Last Saturday, my son's fall Little League team played their second game of the season. First pitch was at high noon. The temperature was 106 degrees.
San Diego has had an unusually humid summer (which is to say we've actually had measurable humidity). And, while I'll stop short of comparing the recent Southern California climate to, say, St. Louis or central Florida, 60% humidity still kinda sucks. We received a two or three-day reprieve from the steaminess last weekend...only to see it replaced by hot, dry Santa Ana winds -- a good six weeks ahead of their usual inconvenient ETA.
My kids were expected to play six innings -- possibly up to two-and-a-half hours -- under these conditions. Through relatively recent personal experience, I could relate. In August 2007, I spent a few days in Orlando attending a conference at the Disneyworld Convention Center complex. On my first day, I arrived late and was forced to walk almost 100 yards across the asphalt parking lot while nattily attired in my four-button black suit -- elegantly accentuated with a buttercream-colored dress shirt and black n' butterscotch tie. It was 9:30 AM and already 930 degrees.
With that in mind, I loaded up my largest cooler with four dozen small bottles of water and limited the kids to a 30-minute pregame warm-up. Now, that might sound excessive for eight and nine-year-olds, but you should know that I didn't punish ANY of the kids who made the obvious "Warm ups? I think we're already warm enough, coach" joke before we started.
In the bottom of the first inning, we exploded for five runs. I was coaching third base when my clean-up hitter arrived at the bag, moving from first to third on a single. His breathing seemed a bit labored and the glassiness in his eyes was a touch shy of terrifying. The look on his face reminded me of... Robin?
Me: "Raymond, are you OK?"
Me: "Raymond, look at me. Do you need to come out?"
Me: "TIME! Go to the dugout, get some water and take a break. I'll get a pinch..."
Jalen: [from the first base dugout] "CAN I PINCH-RUN FOR RAYMOND, DAD?! I'M HYDRATED!"
In the second inning, we scored four more runs and took a 9-0 lead into the top of the third. I handed the ball to my son Jalen. We're using the fall season to work on mixing his pitches -- a work-in-progress four-seam fastball and a change-up that he's much more comfortable with. He recorded an early strikeout with two fastballs and an 0-2 change-up, but walked two batters who moved up to second and third on a wild pitch.
A second wild pitch scored the first run for our opponents and when our catcher slowly loafed after the ball -- with Jalen racing to cover home plate, squeakily screaming "HOME! HOME! HOME!" -- J lit into him on the field in front of everyone.
Jalen's tightly-wound intensity is a bit of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, he's not the most physically gifted eight-year-old athlete, but he makes up most of the difference with his competitiveness. After every game, other parents approach me with compliments for my son's textbook sliding technique or his hustle down the first base line or even his failed attempts to fight back tears after an especially tough loss. ("I wish MY kid cared that much!")
On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the kids don't care about the game's outcome as much as my son. There's a time and a place (and an age) for administering verbal beatdowns masked as constructive criticism. I don't know when or where (or how old) that is, but I'm reasonably sure this isn't it. I call "time" and slowly exit the dugout. I'm not happy. I remove my tacky wrap-around sunglasses and dramatically flick the shades slightly skyward. So that I catch Jalen's eye, yes, I'm channeling the melodramatic effect of Randy "Macho Man" Savage. (Skip to the 2:40 mark of this clip to see what I mean.) When I reach the mound, I bend at the waist and look Jalen in the eye:
Me: "Knock. It. Off. You CANNOT show up your teammates on the field like that."
Jalen: "But, we lost the shutout because of..."
Me: "We're a team, J. We win as a team, we lose as a team. Make your pitches, get out of this inning and respect the guys behind you."
Jalen: "OK. Should I say 'I'm sorry' to Garrett?"
Me: "After the inning's over."
Jalen: "Does that run count against my ERA if it was a passed ball and not a wild pitch?"
After 3 1/2 innings, we led 14-2. According to Little League Baseball rules, the game is over if one team leads by 10 or more runs. And, it was 106 degrees. After discussing this with the 13-year-old umpire, he visited the opposing dugout and came back with a surprising declaration:
"The other team wants to keep playing. There's no 'mercy rule' unless both managers agree."
I was incredulous. And, possibly apoplectic -- on the inside. But, definitely incredulous. "He really wants to keep playing?", I asked...incredulously. "Yup", replied the ump. "He said it's a good workout for his kids." Never mind that two of his kids went home mid-game because of the heat. He wants a "workout" for the kids who are still standing.
I'm not entirely proud of how I managed the bottom of the fourth inning -- flashing the "steal" and "double steal" signs to my kids while up by a dozen runs -- but, it was inconceivable that any adult would want to subject children to these climactic conditions by choice. Of course, I could've been influenced by one of my players (not my son!) who exclaimed, "Let's make 'em wish they gave up!" The other team waived the white flag after we scored our fifth run of the inning and 19th run of the game.
Maybe I should look in the mirror before my next Macho Man moment.