"I always say that I can take sixteen kids, put eight of them on one side and eight on the other. And, based on that, I'll tell you who's going to win the game. I won't watch any kid take batting practice. The eight kids who throw the ball back and forth better with each other are going to win the game." -- former Major Leaguer Bill Ripken, from the book Play Baseball the Ripken Way
Bill Ripken played for four different MLB teams during his 12-year career, compiling more than 3,000 plate appearances. He's most famous for being the kid brother of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken (although Bill was the face of the game for a few weeks in 1989). The Ripken brothers have parlayed their exhaustive knowledge of baseball fundamentals into a respected brand name within the youth sports industry. Their two books on teaching baseball are must-reads for anyone new to Little League.
That said…Bill Ripken is full of sh*t.
My eight-year-old son Jalen has developed a surefire – and even more concise – eye test to determine the comparative talent levels of two different teams. As we pulled into the parking lot for the penultimate game of the fall season, our opponents (the White Sox from nearby Escondido) were loitering along the left field fence.
"They're HUGE!", Jalen exclaimed. "We're gonna lose."
I chalked up my son's assessment to typical child hyperbole and went about my usual on-arrival routine – shakily lugging two full buckets of baseballs to our dugout with a large equipment bag strapped to my narrow back. The heavy loads afforded me the opportunity to slowly loaf past our opponents and prepare my own scouting report. And, wow…they were huge. Unlike my son, however, I wasn't entirely ready to concede defeat. I racked my mind for the first tried-and-true encouraging platitude that wouldn't betray my own emotions at the moment.
"Hey, J", I called ahead; "Let's focus on having fun today, OK?"
ProTip: When searching for subterfuge, never pick the first platitude. Jalen didn't respond, so my only hope was that he didn't hear me.
As the rest of my players began arriving, the murmurs about the other team's size spread quickly. During warm-ups, a few parents paced fretfully in front of their seats down the first base line. One of the moms sporadically shouted "Be careful!" to her child with an urgency usually reserved for policemen whose beat includes a street named after Martin Luther King. It was too late to diffuse any intimidation, so I took some of my best players aside and tasked them with leading by example.
My starting pitcher – and best player on our team – was an endearingly cocky kid named Colin. Remember that scene at the end of The Bad News Bears in which the Yankees refuse to throw strikes to Kelly Leak? Then, on a 3-0 count, Leak swings at a pitch that's two feet outside and hits it to the wall. Colin did that once or twice a game for us this season. As a pitcher, he's similarly dynamic.
Jalen LOVES catching Colin because it's the easiest job on the squad. Most times, J doesn't have to move anything more than his left arm to catch the recurrent strikes and his right arm to toss the ball back. THIS time, though…J had to work. Colin seemingly reached two strikes on every batter he faced, but then alternated between overthrowing the next few pitches or taking too much off. The end result was an uncharacteristic succession of wild pitches, passed balls and 3-2 lollipops that were walloped all around the outfield.
In Colin's defense, he didn't get much help from his catcher. Jalen allowed one run to score while half-half assing it in pursuit of a wild pitch. Another scored when J transformed a pitch in the dirt into a Three Stooges tribute. When my kids left the field after the top of the first inning, they were trailing 4-0.
After my leadoff batter was retired; Jalen came to the plate with bad intentions glinting from his comically omnipresent, eye-black-enhanced scowl. If there's ONE thing about my son's occasionally insufferable approach that I can't get enough of, it's the condescending hand he raises to the umpire when he first steps into the batter's box. J digs in with his cleats, glaring defiantly in the vicinity of the pitcher, while simultaneously offering the universal "time out" signal to the ump. It's a common occurrence at the professional level. SIGNIFICANTLY less so in Little League. Trust me.
If there's ONE thing about my son's occasionally insufferable approach that I can't stand, it's the way he busts it up the line on EVERY foul ball. I'm fine with it when the fair/foul call is in doubt. But, J breaks out the Eric Byrnes-worthy false hustle on foul balls hit BEHIND the catcher that bounce off the backstop. He does it again here on the first pitch and falls behind in the count, 0-1.
The next pitch is an ankle-high fastball that the 11-year-old umpire calls strike two. As the manager of the team and father of the batter; I acknowledge my conflict of interest on this. But, from my position as third base coach, I was physically close enough to the moment to declare Jalen's reaction as nothing short of fantastic.
J turns towards the umpire, extends both arms and wordlessly expresses his opinion of the umpire's work. His body language screams "Are you sh*tting me?" as the umpire haughtily turns -- hands on his hips -- to face Jalen. J then s-l-o-w-l-y turns to face me. His arms are still extended as he quickly juts his head in my direction as if to say, "Do you SEE this sh*t, dad? Are you just going to STAND there while your only son is sh*t on?!" I try to calm him down from the coaches' box, but all I can do is hold up both hands and mouth "relax" two or three times.
My son shakes his head in frustration for what feels like forever before stepping back in. On the next pitch, he chases an eye-high fastball for strike three. After eight games, it's his first strikeout of the season. J pounds the head of his bat into home plate. He similarly strikes the dirt several more times on his way back to the dugout. J fixes a five-star stare on the ump and doesn't release it until my next batter grounds out weakly to second base.
The White Sox would score two more in the top of the second inning to take a 6-0 lead. My best pitcher had been pulverized, so I immediately switched to a Spring Training mindset with the idea that every one of my available arms would throw at least one inning. For some reason, the White Sox seemed to share my philosophy. They changed pitchers in the bottom of the second inning and my kids feasted on the fresh arm for five runs.
My next three pitchers gave up a run apiece in the third, fourth and fifth innings. My hitters had several opportunities in the bottom of each frame, but couldn't send a runner home. As we took our last at-bats in the sixth and final inning, the White Sox led 9-5.
The bottom half of our lineup was due up before we could turn the batting order over. We were hanging our hopes on four kids who, before this fall, had never faced live pitching before. But, my number six hitter singled. The next batter walked. And, after a strikeout, my number nine hitter -- who hadn't gotten a hit all season -- walked. With my leadoff hitter up, the White Sox changed pitchers. It didn't matter. Colin doubled home two runs to cut the lead to 9-7.
Jalen was up next. He worked the count to 3-2 and fouled off the next three pitches before drawing a walk. He helpfully yelled to me from across the diamond, "Dad! I'm the winning run!" The White Sox pitcher simply could not throw strikes. Eight pitches later, Jalen was standing next to me at third base as our third and fourth runs of the inning had scored on two bases loaded walks. This led to what might be the greatest conversation I'll ever have with my son:
Jalen: "Should I try to score on a wild pitch?"
Me: "OK. But, you'd better be goddamn sure you can make it."
Jalen: "Don't worry, dad. I'll be goddamn sure."
Oh, don't look at me like that. If I can't cuss in front of my young son in a 9-9 game when he's at third base AND the winning run; then when can I cuss in front of him?!
On a 1-0 pitch, the ball squirted away from the catcher and Jalen dashed towards home plate in a flash. He slid feet first with the winning run as we pulled out a 10-9 victory. J celebrated with the one or two other teammates who were paying attention to the situation, while the rest of the kids meticulously planned for their postgame invasion of the snack bar.
After the game, I learned that my 7, 8 and 9-year-olds had just defeated a team that was made up of mostly 10 and 11-year-olds. I could not have been more proud of my kids' collective effort -- even though it exposed the erroneous notion of the "eye-test" opponent assessment. Like former 12-year MLB veteran Bill Ripken; it would seem Jalen Cameron is also full of sh*t.
And, I'm perfectly fine with that.