Friday, March 10, 2017

Baseball Update, Game 2

The second game of the freshman baseball season continued a worrisome trend.  The boys suffered a shut out again, generating only one hit.  In the 2-0 loss to Redwood of Marin County, we once again got a solid pitching effort from three players, who held the game at 1-0 until the bottom of the sixth inning when Redwood managed to push across an insurance run.  In the meantime, our boys received a lot of walks, but were unable to put a bat on the ball when we needed it most.  We also had two runners thrown out attempting to steal, and another runner picked off first base by the catcher.  We also had five errors in the field (four by one player who had a particularly rough day, but who also  made three good defensive plays, and pitched a very effective inning at the end of the game).

Michael had a very quiet day, with two strikeouts and a fly ball to center field.   He came up with runners on second and third and one out midway through the game, a prime opportunity for him to put some runs on the board.  Unfortunately, the first pitch skimmed off his helmet.  He wasn't hurt, and he got on base, but it took the bat out of his hands.  The next batter grounded to the pitcher, who got the force at home for the second out.  The catcher threw wildly to first to attempt the double-play, but the right fielder made a perfect throw back to home plate to get our next runner who was attempting to score from second on the play.  Just like that, our best chance to score evaporated.

Redwood's starting pitcher was a teammate of Michael's over the summer on a team designed around clients of a pitching coach.   This pitcher was one of them.  He and the teammate who relieved him both threw very hard.  Other than Michael, who played against JV and varsity pitchers over the summer, it is likely that none of the other boys on the team had ever faced velocity so consistently high.  Although they would never admit it, they appeared intimidated, taking called strikes throughout the game, including called third strikes.   Taking a called third strike, an almost unforgivable sin, has also been an odd hallmark of this group of boys for years. Somehow, in their first days of facing kid pitchers when they were nine years old, it became imprinted on them that it was preferable to wait for a walk then to attack a pitch.  The aggressive players will continue to move up; the passive players will eventually find themselves on the sidelines.

Michael had no better luck with Redwood's pitchers than anybody else (and he went down swinging on his strikeouts).  He did make solid contact with one ball when he flew out to the center fielder, which was probably the hardest any of our guys bit a ball in the game.  His strikeouts were quick and surgical, showing that as effective as he can be against some of his peers, he is still not quite ready to face next-level pitching.  He kept his head in the game on the defensive side, though, and handled the one ground ball that came his way cleanly.  It was a slow roller that he had to charge to field on the infield grass; it took his strong arm to beat the batter by half a step.

It is fair to say that the rust should be off by now.  The boys have had several weeks of practice and a couple of games.  This weekend they have a doubleheader against one of their nearby rival high schools, which will have a roster full of players they will face for the next four years.   If our pitchers continue their excellent performance and our gloves settle down a little, all we need to do is start putting the ball in play to start seeing some success.   We know we have some talented hitters, and we will be getting one of our best hitters back after he missed the first two games.

By tradition, the boys wore their uniform caps at school on game day, which gave them all a nice little boost of recognition and status in the halls.  Win or lose, it is a joy seeing these boys band together to compete for their school. 

Monday, March 06, 2017

Baseball Begins With Bangs

High school baseball has officially begun.  There was a time when I didn’t entertain any thought that this could happen; didn’t even consider the possibility.  Eventually, the possibility of high school baseball became something that seemed like an outside possibility leavened with plenty of doubt.  As more time passed, and especially when it became clear that a freshman team would be available, it seemed increasingly likely, if not inevitable that Michael would play at least a year on the freshman team.  Now?  The future seems wide open.

The boys looked terrific in their new uniforms, facing off against the same team they had scrimmaged two weeks earlier.  In that game, against an assortment of pitchers, our boys collected 11 hits.  This time, the best we could manage was three hits, and Michael had two of those.  The boys played well, but made a couple of costly mistakes early in the game to give their opponent a 3-0 advantage that held up for the rest of the game.  The other guys, having already played half a dozen games this season, were just a little bit sharper, especially at the plate.  I don’t think I’ve seen a game in which our boys hit more flyballs, just missing hittable pitches all over the place.  Given another couple of weeks of practice against live pitching, we should be hitting the ball harder.

For his part, Michael had a great game.  He let off the game with a single and stole second.  He singled again on a hard line drive later in the game, and again stole second.  His singles a fly ball for an out to deep left field.  He said after the game he loves it when he comes to bat, as he did before his second single, and the other team starts yelling “back up!”  He said that the other team was also calling out to play him to pull the ball to left field based on his prior fly ball.  That left a big hole in right-center field.  So where did he put his second hit?  Right-center field.  Defensively, as the starting shortstop, he was on the receiving end of three throws from our catcher to throw out runners attempting to advance to second.  He also caught a hard line drive and made a play on a slow grounder.  

