baseball

Cooperstown, Take Two (This Time, I Am Ready).

It’s been four years since we last pointed our compasses 2,881 miles to the east, and made our way to baseball’s purported birthplace. The “birthplace” part is a stretch, since the idea that Abner Doubleday invented the sport in Cooperstown has been debunked (a long time ago, to be clear, not in the last four years). A hotel owner conjured up Baseball’s Hall of Fame (and likely played a part in germinating the Doubleday myth) as a much-needed shot in the arm for a local economy reeling from the double whammy of The Great Depression and Prohibition. The rest, as they say, is history. Well, actually there was plenty of history before “the rest,” so perhaps more accurately, “the rest” is a sublime monument to the history that transpired before the Hall’s construction, and to that which has transpired since. And to that which transpires, still. This weekend, in fact, marks the annual rite by which the newly-elected cohort of mostly recently-retired major leaguers are inducted into the Hall with great fanfare.

This weekend also marks my family’s return to an out-of-the-way Airbnb rental house for a climactic youth baseball tournament. We weren’t ready then. 2014 saw my eldest son Max, (The Kraken), trot around on the field with knickers and red socks (not “sox”), and turn 13 when he blew out the candles on a birthday cake my wife had clandestinely carried into the ballpark. I suppose we hadn’t planned ahead with sufficient foresight to avoid some serious rule-breaking (“ABSOLUTELY NO OUTSIDE FOOD ALLOWED!”) with that birthday cake. I believe the statute of limitations on that clear transgression has run. But to be safe, this time around, we are taking our act down the road a bit, to a different ballpark tournament altogether. Because we are better prepared.

Moreover, we have ensured that our youngest son Everett (he of the infrequently brushed teeth), has no expectations regarding any illicit pastries. There are no looming birthdays (nor forgotten birthdays) or other holidays that might otherwise force his mother and I to give in to our baser parenting instincts, Americana baseball field rules be-damned. If Ev sneaks verboten items into his little dormitory (and this is not a very big if), that’s on him. I have deliberately avoided reading through the printed tournament rules carefully, dodging direct confrontation with any prohibitions associated with candy or soda or PlayStations or Fortnite or whatever. I have therefore managed to arrive on the east coast armed with plausible deniability. And I aim to preserve this status. Printed Tournament Rules? What Printed Tournament Printed Rules? Yessir. 2018–Everett’s turn at Cooperstown–will be different. Because this time, I am ready.

This means that I am better prepared for on-the-fly, unexpected developments that might occur away from the environs of the baseball diamond, too. During our last visit, I spied across a restaurant a fraternity brother whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years. This might seem a joyous occasion, but for the rather unfortunate fact that I could not for the life of me recall his actual name. Only his pledge name came to mind. And as is the case with most if not all pledge names, this would not be a pleasant moniker to deliver up at his dinner table as he sat surrounded by his wife and children, no matter how big I forced my smile. I interrupt his reverie out of the blue to remind him of some unflattering physical characteristics rather cruelly called-out a quarter century ago by only slightly older college kids who were themselves still stinging from once being similarly called out and therefore overly eager to pass along this lovely tradition. No, I couldn’t bear to perpetuate this jackassery of my younger self now that I sat at a restaurant as a grown man.

But I still couldn’t remember his name, no matter what sorts of memory tricks I anxiously sprinted through in my mind. No matter how many random first names my wife stage-whispered to me in a generous but totally-unhelpful attempt to come to my rescue (there are a lot of names, you see). I saw my fraternity-brother-without-a-name go through the motions of paying his bill and begin to gather his rental car keys and progeny. I struggle to stifle my increasing panic at the prospect of drawing a blank. An absolute blank on his name when he would pass my table and see my face on his way out to resume his presumably happy life during which no one called attention to any unflattering (or flattering, for that matter) physical characteristics. Reaching under the table cloth, I furtively text another fraternity brother who lives in Reno, whose pledge name and real name I have not forgotten, and who I knew would instantly recall our younger fraternity brother’s given name. “What is Knuckle Dragger’s real name?” I text him this with absolutely no context. There is no time for context. “Phil,” my savior texts me back almost immediately, just as “Knuckle Dragger/Phil” (neither his real name nor his real pledge name) obliviously approaches my table. This last-minute reprieve via an absurd text message exchange allowed me 2 or 3 seconds to compose myself, stand up, and magnanimously greet him (by his real name) as if we were the best of friends.

