Sunday, October 17, 2010

Note to the batting coach

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A Simple Game
By Rob Watson
Oct. 2009

Quoted from the Kevin Costner movie “Bull Durham”: “Baseball is a simple game. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You hit the ball.” Last night as I watched the first game of the 2009 World Series, I could only grind my teeth and shout at the TV “swing at the ball” while these “poor sad multimillionaires” (from You’ve Got Mail) nervously fidgeted beside the plate and let some tall skinny kid throw strikes past them.

I have been a Yankees fan since Mickey Mantle was a rookie. I have played the game from the age of 8 and continued with the softball version into my late forties. (I would have played longer but none would have me) For most of that time, it is fair to say, I couldn’t catch a basketball in a number three washtub. but I was a batsman of the first order. Due to a quirk of genetics my left eye is my master eye. I see the approaching ball better than 99% of players. Few things were more embarrassing to me than to let a strike get past me. Old Diz (Dizzy Dean) would have called me a “bad ball hitter” like Yogi Berra. I could, and usually did hit anything within reach... but enough about how great I was.

Some years ago I coached Little League for two years. I took a team because one had been formed but there was no adult willing to coach it. Two local guys had done the drafting for it. I had 19 players. Rule was all 19 batted even though only nine play in the field.

When I was a kid we practiced five days a week. Actually, Coach Marshall met us at the field beside the city swimming pool. We divided into two teams and played baseball for four hours, five days a week. I cannot recall receiving a single tip from the coach on how to play the game. Perhaps I was just not listening.

As I learned, so I coached. The first team I “coached” met five days a week and we mostly played the game. I tried to give the kids useful tips, but I got the feeling they just weren’t listening. Entirely unknown to me, that was the way to win in little league (or, in fact any league, as I was to later discover).

We were the Tigers. Our color was bright orange. A local trash hauling company was named Tiger Trash and had an advertisement bolted to the outfield fence. Eventually we acquired the name, intended as an insult, “Trashy Tigers”. My players took the insult as high praise and called themselves “Trashy Tigers”.

During the preseason my players started to call me “Coach” I told them to call me “Mr. Watson” until we won a game. In our first game we beat the other team by a fair margin. At the end of the game my littlest player, A cute little 8 year old girl came up to me and, with her prettiest smile said “Mr. Watson, can we call you coach now?” Yes, call me coach.

Going 8-0 during the first half of the season, in fact, 11-0 before we lost a game, was not the way to win friends among the other coaches. Most of these guys had been coaching Little League for a few years. None of them spoke a civil word to me until late the next summer when my second team went a more modest 8-8. They, and I, the second year, practiced twice a week.

All of this is leading to a tale from which the “poor sad multimillionaires” should take a lesson. At the end of the second half season the Trashy Tigers were 12-2-1. If we win this last game we become league champions without a playoff. The other coach only had 9 of his players, his best nine, available for the game. The other ten were apparently sick but were well enough to watch the game from the bleachers. My 19 all showed up, all batted.

In the last half of the last inning the Tigers were down by two runs but got two on base with no outs, before the other coach brought in his best pitcher. A hit, any hit, would get the ball moving, and in Little League almost guaranteed the Tigers two runs. I have seen Little League "home runs" travel less than six feet. So, my thoughts were... three outs... nine swings... fair chance of a hit!!

Two of my players were brothers. Actually, I had two sets of brothers. One set were princes of the “Que sera sera” group the other set was of the “lets make it happen” group. You can guess who were the next two batters at the critical moment. I grasp the first of the Que sera sera brothers and said “It is OK to strike out, but you must swing at every pitch.” I asked if he understood, he nodded yes. I repeated the command a second time, and sent him to the plate. There, he rested the bat on his shoulder while the pitcher threw him three straight strikes. I took his brother and repeated my command twice to him. The result were exactly the same... bat on shoulder... three straight strikes.

The next batter was a smallish kid. He had been drafted because his much older brother was “the best outfielder ever to come out of Williamson County”. Early in the season, based on this information, I made him an outfielder. Center field. An inning or so into this earlier game I noticed my center fielder sitting in his position picking flowers. (Oops, bored, needs an action position) Because outfielders and pitchers have the same natural throwing motion, I made him a pitcher. He became my number two pitcher.

This young man had been at my shoulder while I fruitlessly instructed his teammates. I looked at him and asked if he had heard what I told them. He nodded yes. I asked if he would do it. Another nod. I repeated “it is OK to strike out”. He walked to the plate. If he strikes out, we meet these same guys for a playoff. One mighty swing and a miss was followed by a second mighty swing and a miss. The third pitch was sent bouncing and rolling to the fence. As fate would have it, the ball hit the Tiger Trash sign. We went 13-2-1. The Trashy Tigers were league champions without a playoff.

A number of years later, playing in a company league, I got on a winning team, the Mullets. The Mullets were usually league champs at 8-0 or 7-1. Another team was the league doormat. It was unusual for them to win more than a game a season. One season they decided to practice everyday after work to see if it would improve their fortunes. To make a long story short they won the league championship. They never practiced again and quickly went back to 0-8 and 1-7 seasons.

My advice to big leaguers and little leaguers alike is this: Practice every day, swing at every pitch (within reach) and sooner or later the ball will be sent bouncing and rolling to the fence, maybe hit the Tiger Trash sign, and you to will be league champions.

FOOTNOTE: I mailed this essay to the “batting coach” of the Yankees and invited him to share it with his players. He must have taken these lessons to heart because they won the 2009 World Series.

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