Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Little League Team That (Might’ve, Probably, Kinda-Sorta) Saved Me

Anyone remember 2013?

Seven (hundred) years ago, I was not in a very good place.

“Worse than our current apocalyptic pandemic hellscape?”, you might skeptically ask?

“Shaddap and enjoy this f-ing uplifting AND FREE goddam material”, I gently reply.

You see, I didn’t realize it at the time, but like a lot of people from a certain historically underserved and/or outright ignored demographic, I needed baseball.

I’ve written about the reasons why on other social media platforms, but I was recently reminded of the 10 young men who pulled me through the first few months of that year. A week or so ago, my inbox was served an innocuous slice of spam from a Shutterfly account I created way back when. Like today’s other photo-centric medium, the Shutterfly folks offer infrequent reminders of the “memories” you’ve made along the way.

The picture in the body of the email featured the 2013 Rancho Bernardo Little League A’s sprinting towards the outfield after completing the postgame handshake line. Since I’m closer to 50 than 15, it took me a minute (or thirty) to retrieve my old password to access my account…and then create a new password when I got locked out of my account…and then IM through to a solution with customer service when I screwed THAT up.

And, after feeling like the world’s oldest doddering negro through that technological ordeal, the dozens of pictures that I could now access from our family’s recent history took me back to a time and place that pushed me past a lot of pain.

Those A’s were born on a rainy Saturday in January. The other “Minors” division managers and I met to draft our teams. One weekend earlier, we’d collectively braved one of those southern California “winter” mornings that starts out at 38 degrees and ends up around 88. Tryouts are a trip, man. Grown men in lawn chairs positioned precariously at the lip of where the infield dirt kisses the outfield grass. We’re armed with clipboards, notepads and perpetual poker faces – lest ANYONE betray their emotions on that seventh-round sleeper you hope slips to you.

(Before we proceed, I need to ONCE AGAIN remind you guys that Little League Baseball EXPLICITLY prohibits discussing “draft room” information and the release of such privileged information can result in discipline up to – and including – the loss of the local league’s charter. So, pretend I’m WHISPERING the next couple of paragraphs, people.)

I drew the short straw, so I picked last in the first round. The upside, though, is that (1) I’d have back-to-back picks throughout in the “snake” draft format and (2) I’d have first choice in team name. Heh.

My first pick was a kid named Jack. He’d become one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached. Aside from his off-the-charts athleticism, he was the son of a Marine, so instead of “coach”, he called me “sir”. I followed that up by taking Michael. I didn’t know anything about him beforehand, but I soon learned that I’d chosen wisely when, after the draft, two other managers approached me and made trade offers for him.

The manager’s kid is always designated as the third round pick, so be sure to derisively remind Jalen that he wasn’t a first or second-rounder next time you see him. Each manager can claim one of his coach’s kids as a fourth round pick. This, for me, landed Bennett – the son of two NCAA Division I athletes who exuded confidence for days. All of the days, actually.

In the fifth round, I selected Jordan. He was an 11-year-old who played in the Minors division the year before and – surprisingly – was not drafted into Majors (the highest Little League level for age-eligible players). I explicitly remember the order of my first five picks, but the specifics of the next five are a bit fuzzy. In fact, we actually had to redo the ENTIRE draft a day later because the league president erroneously allowed a geographically ineligible player in the original pool.

While sportsmanship is ostensibly the heartbeat of Little League, its main arteries regularly leak with the congealed drip of gossiping. Not long after the draft, I was told that Jordan’s spot on my team might be in jeopardy. He and his family were understandably disappointed that he wasn’t playing in Majors. I didn’t have the frame of reference to determine whether or not he deserved to play a level higher, but from the perspective of a prepubescent’s pride? It’s loosely akin to being held back a grade.

To his credit, Jordan showed up at our first practice. He was at least a full head taller than anyone else and – I can now say – he should’ve been playing at a level higher. Ten minutes in and it was clear he was the best player on the field. I’m not sure what happened at tryouts, but the entire upper division whiffed on him. I pulled him aside after that first practice and asked him to be the leader of this team. I genuinely empathized with his earlier disappointment and he seemed to appreciate that. Jordan accepted my request with a terse “Sure, coach” and added, “Anything you need”.

Jordan’s maturity belied his age and I was fortunate to have two such kids on this squad. Early on, Michael established himself as the team’s starting catcher. Around this time, my son Jalen had asked to get some reps behind the plate, too. Today, if you ask Jalen, he’ll tell you that I openly doubted his ability, determination and fortitude to play the most physically demanding position on the field. (And, I did!) Who knew, though, that Michael would take J under his wing and show him the techniques behind the “tools of ignorance”?

Even at this juvenile level, players are fiercely protective of their positions. And, here was Michael – with his own catcher’s gear and just a year older than Jalen – taking time during practices to mentor the player who might cut into his playing time. Hell, Michael’s dad Jason – who was my other assistant coach – even supported my son. I’ll never be able to fully express my gratitude to these two for their selflessness. At the infinitely more competitive travel ball and high school levels – where J now plays – parents actively (and not always secretly) root against anyone who might usurp their son’s spot. If y’all ever see me in these streets, ask me to tell you about the time last year when Jalen was on the bench and his back-up [REDACTED].

Aside from the above, my fondest memory of those preseason practices was the “boot camp club” that Jack’s mom started. Several of the other A’s moms – including Mrs. Bootleg – would be working out just beyond the outfield wall while their sons sweated it out for two hours under the sun. And, lest you think everyone in the Cam Fam was exercising except me, I can assure that the ONLY shade to sit in was alongside some trees that were located a short WALK and UP a slight INCLINE from the field. And, have any of you have ever tried to sit on an upside-down orange bucket from Home Depot? Woo, lawd, those booty indentations.