“Phil” was dumbstruck, literally appearing to be in shock, and maybe just maybe sufficiently flattered that he might forget his “Knuckle Dragger” mistreatment at my hands and those of other slightly-older college kids 25 years ago, each of us overly eager to leave the sting of our own pledge names and unflattering characteristics behind. After a few minutes, we parted ways and I sat back down at my table, emotionally exhausted, having narrowly averted disaster due to a lack of preparation.

This time around, during our trip in Cooperstown, I am better prepared. I will be shouldering a heavy backpack containing every grade school and junior high school and high school and college and law school yearbook I could gather up over the past four years. The pages are taped and flagged and referenced and cross-referenced with classmates long-forgotten but who may pop up with their own baseball-playing son, having made their own pilgrimage to this Mecca of baseball. This time around, for Cooperstown Take Two, I am ready. Wish me luck.

The Thrill Is Gone Away.

Screenshot 2015-05-15 08.28.04In his first major league at-bat — the first time he offered at a pitch, in fact — a sweet-swinging 22 year-old crushed a Nolan Ryan fastball over the center field fence. Thus began the MLB career of Will “The Thrill” Clark.

Now, Nolan Ryan was a badass.  Perhaps the badass.  Scared the hell out of batters for nearly 30 years with a 100 mph fastball and knee-buckling curve.  On occasion, a foolhardy hitter would charge the mound in anger, only to be jackhammered by the most intimidating pitcher alive.

Screenshot 2015-05-15 08.15.34

I’ve heard that Will Clark used B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” as his answering machine greeting.  When Will was traveling, out of town, on the road, whatever, people who called his phone heard B.B. tell them that the prodigy wasn’t home.  But this was the opposite of “I’ll be right back.” B.B made the caller feel like sobbing, with a pit in his (or more likely, her) gut.  Made them feel like they couldn’t muster the strength to take another breath into their lungs after that last exhale.  What was the point of even trying to carry on? I’ll just sit here, collapsed and shattered, on my living room carpet, chest heaving, clutching the plastic phone in my trembling fingers, until he is no longer “gone.”  That type-deal.

Wow.

So Will’s first MLB at-bat made him “King of the Badasses.”  The most badass of them all.  (I went to law school to avoid math, but I believe this is how the math works here.)  The story of the “Thrill Is Gone” answering machine message burned into my adolescent brain:  The “Official Soundtrack of Badasses.”  If you wanted to make an impact, make people gasp when you walked into — and out of — a room, simply hit your first major league home run off Nolan Ryan with your first swing of the bat.  Oh, and play some B.B. King on your answering machine.

RIP, B.B., I will be playing you all day long.

“The Thrill Is Gone”

The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you’ll be sorry someday

The thrill is gone
It’s gone away from me
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away from me
Although, I’ll still live on
But so lonely I’ll be

The thrill is gone
It’s gone away for good
The thrill is gone baby
It’s gone away for good
Someday I know I’ll be open armed baby
Just like I know a good man should

You know I’m free, free now baby
I’m free from your spell
Oh I’m free, free, free now
I’m free from your spell
And now that it’s all over
All I can do is wish you well

Thanks for reading.

It’s All Between the Ears.

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The game of baseball, as my 8 year-old son Everett commented yesterday, is weird.  It is played on a field that is partly grass, partly dirt.  The field is in the shape of a diamond of sorts.  There are a bunch of other painted spaces, though, where the coaches stand, the batters stand, the catcher squats, the pitcher roams, and so on.  The innings, the count, the score are recorded on the spaces of a wooden scoreboard or paper scorebook.  So many spaces. 

But the game of baseball boils down, in my humble opinion, to a single space:  The space between the ears.  I think this is probably true for all levels of the game, but I know it to be true in Little League.  I have seen this idea at work since my now 12 year-old played his first game as a 5 year-old.  Now, at the more competitive, “Majors” level of Little League, I feel like I am locked in a sprint.  A sprint to get our team’s players to recognize the power in their minds before the other teams’ coaches are able to do the same with their own players. 

San Francisco Little League does not “roll over” the same players to the same coaches and same team season after season. Instead, we coaches essentially start from scratch every season, with a new group of kids.  I understand that our league may be unique in this respect.  It can be frustrating, in a sense, because we invest so much time in these boys over the course of a season.  And at the end of it, they move over to a different team with different coaches the next time around.  On the other hand, the annual sea change brings abundant opportunity for the coaches to ply and hone their trade.  It’s exhaustive, exhausting, and so totally worth it. 

