What began at 8am this morning with the chaos of 1,200 kids, 130 pickup trucks, 200 rolls of painter’s tape, and bales of multi-colored streamers scattered on the streets ended nice and neat. Single-digit numerals formed by lines of small, white lights on a “Fenway Park green” board. A symmetrically-framed photo with blue sky, palm trees and numbers on a new scoreboard.
Ahh, but there is so much more to this game than what the scoreboard tells us at the end.
Let me see if I can explain. For starters, ours was the first game recorded on this board. The lights flickered to life in the 3rd inning or thereabouts. The conscripted operator–one or another parent of one or another of our players–figured out by trial and error which flipped switch or depressed button makes a “1” and which makes a “0.”
Then there was my own baseball glove. My glove is new, too. Replacing another I somehow left behind at a field, absentmindedly, while in a rush a few months back. Our starting pitcher’s glove’s light coloring, the home plate umpire dictated, meant that the glove could not leave the dugout. It could go nowhere near the playing field. It would bewitch and bewilder the 11 and 12 year-old batters stepping to the plate. An unfair advantage.
So my new glove–serendipitously black in color–saw its first action on the mound today. The dark leather providing the perfect hiding place for our pitcher to fiddle with his grip on the ball’s seams, conjuring up the pace, spin and location that he and the catcher had just agreed upon in complete silence. A finger or two flashed by the catcher for a beat. An almost imperceptible nod or maybe just beginning the windup to indicate the pitcher’s approval.
New scoreboard. New glove. New team and new teammates. But a very old ritual between pitcher and catcher. Just one of dozens of similarly subtle intricacies involved with this game of baseball.
And I have the ridiculously good fortune of passing these intricacies on to this group of 6th and 7th graders over the next 90 days.
Or at least trying to pass the magic along. Each player brings different life experiences, different learning styles, different temperaments, different relationships with the coaches and teachers that came before me. Thirteen or fourteen seasons along, because of these variables, I still mis-calibrate my message with my medium, the substantive nugget skipping off the atmosphere due to my miscalculation.
Example. Today I realized in the middle of the game that I’ve been micro-managing the physical movements of one of our younger players at shortstop. My earnest advice shouted from the sidelines repeatedly is not sinking in. The body language I’m looking at out there is not the logical output of my incessant input. I misjudged him. His physical ability and consistently subdued affect masked the fact that he is still only 11 years old. Rather than inspire him with my energetic coaching, I’ve made him self-conscious, withdrawn now from manifesting what I have been asking him to manifest.
It’s only the first game, I tell myself. I can tweak my approach and try again in a few days. Something different will be required. I’m not sure yet what that will be. And that’s part of the magic of Little League coaching, at least for me.
Another example. The aforementioned pitcher with the aforementioned, illegally light-colored glove doesn’t smile much. Although I’ve only shared a field or batting cage with him for perhaps 3 hours in the aggregate at this early stage, I realized at 1pm today that I had not seen his teeth yet. He kept his emotions in check, and clearly I would have to work for it. I’m happy to put in the work.
And so I did. Calmly observing his bullpen warmup. Praising him on the good stuff. And carefully tweaking a couple pieces that were tweakable in the handful of minutes before he would throw the first pitch of the game. Finding a couple words or phrases that would serve to remind him of the subtle mechanical movements or maybe a mindset, that we keyed upon during his brief bullpen session and agreed he’d try to think about during the game.
He surpassed our fairly high expectations out there, throwing hard and throwing strikes for three innings.
And still, no smile. Not even as he was fairly showered in his teammates’ adulation and coaches’ “attaboys.” Some barely discernible refusal to let himself enjoy a moment, drop his guard in a safe place, or just be 11 years old.
The smile, when it finally came, was unexpected, spontaneous and so genuine. In the post-game huddle, the coach called out a few key data points that had contributed to our winning performance. This is usually a pretty fact-based recitation, not intended to stir the emotions so much as to identify what worked and what will require more work. The pitcher’s dominant performance was reiterated in this setting, and then I heard myself blurt out, “It must have been the glove!”
I don’t think anyone else on the team realized that the 11 year-old pitcher had to rely upon the 45 year-old’s black glove. But the pitcher and I obviously did. And my silly remark, bringing to light an inside joke that we now shared with the entire team, lit up his face. Huge smile, red cheeks, and a shared moment of recognition. I reached him.
I can’t wait for the next opportunity I have to hit that note again with him, and to solve the mysteries of his other 11 teammates over the course of the season.
It’s Opening Day, my 8th. And it feels great!
Thanks for reading.