Batter Up! Top of the 9th

JB as an adult — a son I am most proud of

We have made it to the penultimate story of this series! It’s the top of the 9th, yet I still have so much more I want to say about the game of baseball — why I love it so, and why it means so much to me. It could easily go into extra innings, as close games often do when they’re still all tied up after 9 innings. There’s no question that my heart is still all tied up in my love for the game of baseball. Maybe instead of playing extra innings, I’ll decide I have enough more stories in the bag to make it a double-header! (Don’t worry, I won’t do that — well, if I do, I’ll make the nightcap a whole new series of stories).

I don’t think I’ve told the story of my son’s career in the little leagues, yet. Like me, JB wasn’t much of an athlete as a kid — but unlike me, he had no ridiculous illusions of growing up to be an athlete, anyway. He leaned more towards theatrical aspirations, and he had a lot more opportunities and support to follow those inclinations throughout his school years than I did. You might remember that I was once a little director in the making, recreating favorite musicals with friends, before that activity apparently freaked some of my friends’ parents out, and I became banned from hanging out with their kids, as a result. That’s when I turned to sports, and got turned onto baseball by my older brother, Chris. The rest was history, and I never followed my thespian desires, save a couple of courses in theater that I took when I went back to college on the GI Bill in my mid-twenties.

JB from around the age of this story

JB actually turned into a fine actor and director before he was through, and did some remarkable things on the stage. That part of me that got those aspirations stifled as a child lived vicariously through his stage successes. His theatrical exploits were a real source of joy and pride for me.

The first year JB played baseball was T-Ball, where the kids hit the ball off a batting tee, and learned the fundamentals of the game. I was the coach of his team of 7 year-olds, which were the Pirates. JB wasn’t a bad player, and he seemed to enjoy that season and was having fun playing. There was one girl on his team, Katie, who was far and away the best athlete on the team. She was amazing! She could do it all out there, and left all the boys in the dust, as far as this coach was concerned. She would eventually go on to play college basketball, with a scholarship, I believe.

JB’s second year of little league play was coach-pitch ball. I had to make a lot of business trips that year, so I couldn’t take on the commitment of coaching his team, which were the Indians. I would help out when I could, but I missed the first couple of weeks of practice as I was traveling a lot. When I did make it to a practice, right before their first league game, I noticed JB was really struggling at the plate. I also noticed that he was batting left-handed. The year before, I’d discovered that, although he threw left-handed and did everything else left-handed, he had a lot more success and confidence swinging the bat right-handed.

After practice, I asked him why he was batting left-handed, now — he said that the coach made him bat that way. He’d tried telling him that he hit better from the right side, but the coach wouldn’t listen, insisting that left-handers should swing from the left-hand side. When I talked to his coach about it, he said, “Well, he’s been practicing hitting left-handed for the past two weeks, I think he should stay hitting left-handed. It’ll just confuse him more if we switch him to the right side now.” I found him to be completely closed off to any ideas other than his own. He liked to rule his team (of 8 year-olds!) with an iron-fist. I instantly didn’t like the man, but did my best to cooperate and try to help with the coaching when I could. It wasn’t going to be easy with this guy as the coach of my son’s team.

JB being JB — from Super Camp counselor days, in Malaysia, I think it was

Their first game, things went from bad to worse in a hurry. I thought the team was doing pretty good out there for a bunch of 8 year-olds. They made their share of mistakes in the field, for sure, but they were learning, and that was to be expected. They clearly had learned a lot in their couple weeks of practice, and I thought they were showing up well.

The coach had a much different take on their play. When they came in from the field after an inning where a number of mistakes were made, he began berating them for their shoddy play. It was so bad, you could see that a couple of the players were close to tears, and not one of them looked like they were having any fun. It’s no fun being yelled at by a perfectionist coach — especially when you’re an 8 year-old, just learning how to play. I had to do something — this just wasn’t right.

I pulled him to the side of the dugout, out of earshot of the kids, and said, “Keith — these are 8-year olds! They’re still just learning how to play the game. Your tone and level of rage is way out of line — pretty inappropriate for this age group. You need to dial it back a bit, my friend.” Again, I didn’t want to have this conversation in front of the players, but did feel it necessary to take some sort of action on their behalf.

Well, Keith simply blew a cork. He proceeded to loudly read me the riot act, saying I had no business telling him how to coach, that these kids would never learn if he didn’t give it to them when they messed up. I was completely shocked by his reaction. I looked over at my son sitting on the dugout bench, who was really looking baffled by the whole scene, and said, “JB, do you want to leave?” He immediately nodded his head enthusiastically, so I said, “Let’s go — we don’t need this crap. You deserve better.” I apologized to the rest of the kids and said, for their benefit, “The league will be hearing about this”, as I left with my son.