Each player is a mystery, and I don’t have much time to figure them all out, because the reality is that we do indeed want to win some baseball games.  There is a process.

I squint my eyes and wrinkle my nose in a season-long effort to divine what makes each boy “tick.”  What is the thing that holds them back from experiencing the feeling of achieving something they thought impossible?  And once I figure out the “thing,” then help them overcome it by applying some mental energy, how can I get them to embrace this?  And how do I help them understand that they control “it,” not I?  It’s theirs to conjure up at will, not something we can hand to them before they step to the plate.  And once they experience the heat and power of their newly-discovered mental intensity, how can I motivate them to maintain it? 

This last one is the kicker.  The most critical to a team’s success.  And more importantly, the most critical to the player’s “success” in life, I would say.

It is extremely difficult to keep up the highest level of focused concentration during the entirety of a baseball game without letting up even for an instant.  The ebbs and flows of the innings.  Periods of rhythmic chatter from the dugout, mingling with weirdly quiet lulls.  A player seeing absolutely no action for an hour, then suddenly fate thrusts him center stage completely out of the blue.  How can we expect kids to dial up the intensity and then stay laser-focused throughout all of this?

If they’re doing it right, the player in the field is seeing the batted ball heading his way, envisioning how he will surround it, and how he will get rid of it.  All in his head, in the moments before the pitcher unwinds and slings the ball towards the plate.  The fielder mentally rehearsing how he will move his body.  If the pitcher is doing it right, he’s doing the same thing.  Playing in his mind a movie of the next pitch, before he makes it, in the space of his preparatory exhale after he has accepted his catcher’s sign.  And the hitter, if he is doing it right, will be picturing the pitched baseball in his mind’s eye. The ball’s path cut short by the metal stick he grips in his hands, thrust downward from his shoulder on the proper path. Imagining the feeling of applying the bat’s sweet spot to the baseball with evil intentions.

Elite alpine skiers do this in the minutes before they launch from the starting gate at the top of a run.  Elite gymnasts do this constantly.  Divers too.  Probably bobsledders, as well.  Certainly basketball players, when measuring up the rim from the free throw line for the 100,000th time. 

There’s a lot going on between the ears, you see. Or at least there should be.  But it has to be taught.

And all the moving parts involved with the game of baseball can make this an especially supreme challenge for our kids.  Once a player catches a glimpse or whiff of the power of his mind, it can be very cool.  And it can also be a little scary.  For the player, it’s akin to pulling a bag of just-popped popcorn from the microwave.  Too hot to handle.  They can only pinch a tiny corner, careful not to have a hand slip in the way of the escaping steam and get cooked like a lobster. 

I can usually spot when a player has the popcorn bag in his hand.  I can recognize it from behind my L-Screen in the batting cage, straddling the white line in the 3rd base coaches’ box, or subbing in briefly for a player’s throwing partner during warmups and thereby making a connection that is unique between two people playing catch with a baseball. 

Bag-in-hand suddenly, their eyes widen, as if they had just stumbled on something for the first time.  They have.  And it’s awesome. 

“You see what you just did?” 

“Um, yeah. Wow!” 

“Well, I have some good news and some bad news.” 

“Huh?” [still holding the bag up between pinched fingers]

“The good news is that you just tapped into the power of your mind there, and you now know how to flip that switch to the ‘on’ position. Congratulations.”

“Cool!” [still holding the bag up, and they now begin to look around to show someone how hot the bag is and look at them holding this hot bag, hoping that maybe mom or dad is watching]

“Are you still with me?  The bad news is that you have to stay at this high level of intensity from the moment you step onto the field until the game’s final out is called.”

“Oh, um, oh.” [the bag will lower, likely dropped completely, and the popcorn will spill onto the grass]

It is extremely hard to maintain that focus, that energy, that intensity. 

It’s all between the ears, you see. 

Thanks for reading.

Note:  Thanks to Ariel Braunstein for the photo I used above, captured this past weekend at our 2nd graders’ Little League game.   I’m trying to get them to pick up the popcorn bag, too.  Though at these little guys’ age, the geese tend to fatten up on the kernels littering the field. 🙂

The Flat-Billed Cap and the Virtuous Cycle.

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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.