Pee-Wee Baseball - the excitement, the fun, the dirt...
With baseball season rounding the far turn, my mind wanders back to PeeWee baseball, which my son played and I coached for several years. They say coaching peewee baseball is like herding chickens. That's true, except for the fact that when you're herding chickens, you never have to try to convince ten of them to stand still in a field for 30 minutes.
In truth, coaching peewee baseball is probably closer to leading the Hyperactive Chicken Precision Marching Troupe.
The joy and the difficulty of coaching peewee baseball, of course, come from the peewees playing it. Coaching kids this young is an interesting psychological challenge. You never know what they'll latch on to.
For example, I remember seeing a kid on another team early in a season who let a bad pitch go by him once. Someone on the coaching staff made the mistake of telling the kid he had a "good eye!" for not swinging at the errant pitch From then on, the kid watched every ball go by and wouldn't have swung if they had pitched him a beach ball underhand. He may not have known how to hit very well, but he knew that he knew how to watch a ball go by and By God he was going to go with his strength.
Coaching our team was made more challenging by the fact that we four Michaels. No Mikes, just Michaels. It was like "Who's on First," except harder.
[four voices in unison] "Yeah coach?"
[four voices] "But I’m Michael."
"What? OK, right. Uh… OK, Michael, you're on first."
[four voices] "Who's on first?"
[four voices] "Me coach?"
"No, the other Michael!"
[four voices] "You mean me, coach?"
"OK, everybody stop for a second."
[one voice] "My middle name is Michael!"
[another voice] "My brother's name is Michael!"
[another voice] "My daddy's name is Michael but that's not what my mommy calls him!"
[ten voices] "Stop what, coach?"
Eventually, it even confused the kids. If you want to freeze a five-year-old player, tell him to throw the ball to Michael when nearly half the kids on the field are named Michael.
Then there are the distractions. Professional athletes have to deal with distractions such as groupies, drugs, alcohol, gun laws, stuff like that. A five-year-old athlete has distractions too. Like planes. And kites. And birds. And the game being played over on the other field. And whatever that is up his nose. And, the most devastating, most vexatious distraction of them all: dirt.
It's weird. It's primal. Kids on a baseball field are compelled to play in dirt like dogs are compelled to roll in dog poop.
Peewee leagues use a special, softer baseball -- but it's still pretty hard. I've seen a ball bounce off a kid's forehead and leave a pretty impressive mark. But do any of these kids care that there's a steroidal seven-year-old up at the plate who's been red-shirted by an overzealous dad, who is ready to send a rocket down the line and pop him between the eyes? Heck no! Brain damage is nothing to fear when there's dirt to play with!
Using his foot, or squatting down to dirt level, the peewee baseball player will draw lines in the dirt. He'll draw circles. He'll draw squares in circles with a line through them. He'll pick up a handful of dirt and pour it slowly into the other hand, like a farmer sifting his soil before the planting season. He'll throw dirt into the air. He'll throw dirt at the other team's third base coach. He'll pour the dirt on his head, put his hat on over it, then look around with an expression on his face like "now that's a good use of dirt!"
Then, when I say, "What are you doing?" he'll look at me like it was the dumbest question since Flounder asked the guys if they were playing cards. And, in fact, it is a pretty dumb question. What in the world did I think he was doing?
The satisfaction was equally unpredictable, but always there. Once, early in my first season of coaching, one of our kids hit a nice shot over second base and into the outfield. He ran down the first base line jumping up and down like he'd just won the World Series with a ninth-inning homer.
I ran down to first base to tell him what a good job he did. When I reached him, I knelt down and put out my hand so he could give me five -- and the kid jumped off the bag and caught me by surprise with a hug. The perfect joy in that kid's eyes was unforgettable, and it reminded me immediately of my first hit, playing in Lakeside's Bethlehem Little League some 33 years ago.
There is something about sun shining down on players who don't know how to grandstand... who wouldn't charge for an autograph even if they could write their name in cursive… who think a baseball strike is something that happens when you miss the ball… who play for the joy and the excitement and the hope that today they might be the one to hit the home run and circle the bases (maybe even in the right direction), and get that game ball..