Leading off second after a single and stolen base
This was one of the few games he came out of wishing he could have played a doubleheader.  After spending last summer competing against much older players, he was not intimidated by the freshman pitchers and wanted to keep hitting.  As it was, he was the on-deck hitter when the game ended with runners on base.  He intended to swing for the fences to tie the game if the batter ahead of him had gotten on base safely.  His confidence and performance bodes well for the season.

Michael’s performance was particularly notable because going into the game, he completely lost focus, missing ground balls and overthrowing bases during warm-ups.  His mind was elsewhere.  Specifically, he was thinking about me, because he beaned me in the face during a warm-up drill 20 minutes before the game started.  Because of an unusual configuration of the field, the spectator teachers are closer to the baselines than the dugouts.  One of the team’s standard warm-ups is to take ground balls in front of the dugout.  The spectator area was directly behind the coach receiving throws from the players and separated only by a waist-high fence.  During the warm-up, I was standing at that fence talking with a friend.  In the middle of our conversation, I took a quick glance at the field, dimly noting that I was directly in line with the coach receiving the players’ throws.   A little voice inside my head said, “you know, if there is an overthrow – and you know there always is – you are the next thing the ball is going to hit.”  Through many difficult experiences, I know to ignore that small voice at my peril.  Sure enough, the peril came as it usually does.  If I saw the ball that hit me, I only did so in the millisecond before it made contact with my face at my upper lip and nose.  With a loud exclamation that may not have been completely PG, I went down in a heap and proceeded to bleed like a sheared off fire extinguisher.

I find that at least within my own head, I become incredibly lucid and systematic in moments of extreme distress.  I immediately felt my nose and teeth to make sure nothing was broken (thankfully, all seemed in order; I probably would have passed out if I felt something askew).  Once that critical self-assessment was complete, my brain kicked into high gear with all of the really important things.  First: I made sure to scoot back a little from where I lay prone on the turf to make sure I didn’t bleed all over my brand new hat.  Second:  if I go down, who’s going to score this game?  The important thoughts kept coming: I’m supposed to sing and play guitar in church services tomorrow; how am I going to look?  It’s also going to be terribly embarrassing at the office this week to be hideously disfigured.  All very important stuff.

Before I got up off the ground to wash myself off, I was vaguely aware that Michael was one of the people crowded around me.  I told him to go back and play and that I would be fine.  I was touched that he had come over, and did not yet know that he was the one who had thrown the ball that hit me.  After battling through some light dizziness and nausea, within a few minutes I was on my feet and assuring the coaches that I was fine.  Thanks to some Advil provided by one of the moms, I felt okay, relatively speaking – as well as one can feel when one has taken a baseball to the face.

Someone then let me know that Michael had thrown the ball that hit me (I learned later from him that he had thrown the ball in more of lob than his usual cannon shot, thank God).  That was right about the time our boys were taking infield warm-up on the field, where Michael looked uncharacteristically awful.  When they were done, I called him over to tell him that I was fine, I was not hurt, and that he should go out and simply play the game the way he knows how without worrying about me.  A few moments later, one of the coaches came over to me and asked me if I had spoken to Michael, clearly concerned that Michael was rattled.  I assured him that I was following the same train of thought as he was and that I had been spoken with him.  Michael admitted after the game that he did lose focus during warm-ups because of what happened to me.  He was worried that the coaches would pull him from the game if he could not get his focus back.  That made his single leading off the game all the more sweet.  It settled him down, and he went on to have a terrific game.  For my part, my nose did stop bleeding by dinnertime, which is all you can really ask of a birthday, isn’t it?

Michael was the target of most of their gibes. I assured them all that Michael would be walking home from the game. The coaches also called all the other dads over and let them know that sign-ups for the next game’s dad beaning would be up on the team’s website shortly. The weekly team e-mail also made sure to take note of my little bleeding incident.  I have a feeling this is one of those little events that will remain a part of the program’s lore for the small group of us who were there.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Baseball Update: February 2017

One of the last posts here before the hiatus was to celebrate that Michael played his way onto the top youth league team's roster.  Four years later, it was tryout time again, this time for the high school team.

Starting in September, the baseball program held workouts three times a week.  In November, the workouts became went into the weight room, a first for Michael (where he developed a reputation he coveted as a bit of a strongman).  He participated in those workouts, one of the very few freshmen to take part.  He spent a lot of time with players from the years ahead of him, showing that he could keep up with them.  As the year rolled along and tryouts came into view, I advised him to set his sights on the top players in the program, not just the top freshmen.  Unlike youth sports, high school sports can be brutally Darwinian: performance, not participation, is rewarded.  Michael's best chance to get and hold a roster spot is to show that the program as a whole is better with him in it. 

