5 Little League games over next 10 days. Must track pitch counts lest I'm forced to keep promise to less talented players & let THEM pitch. -- From Twitter, May 12
Perhaps it wasn't worthy of a spread in Sports Illustrated, but I did have a strategy: use a three-man starting rotation with one of the two non-starters pitching in limited relief for the rest of the season. My son Jalen got the start on the mound and threw 49 pitches in our 16-10 win over the Cardinals. This made him unavailable for our next game just two days later, but it ensured that at least two of my three best pitchers would be available in every game down the stretch.
And, if George Will were indeed worthy of his journalistic accolades, he'd update Men at Work with a chapter about my decision to let our least-experienced, least-skilled player pitch the final inning on this day. To the layperson, it might've looked like I was preserving my superior pitchers. But, surely Will's poetic prose would paint a picture of a little boy -- who begged his manager all season for an appearance on the mound -- and his first opportunity to
"Could you play my son [who never listens, pays attention or catches baseballs] at 1B?" - Father of one of my players. Edited for clarity. -- From Twitter, May 14
Our team ran its undefeated streak to four games with a 7-5 win over the Braves. For me, the drama came before the first pitch. With just a handful of games left in the regular season, I knew which of my kids could handle the skill positions (infield, pitcher, catcher) and which kids couldn't (right field, left field). The child in question had been known to swing an imaginary lightsaber while playing the outfield and occasionally turned his back to the plate as the pitch was delivered. The only people more oblivious on a Little League baseball diamond are these guys.
I consulted m'man Smitty on the matter. He's a former high school football coach who occasionally faced irate parents with unreasonable expectations. When they asked why their kids weren't playing more, Smitty gave them his unvarnished opinion ("Your son is slow, he's weak and, if he plays, someone will get injured.") or invited the parents to come watch film with him to see for themselves. Preferring the passive-aggressive approach, I kept the possibility open by responding, "Well, let's see how he does at first base during pregame warm-ups." He...did not do well. He also screamed over to Jalen at shortstop, "Don't throw it so hard!" Come on, you guys. I was justified in not playing him, right?
Another Little League win tonight. Wife not happy. A parent told her, "They're playing better since your husband started yelling at them!" -- From Twitter, May 16
Look...I'm the last person to lazily apply the laws of cause and effect. I'm well aware that the infamous Bear Patrol Tax was NOT necessarily a bear deterrent. But, after my team's 17-11 win against the Pirates, we were 4-0-1 over our last five games -- which coincided with my pitch-perfect postgame promo to the team from five games ago. Before this game, some of the kids were half-assing it during infield practice. I threatened to make the entire team run laps -- for the first time all season -- if the kids didn't tighten it up with their gloves. As I returned from the dugout with another bucket of balls, I could see some of my players encouraging their two or three disinterested teammates. Or, maybe I caught the tail end of a kiddie code red. Either way, the rest of practice went off without a hitch...and my hands were clean, Lieutenant Kaffee.
5-game undefeated Little League streak ends. 20(!) runs allowed. Son (1+ IP, 6 R) helpfully pointed out everything everyone else did wrong. -- From Twitter, May 19
In the second inning, Jalen faced the biggest and strongest kid in the division. He doubled to deep left field. The sound of the ball off his bat -- and the reaction of those who heard it -- was recently recreated at the command of Mother Nature. Ask Mrs. Bootleg, you guys. I'm not exaggerating. J's usually emotional when I relieve him after a bad performance. On this day, J was emotionless when I took the ball. His facial expression -- and probably his thoughts -- captured perfectly here.
There wasn't much to love about our regular season-ending 17-8 loss to the best team in our division. 45 minutes before game time, one of my players showed up in jeans, sneakers and a polo shirt. His mother insisted he "didn't have time" to change clothes and she asked if he could play without his uniform. I had to think fast. "Unless he's wearing a cup inside those jeans, he can't play", I responded. The quizzical look on her face foreshadowed her next question. "A cup?"
Hoo boy. "Never mind", I conceded. "But, he's going to need to be in uniform to play."
Jalen, meanwhile, had a slightly more eventful evening. Late in our game, he lined a hit over the first base bag and down the line for a double. I was coaching first base at the time. I watched the ball. I watched the bag. Fair. Yet, the umpire called it foul. One of my coaches later compared my reaction to the scene in Happy Gilmore in which Happy first shows self-restraint. My son's reaction? Much more like a Major Leaguer.
Oh, I'm exaggerating. When Jalen was called back, his squeaky "WHAT?!" elicited appreciative applause from the A's families who've eaten up my son's made-for-TV act all season. He then melodramatically stomped back to home plate as if he were being sent to his room without dessert. On the very next pitch, he smacked one into the left-centerfield gap. It was an easy double, but J made the turn for third. And, when the left fielder made a slow lollipop throw back to the infield, Jalen turned at third and came all the way home.
The A's finished the regular season with a record of 6-8-1. Believe it or not, this was good enough to secure the third seed in our division's postseason tournament. But, if we're cataloging improbable accomplishments, J has to come before A's. As he excitedly exclaimed after the final regular season standings and statistics were posted to our league's website, "I tied for most home runs in the division!"
Hard to believe I had to be talked into managing him.