all of our games.  I'd love to be playing with a large enough margin to give my less-talented kids the experience of pitching.  And, as a bonus, it can be TOTALLY demoralizing to the manager of the losing team as he comes to the realization that...HEY!  This is demoralizing to me! 

My spirits were somewhat lifted after our team scored five runs on two hits and SIX walks.  (I needed a snarky sentence to end this paragraph and I couldn't decide between "Maybe the Cardinals should've kept their mop-up man in the bucket." or "It looks like the Cardinals' mop-up man was all wet."  They're equally awful.  Let's go with both.)  Cardinals 12, Athletics 10

Top of the Fourth Inning

I needed Garrett to throw another inning.  He's nine-years-old, so his pitch limit is 75.  He started strong with a strikeout, but then allowed three walks, two hits and two runs after that.  Garrett struck out the final two batters, but as my team left the field, I realized I'd forgotten to keep track of Garrett's pitches. 

Managers can get in serious trouble for violating the pitch count rules.  I approached the official scorer and with honest humility said, "Hey, I need to verify something on my scorecard. Can I borrow the scorebook?"  Since it's written in pencil, the data inside would be easy to, verify.  Amazingly, Garrett threw exactly 40 pitches in the inning.  (No, seriously.  That's what was in the book before it was handed to me.  Really. I'm not being "cute" here.) He passed 75 while pitching to his last batter.  Acceptable!  Cardinals 14, Athletics 10

Bottom of the Fourth Inning

"No new after two."  That's the league catchphrase for the following rule at the 8 to 10-year-old level: no new inning may begin after two hours.  It's just after 7:00 PM, so this will be the last half-inning played today.  The lights on our field haven't worked all season, so we're basically playing until we make three outs or score five runs or the sun goes down.

The Cardinals bring in a boy named Prentice and he's built like a bipedal bull elephant.  His warm-up pitches produce the loudest pops of the night into the catcher's mitt.  Austin, my last-place hitter, is up to start the inning.  On his first swing, Austin is nearly 15 minutes late on the fastball.  On his second swing, Austin again misses the ball by a mile awarded first base?!  Catcher's interference!  It's really a thing, non-baseball fans!

Unfortunately, the catcher -- who was hit in the hand by the batter's swing -- is splayed across home plate in tears.  I don't doubt for a second that this kid was legitimately hurt.  I also don't doubt that the Cardinals used this as an opportunity to...  OK, I won't go there.  But, after tending to the catcher's hand forever, the Cardinals announced they'd be replacing him behind the plate -- meticulously taking off each piece of his gear as if it were made of glass.  After the replacement catcher was suited up -- MIRACULOUSLY -- the original catcher was all better, so the Cardinals s-l-o-w-l-y switched out the catcher's equipment back to the first kid.  This sucked up a lot of remaining sunlight.

I'm not sure how this all played with Prentice's emotions, but he proceeded to walk the next four batters and most of the pitches weren't even close.  After an especially ferocious strikeout pitch -- that essentially disintegrated my littlest hitter -- Prentice walked two more, the last of which brought home the tying run.

Both teams are playing in twilight and the Cardinals' coaches could've made a reasonable case for stopping play out of respect for the safety of the players.  Our team has batted around as Austin is at the plate once again.  He works the count full and takes ball four on a pitch that sails over the umpire's head.  Athletics 15, Cardinals 14 -- FINAL

I'm a little embarrassed at my team's excessive celebration.  I'm a little relieved that we pulled this one out.  And, I'm feeling a LOT of compassion for the Cardinals players -- several of whom were openly excited at the prospect of their first win a few innings earlier.  This was one of those weird games that I'll always remember...even while hoping half the participants quickly forget it.

Last night, my son's Little League team scored 15 runs on 5 hits & 18 walks. Proud to play our part in killing off the national pastime! -- From Twitter, April 19.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The LL Chronicles #16: Winning, Losing & Other Big Organic Globules

Wife unhappy w/my explanation to my son on why he's not my starting pitcher in Little League tonight: "Your ERA is 24.00 vs. these guys." -- From my Twitter feed, March 29.

The Braves were our opponents on this evening and in the two games he's pitched against them, my eight-year-old son Jalen had allowed eight runs in just three innings of work. Now, I know some of you are rolling your eyes and wondering who in the world keeps stats at a Little League level for kids eight-to-ten-years-old. (And, to you I say: welcome, new readers!) But, the lone benefit to my son's hyper-competitiveness is that he GETS the game's fun-siphoning, inelastic statistical side. Here's how Jalen responded to Mrs. Bootleg's terse consternation: "No, Mom. Dad's right. 24.00 IS pretty high." Oh, don't look at me like that. It IS pretty high.

Without the pressure of starting pitching, Jalen was able to focus his early in-game attention on offense. Almost one month into the season and he still hadn't recorded a stolen base. Next to pitching, this was the aspect of playing in a higher division that Jalen was most excited about. After reaching base in the first inning, Jalen took an awkward, would-be Rickey-lead from the bag. He was trying to do
this. But, he ended up looking like this. And, for some reason, he refused to take his eyes off the pitcher.
Me: [Between pitches, coaching at first base.] "Why are you staring at the pitcher, J?"

Jalen: [Still staring at pitcher.] "I'm trying to read the pitcher so I know when to steal."

Me: "You can't steal until the ball crosses home plate. There's no point in 'reading the pitcher'."

Jalen: "So...who should I read?"

Me: "..."

It was my first time coaching the bases this season and it didn't take me long to realize how much I missed these conversations with my son. We're still in the first inning. Jalen's still at first base.
Me: "Steal on the pitch after this."

Jalen: "Can I give myself the green light and steal after THIS pitch."

Me: "No."