We drove straight to the home of the league president, and I requested that JB be traded to another team. I also requested that he have someone observe the Indians, and make sure the coach no longer berated the players. “They’re supposed to be having fun at this level. There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, but not at the expense of letting them enjoy the game while they’re at it.” The president reluctantly agreed — it wasn’t in the league policy to allow a player to trade teams after the season started, but he said we could go play on the Braves, as they were short a player or two and could use one more. He also promised to look into the situation with the Indians.

The Braves were a whole other story. Their coach was great — also very competitive, but in a much healthier way. He made the game fun, not only for the kids, but for the whole family, as well. He got the parents involved, teaching them how to keep score so they could take turns helping out while they watched their kids play. He was always looking for ways to gain a competitive edge on the other team by watching closely whether they were playing by the rules or not. He would also enlist the parents in this endeavor, and in this way, he fashioned a winning attitude on the team, while making it fun for all involved.

He was very supportive of every player, and really took his time with JB, although his experience with the Indians’ coach had really shaken his confidence. He did his best, but really struggled, especially at the plate. Whatever enthusiasm he might have had for the game had really gotten trampled by that Indians’ coach. The Braves’ coach let him bat right-handed, but he still had trouble with his confidence, hitting that pitched ball.

JB had a way of entertaining himself and others with goofy antics, another trait he’d apparently inherited from me, as I was quite the little entertainer in my family at the same age. There was one game where he was playing way out in center field, and the other team was not hitting many balls out to where he was. He was getting bored. There was a strong wind blowing, and it kept blowing his hat off his head. He made such a comedy routine out of chasing his hat out there, the whole dugout and folks in the stands were simply in stitches, laughing hilariously at his antics. The coach said, “I hope somebody caught that on film — I think that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen on a ball field. That kid is a natural comedian!” JB really was. Harpo Marx had nothing on this kid! Even though he wasn’t getting the big hits or making great catches, HE was a big hit in his own right. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. It was so damned funny!

Another memorable moment came when the Braves were playing the Dodgers. The Braves had only lost one game all season, but had the second-best record in the league, while the Dodgers were undefeated with the best record. If the Braves could beat them, it would be all tied up, and they would have a playoff game to decide the league championship. The Braves played well in the game, but the Dodgers just had a lot of great players, and they maintained the lead through the first several innings. Then the Braves mounted a comeback late in the game. They got to within a couple of runs of the Dodgers when they loaded the bases up, with two outs. Everyone was buzzing in the dugout and the stands, and then they realized who the next batter was — it was JB. Poor JB had never quite regained his confidence at the plate, so was nearly an automatic out whenever he went up to hit.

But, in that at-bat, he couldn’t have received more positive reinforcement and encouragement, as everyone was rooting for him to get a hit. The coach just said, “Do your best, JB — whatever it is, it will be good enough. That’s all I can ask, just do your best up there. Wait for your pitch. I believe in you, son.” JB did just that, watching a couple of pitches go by before he found one that he liked, swung at it, made contact, and watched that ball sail over the second baseman’s head into right field! He very happily bounded his way down to first base with the biggest hit of his brief little league career.

Well, you would have thought he’d just hit a grand slam the way the dugout and stands truly exploded with wild, frenzied cheers, as 2 runs scored, tying the game up, while the Dodgers looked visibly shaken by this unexpected turn of events, and by the huge outburst from their opponent’s fans and dugout. The Dodgers did eventually regain their stride and won that game, but JB’s unexpected clutch hit would always be remembered as a true highlight of the biggest game of the season.

Love this one!

The coach had a tradition of giving one player the game ball after every game, win or lose, signed by himself and the other coaches. JB got the game ball for that big game against the mighty Dodgers, as his hit almost turned the tide in that critical game. What a thrill!

After our previous experience with the Indians and their coach, I couldn’t have been happier with his experience on the Braves. I was forever grateful to their coach for making it fun for his players, while helping to teach them how to be competitive. I learned so much from that man. Although JB never played ball again after that season, I felt good that he at least got to end his little league playing career with a much more positive experience. That season was certainly a study in how not to coach a kids’ sports team, and then how to do it with excellence. (You might recall, from an earlier story in this series, how my own little league experience did not end quite as well — I’d started an on-field riot that got my team thrown out of the league, and was banned from ever playing in that league again).

And that’s all she wrote for the top of the 9th. Thanks for reading! After a word from our sponsors, we will wrap it all up in the bottom of the 9th, so remember to … “Play Ball!”

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Hawkeye Pete Egan B.

Hawkeye Pete Egan B.

3.2K Followers

Connecting the dots. Storytelling helps me to make sense of this world, and of my life. I love writing and reading. Writing is like breathing, for me.