Believe it or not, I don’t remember EVERY moment from every Little League season. But, I do remember a few:

In our first game, we played against m’man Andy and his Diamondbacks. We lost something like 11-4. During the game, one of my players – a sweet, soft-spoken kid named Joe – was on first base and on a ground ball, he headed towards second. He got there safely, but actually ran THROUGH the bag. No, not towards third base. He ran through it as if it were first base. Next thing I knew, he was standing in short left field. Spoiler alert: he was out.

Our first win came a few games later. I told this story in my post on the 2014 Little League All Star team I managed. We were down one heading into the bottom of the sixth inning. Michael led off with a double and up came Bennett. I implored him to not be nervous and get a good swing. He calmly replied, “I’m never nervous” then tripled in Michael before Jordan singled him home for the walk-off win.

Speaking of Jordan…I don’t have the old scorebooks anymore, but at the end of that season I calculated that Jordan pitched roughly one-third of the total innings we played that year. At around the midway point, his mother emailed me to let me know that Jordan was experiencing arm soreness. Like any caring coach, I remember replying with legitimate concern and one question: “Just to be clear, is it his throwing arm?”

Another important pitcher on our team was Abhi. He finished the season with an ERA under 3.00, but every pitching appearance was a wonderfully turbulent roller coaster. Abhi didn’t throw hard and he’d give up a couple of hits in each inning, but then he’d always buckle down and drop a loopy off-speed pitch or an almost-fastball at the knees to get the third out. Of all the kids I’ve ever coached, Abhi probably was the closest comparable to my son’s competitive streak. Once, after Jalen had pitched a mercy-rule-shortened shutout, Abhi calmly raised his hand in our postgame meeting, stood up and calmly pronounced, “I should be pitching more, coach.” Chutzpah!

I mentioned earlier that Michael was our catcher. He was also our leadoff hitter. And, during a game against a team from neighboring 4S Ranch, Michael slapped the first pitch of the game, one-hopping it straight to the centerfielder. Then, in something never seen before or since, the centerfielder threw Michael out at first base. It was a scorching hot Saturday afternoon and the 60-feet sprint left Michael almost asphyxiated. “What the hell happened?”, I asked. “Coach”, Michael said breathlessly, “I’’m…just not that fast…”

Before going any further, I gotta mention Sam. In one of our early practices, Sam stood in the batter’s box against Jalen. As a pitcher, J was famous for two things: (1) his “three-finger” change-up and (2) inadvertently hitting every third or fourth batter he faced. And, GUESS where this is going! After Sam got stung between the shoulder blades, he spent the first few months of the season bailing out in the batter’s box.

He never abandoned his enthusiasm, though. In the penultimate game of the regular season, he notched his first hit – a booming double to the wall. Sure, Sam forgot to step on first base (no one else noticed!) and while he was standing on second base, grinning ear-to-ear, one of the coaches on the other team called out to his son, who was pitching, and bellowed, “YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF!” Sam later came home on a double, but forgot to step on third base (this time, someone noticed!)

Early in the season, Jalen was struggling at the plate. Back then, when J was in a slump, he’d become borderline uncoachable. I don’t know WHERE he got his obnoxious stubborn streak from, but let’s just say his momma’s the same way. On this evening, we were facing the Nationals. Their starting pitcher would go on to make the All Star team that spring. I pulled J aside before he strode to the plate. “You think you can get a bunt down?”, I asked – mostly out of desperation on behalf of Jalen’s desperation. “You mean a drag bunt, like for a hit?”, J replied, as he tried and failed to contain his excitement at the idea.

On the first pitch, J laid down a bunt that rolled jaggedly over the poorly-manicured dirt and up the first base line. The pitcher barehanded the ball and threw it away (although, Jalen has been pointing out for seven years that he would’ve beat it out, anyway), allowing J to run all the way to third. The poor pitcher wouldn’t record another out that inning, as he was pulled several batters later.

We finished the season with a respectable record, but our team got hotter’n fish grease during the postseason. We won our first three playoff games and made it to the championship. One of those games manages to live in infamy between me and the other baseball dads. After building up a big lead early, our opponents started chipping away – turning a 9-1 deficit into a 9-8 nail-biter. In the bottom of the 5th inning, Jalen came to bat. He fouled a pitch straight down, then the ball ricocheted right off his face.

Now…to hear SOME people tell it…I sprang from the dugout and was cradling J in my arms before he hit the ground. Obviously, that’s IMPOSSIBLE (try as I might). As a nice-sized mouse was swelling under my son’s eye, my wife sprang into action and commandeered my M*A*S*H unit. We’d hang on to the win the game, with J – and his one operable eye – selfishly begging me to put him back in at catcher for the last out.

Sometimes, though, the Cinderella story has a sh t ending.

Poor Jordan gutted it out for his team, but after three months of me Billy Martin-izing his arm, he didn’t have much left in his right wing. It was a double-elimination tournament, so we had one more shot, though. Bennett cut short a camping trip – driving more than four hours back to San Diego – JUST to make the start on the mound in our final game. He pitched great and left with a lead, but my bullpen turned it from 3-2 us into  5-3 them.

It was a disappointing end, to be sure, but I still look back fondly on those knuckleheads. About half the team would go on to play high school baseball in the ridiculously competitive San Diego County confines. (I didn’t mention Alex above, but he was named Freshman Pitcher of the Year at his high school.) A couple of kids walked away from the game for greener pastures in other sports. Still others left sports behind for good. But, like I said…I needed baseball that spring. And, those ten boys gave that gift to me.

Thank you.

(A's on three! A's on three!)