Jalen: "But, I can make it!"

Me: "J, it's a 3-0 count. Let's see if the pitcher can throw a..."

Jalen: [Takes off for second base. Advances to third base on an overthrow.]



Son pitched in Little League tonight. 3 batters faced, 3 walks. He's seen "Major League", so he appreciated my "ball 4...ball 8" taunting. -- From Twitter, March 29.

Our team took an 11-6 lead into the final inning. It seemed like a large enough cushion and after two hours of glacially-paced baseball, most of the kids were looking ahead to postgame junk food and high-fructose faux-fruit fluids. So...I gave Jalen the ball -- with instructions to take his time and not overthrow. As I learned while standing next to him at first base a few innings earlier, Jalen wasn't in much of a listening mood. After four straight balls to the first batter -- and increasingly guttural grunts during each pitch -- I went out to the mound for a one-on-one with my son.

Eight pitches later, Jalen had walked the bases loaded.

This wasn't one of my finest moments as a father. As I stomped back out towards the mound to remove Jalen from the game, I felt more exasperation than empathy. Despite the fact that he's the youngest player on the team, Jalen is probably our best pitcher. As I stuck my hand out for the ball, Jalen looked up while mightily fighting back tears and said simply, "I didn't pitch the way that I wanted."

This also wasn't one of my finest moments as a coach. I replaced Jalen with a player named Justin who'd only pitched in one other game all season. Thanks to an interminable series of walks, hits, errors and altogether unwatchable baseball, we surrendered five runs in the inning, but held on for an 11-10 win. Justin practically collapsed in an emotional heap as he walked off the mound and I felt just as terrible for leaving him in to get pounded as I did for yanking Jalen mid-inning.

I made a point of apologizing to both of them after the game, but the parents of one of my players had sprung for postgame pizza. My contrition was lost beneath a circular sea of cheap cheese and victory.

Yesterday at baseball practice, one kid wouldn't do sliding drill. ("I don't like to get dirty.") Too young for me to order a "code red"? -- From Twitter, April 5.

During our win against the Braves, one of my players was thrown out on an attempt to steal second base. This is to say, he ran halfway to second base before inexplicably stopping to watch the catcher's throw and then was tagged out by the shortstop who casually walked about 30 feet to meet my player -- who still hadn't moved -- on the base path.

During our sliding drill, the only messages I attempted to impart were: don't worry about form -- just get low and get dirty. There are 11 kids on my team. Most of them either picked up the proper age-appropriate technique pretty quickly or had already been sliding into every damn base since tee ball (guess who?). Two of my kids, however, needed a wee bit more instruction.

Jason lined up with the other players at first base before begging out. As you might remember, he doesn't like to get dirty. Gautham, on the other hand, might've been better off using a similar excuse. He's one of those kids whose talent is lapped by his enthusiasm.

And, speaking of's a
Major League Baseball replica of what I'm working with. During our drill, Gautham began what I'll politely call a "gingerly slog" towards the vicinity of second base. Eventually, he came to a complete stop and simply fell on top of the bag. The dropping of my jaw was in perfect sync with the dropping of his entire body. Curiously, in certain circles, his technique could be considered quite electrifying.

Little League tomorrow vs. best team in division. My pitcher is playing 1st game after missing 6 weeks w/broken arm. This should end well. -- From Twitter, April 9.

Seeking to avenge our 11-4 loss to the Rangers earlier in the season, I sent a new pitcher to the mound. Austin had broken his arm back in mid-February and his cast came off at the end of March. In his first practice back with the team, he flashed a surprisingly strong arm. Not
THIS strong, mind you, but I've been waiting eight weeks to work that reference in here. As a bonus, Austin hadn't yet let the Rangers get inside his head -- unlike the rest of my pitchers.

After the top of the first mercifully ended, Austin had surrendered five runs. Welcome to the psych ward, son.

Sadly, no storybook ending tonight. Although, watching 8-year-old Jalen bark at the 13-year-old home plate umpire was GOLD. -- From Twitter, April 10.

I've railed against the umpiring in our Little League division all season and the race continues to see whether father or son is the first one ejected from a game. On this night, the matchbook-sized strike zone gave both teams fits. Jalen took the initial squeezing silently -- if not sportingly -- by extending both arms, scowling down at the umpire from the top of the mound and shaking his head in condescending disgust. After a few more tight "ball" calls, Jalen mixed in a squeaky "Come ON!" and "That was a STRIKE!"

I pulled Jalen from the game with a half-hearted lecture on respecting the umpire's authority and adjusting to whatever strike zone he's calling that day. Of course, Jalen responded just loud enough..."But, before, YOU said the umpire was terrible, Dad!"

Despite 14-8 Little League loss, I should get credit for my head not exploding when my baserunner walked off base to pick up a live ball.. -- From Twitter, April 10.

Coach Aaron is STILL recovering from this game. On an overthrow from the opposing catcher back to the pitcher, my baserunner strolled off of second base to pick up the ball. We'd plated three runs in the inning, but he became the third out. On top of that, the ongoing horseplay in our dugout belied the results on the scoreboard. Midway through this massacre, I might've gathered the team together and reenacted several parts of this
recent movie scene. I will, of course, deny it if pressured by Child Protective Services.

The proverbial last straw came towards the end of the game when one of our players was beaned in the helmet by an errant pitch. His teammates rose to his defense from the dugout. At the Major League level, this might be considered admirable. But, from children? 

"You're next!"

"We're going to remember this!"

"You better not be batting next inning!"

Ugh. We had a l-o-n-g team meeting after the game to address this nonsense. 

Just learned that my Little League team's best hitter may have broken his finger. My eight-year-old son's reaction: "We're doomed." -- From Twitter, April 11.