Rules of the Game
The highlights, and lowlights, of Little League season
By Walter Jowers
JULY 19, 1999: For the last five years, I've coached daughter Jess' Little League softball teams. Every season has two perfect days. There's the first cool April day, when just the smell of the fresh-cut grass and newly raked infield dirt is enough to hypnotize me and make me forget about the headaches that are sure to come. In the first week of April, I come to the field with a case of clean, white balls and five well-oiled gloves. Just then, the season is like a present that hasn't been opened. It's all possibilities.
This year, on the day of our first game, I asked my players to pick up their uniforms at my house, an hour before game time. This plan worked well for 12 of my 13 players, whose parents escorted them into the house, helped them get dressed and ready, then drove on down to the field. But one softball mama just dropped her daughter off at the curb, didn't come in, and didn't say a word to me or wife Brenda. She just left her kid at my house for a little free baby-sitting and a ride to the ballpark.
"Where's your mama?" Brenda asked. The little girl said she didn't know. We called the girl's house. No answer. The season was minus one hour old, and I already had my first au pair duty.
I freely admit, I'm a throwback when it comes to ball culture. There's no baby-sitting in the ball world I know. Back when I played Little League, the boys had five days of tryouts. On Friday afternoon, the coach called us all together and read the names of the boys who made the team. If he didn't read your name, you were cut. You just picked up your bat and glove and walked home. The other boys stayed and got their uniforms.
I got cut once. I spent the next year catching fly balls off the garage roof, bouncing ground balls off the workshop walls, and playing in every pickup game I could find. The next year, I made the team and played about half the time. I remember that season well, and fondly.
These days, if you sign up for Little League, you play. It doesn't matter if you've never held a ball or a bat. It doesn't matter if you don't know which base is first base. It doesn't even matter if you refuse to learn these things once you're on the team. If you show up for a game, you'll play at least an inning.
I know, I know. This builds self-esteem, right? Well, uh, no. Eventually, every player learns that striking out is a bad thing. So if she strikes out every time she goes to the plate, is she forming a positive self-image? Even if her dad is in the stands, clapping and saying, "Way to try"? If every ball hit her way ends up rolling to the fence, does she enjoy fetching the ball, then turning around to see her teammates all slump-shouldered and sad-faced, waiting to see where her errant throw will land? I doubt it.
This June, I volunteered as an assistant coach for our League's 9- and 10-year-old softball all-stars. We lost our first game, then won our second game. In the third game, we were behind and facing elimination from the tournament. Our first-base coach told me that some girls were still slowing down on their way to first base. Every ballplayer or casual ball fan has to know: You never slow down on the way to first. Of all things in ball, it's the one unpardonable act.
So I called a little dugout meeting. "Listen up," I said. "The next girl who slows down running to first base, we're selling her to the gypsies."
"Coach," one girl piped up, "Are the Gypsies another team, or are you talking about real, live gypsies?"
Which brings us to the second perfect day of softball season. Mere moments after I threatened the girls with a lifetime of servitude, the last game of the season was over. Then, just like it always does, just like some earthly preview of heaven, my memory went selective.
I could only remember scenes like Kayla, she of the three-second base-to-base speed, sliding under a tag at home. I reran the saucer eyes and huge toothy smile on the face of our smallest player, Lacey, when she snagged a line drive at second base. I flashed back to a victory at West Park, when the girls tried to carry our heroic catcher, Phoebe, off the field. (I had to help get her off the ground.) And I remembered daughter Jess, in that last all-star game, finally having the courage to throw her change-up and striking out the opponent's two biggest hitters.
Still, all three Jowerses came to a conclusion this year: It's time for us to move to a league where the players have to try out and prove their value to the team. A league where a ground ball to short is an out, and the girls catch the fly balls while they're still in the air. Next time daughter Jess suits up, everything will be newthe field, the coaches, the players, and the work ethic. Here's hoping that day will be as fresh and beautiful as all the other first days of softball season.
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