It’s that time of year.
The entrance to my garage is cluttered at both ends with fifty pounds of gear stuffed into rugged canvas bags. The floor is littered with white, plastic Hefty sacks jammed with as-yet-unclaimed, stretchy black or blue socks. Perhaps 100 baseballs of varying vintage are scattered in buckets and bags, hiding in backseat foot wells, or maybe lying in a Wailea-dug ditch in the backyard. The familiar clang of metal bats follows any sudden movements directed at pulling one or another piece of gear out of one or another pile where a barren cement floor is supposed to be. The thousands of baseball cards that had been stowed for the winter now pop up all over the house, as if the action depicted on their fronts had somehow vaulted them on top of the guest toilet’s reservoir, onto my bureau among a half-dozen abandoned pennies, and splayed out on the dusty ping pong table.
It’s spring time, and that means baseball. In particular, Little League baseball.
The eagerly-anticipated Opening Day is this weekend. San Francisco Little League has managed, admirably, to preserve a piece of americana in the midst of our otherwise chaotic, modern metropolis. Ours is apparently the second-largest Little League in the US, lagging behind only Manhattan. On Saturday, our 1,200 or so Little Leaguers will pile into the back of rented, streamered pickup trucks, and parade around the northerly neighborhoods. Horns honking, kindergarteners and 8th graders alike all screaming “Let’s Go [My Team]!” then rapping the reluctant truck’s outer body in rhythm. Parents and neighbors cheering wildly from the sidewalks, sometimes stacked 5 and 6 people deep. The San Francisco Giants mascot, Lou Seal, will again make an appearance this year at the parade’s terminus at Moscone Field. A few years back, Lou literally scampered up the backstop behind home plate, faced with a surging mob of our Little Leaguers. I think visions of “running with the bulls” in Pamplona ran through Lou’s head, as he stuffed his overstuffed costume feet into tiny, diamond-shaped wiry footholds. Literally scrambling for his life. It takes a fair amount of courage for Lou to tempt fate and make another appearance this year.
None of this is exaggerated.
And I have the incredibly good fortune of being right in the thick of it.
In the thick of all of it. Not just the bottomed-out pickups being beaten into oblivion and the boys’ reedy voices blown out by shouting for an hour. Also in the thick of the “life lesson” stuff that I believe baseball uniquely presents to anyone willing to watch and listen. And learn.
I think one such “life lesson” has bubbled up on our team already, before the pickup trucks have even been rented, no less.
I’m speaking of the flat-billed cap issue. You know the cap of which I speak. If you are my age or older, you associate it with gang-bangers. You harken back to the days before every…single…major league baseball…player…wears said cap. It’s the style modeled by my youngest son, Everett, in the blog photo above.
I used to feel that way too about these caps. Bah humbug.
Then I realized it makes the kids happy. And that is a good thing.
I have loved coaching all these kids for all these years as much as is humanly possible, I think. And I remain convinced I’m doing it for the right reasons. I love to win, but even more I love to make a connection with each player. To draw out something in him or her that they didn’t know they possessed. And to reap the deeply satisfying reward of a knowing glance shared with that player years from now–reflecting in an instant the season we shared together–when we’re supporting different teams from across the playing field. Gives me chills just thinking about it.
I’ve been coaching YMCA basketball for about as long as I’ve been coaching baseball. So I’ve seen the kids go from short shorts like we used to wear to long shorts at or below their knees. It’s just their personal preference, I’ve learned. It makes them feel more comfortable and confident.
Same with the evolution from round-billed caps to the flat billed-caps. It may not be my style, but I’m not coaching them with the purpose of imbuing them with wanting to wear the kind of hat that I wear. I want them to learn how to be comfortable in their own skin, to wear what they want to wear. As long as it’s not offensive or somehow dangerous, and as long as it’s generally in line with the team concept. It makes the kids happy. Happy kids play better. Happy kids have happier experiences. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle; a virtuous cycle, maybe.
We coaches are having a bit of a debate right now about the proper caps for our team to wear. The standard issue or the on-field version (typically flat-billed) — the latter, it seems, most kids prefer to wear. A quick headcount in my own head tells me that of our current team’s 12 players, fully 9 prefer the flat billed-caps. Or at least I’ve seen them wear said caps during practices. That means that almost the entire team will be unhappy if they have to wear hats they don’t like.
I totally understand and appreciate the anti flat-bill argument. And when I say that our head team’s coach and I are currently embroiled in a heated debate about this, I am not exaggerating.
It would be easier for me to just go along, to avoid conflict, to avoid ruffling feathers, and so on. But I actually think this is an important issue, and I suspect we can actually fold this into the “life lessons” aspect of Little League baseball. At least I hope we can.
Here’s what I mean: Rather than forcing the players to wear caps that they don’t like, perhaps we can use the cap issue to spark a discussion about playing on a team, about seeing the world from the perspective of other human beings, about feeling comfortable communicating reasonably thoughtful thoughts, and adding in a touch of humor to diffuse an otherwise potentially divisive dynamic. We coaches are genuinely concerned given our past experience that the hats will divide the team. Some kids will buy the on-field versions, some will not. Those who do not may feel that they are perhaps not as good, not as welcome, not as part of the team, as those who choose to buy the higher-quality hats. Those who buy the hats need to know that this is a valid concern. Those that don’t buy the hats need to know that the hat has nothing to do with trying to somehow condescend to those that choose to wear the standard issue.
I suspect we’ll find, in the course of this curated discussion, that the kids who want the flat brims will say, “I just feel more comfortable with them.” The kids who don’t want to wear them may say, “Honestly, no offense, I just don’t like the look of them.” We as a team can even make this potential source of conflict a source of humor.
Humor is a powerful, powerful thing. I don’t care whether our players wear the same style hat as I, but I absolutely do care that they understand that there is humor in baseball. There is humor in life. And they will need that sense of humor in life.
So maybe someone like Tim (not his real name) who probably doesn’t care about the shape of his hat makes a bet with Max (his real name). During the game, the loser of said wager has to wear the other guy’s hat for an inning.
That, in my view, might just be the perfect way to handle this. And it’s far more consistent with how we have been coaching this team. Awesome, completely unexpected stuff. If we do this right, I suspect that the boys will remember the inning Max had to sport Tim’s cap because Max lost the bet. Or vice versa. All the players–in the field and on the bench–“in” on this private joke.
And all made possible by the magic of Little League baseball.
Thanks for reading.