By his account, he had a strong week week of tryouts for the freshman team, impressing the coaches with his arm strength and bat control.  The freshmen tried out with all other players trying out for the junior varsity team, so he could compare himself directly with the shortstop candidates ahead of him.  He felt that he outplayed those guys, and the JV coach in particular gave him a lot of attaboys.  Michael entertained the slight hope that he would be placed on the JV team from the start, but the numbers suggested otherwise.  There were many more players looking to make the JV team than there were available roster spots, whereas there were only enough freshmen trying out to populate a full team.

The last tryout event was a scrimmage against a private school in Marin County.  The school is private and had a full artificial turf baseball diamond, which was necessary in this rainy winter.  Our boys hadn't earned uniforms yet since tryouts were ongoing.  Although most of the team was made up of guys how played together last spring (and several springs before that), most of them hadn't played baseball at all since June, and even Michael hadn't played an actual game since August.  Our ragtag group of freshmen acquitted themselves well against their fully uniformed opponent.

They pay attention to the game much more intently now

Michael played shortstop most of the game, and was brought in to pitch an inning late in the game.  He had not pitched - not taken even a single throw from a mound - since May, so he was a little rusty.  He got through the inning with a couple of walks but no runs, inducing a weak popup and a double play ground ball.  He hit leadoff, drew two walks, stole a base and scored a run.  The varsity coach, who also coached Michael last year in the fall, spring and summer seasons, made a point to tell me, and then the freshman coaches, how impressed he was by Michael's baserunning technique.  We're getting up to the level now where I can barely see the subtleties the coach sees, so his unsolicited comments were a huge compliment.

"I think I remember how to do this..."
By the end of the day, the team roster was out ... we have ourselves a high school baseball player.

Readers with photographic memories, or those with way too much time on their hands, may notice that several of the sames are the same as those on the roster when these boys were 11.  We think the world has moved on from what it has been, on its way to something newer, better or just different, because we think that is the inevitable way of the world.  There is something sweet, then, about so many of these boys continuing to play together in an unbroken line from when they were hardly strong enough to carry their equipment bags through these days when they are on the cusp of becoming men together.  In a Facebook post about the scrimmage, I borrowed part of the famous soliloque from the unabashedly nostalgia-tinged baseball movie "Field of Dreams" that I think applies perfectly now, as it always does:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. 
Now come the daily practices and unique pressures of auditioning for a spot on next year's team even while playing this year.  We're all ready for it, and can't wait to get started.

Somebody spent some time in the weight room

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Mavericks Baseball, Spring 2013

The last baseball post here before the hiatus announced Michael’s arrival at the top level of the local youth baseball scene.  His story since then deserves to be told.  Each season in those four amazing years of youth baseball will get its own report, as each season had a unique character, with new triumphs, failures and lessons along the way.  First up: the 11U Mavericks.

First time in the uniform, feeling as young as he looked

Just making this team was a magnificent accomplishment.  It took some time, however, to shake the feeling that Michael was the 12th man on a 12-person squad.  The other eleven boys had played together as an all-star team for the previous summer, and most of them had been on an all-star team together the summer before that.  It didn’t help that the roster spot Michael took had been vacated by the best player on the team, so there was the perception that the team was instantly weaker than it had been.  Michael was determined and took coaching as well as anyone, but he was still small and had not begun to develop a maturing strength like some of the other boys.  

A couple of practice games against our archrivals before the season began showed that while Michael proved he could keep up most of the time, he still had a long way to go in understanding his role, especially when the ball was in play somewhere else on the field.  I sensed that he was a little intimidated by his teammates and was more deferential and not as aggressive as he might have been with different people around him.  Knowing that the level of competition was going to be higher than he had ever faced before, we were all a wee bit apprehensive going into the season.

The season opened with two home games.  The coach batted Michael second, which raised some eyebrows among the ranks of the many dads on the team who had been coaches for the last four years.  They all liked Michael, but did not know him well and, I suspect, did not understand why he was not batting last.  In his second at-bat, the manager called for a sacrifice bunt, something I don’t think Michael had ever been asked to do before.  They hardly even practiced bunting in practice.  My immediate thought was that this was not the most confidence-inspiring way to introduce him to his new teammates and their families.  In what I have come to believe was a crystal-clear harbinger of things to come, however, Michael laid down a textbook-perfect sacrifice bunt, moving his teammate up a base and accomplishing exactly the goal the coach intended.  Even in the moment, without the benefit of years of reflection, I knew that was the moment he became a real ballplayer.  Signs, techniques, strategy, team goals; it all came together in an instant.  He earned the congratulations of his teammates and their parents.  With that bunt, he signaled to everyone that we had all arrived at the next level of baseball, and he had executed perfectly.  

The sacrifice bunt was an early bright spot.  He still did not get a hit in the first two games.  I feared that he would yet prove to be too small to compete at this level.  Like everyone else, I should not have doubted him.  In the third game, he collected two hits, stole two bases and scored two runs.  Nobody worried about his ability to contribute to the team’s success after that.  

The air is shattered by the force of Michael's blow...
The team went on to have a great season.  They finished above .500 overall, with a number of memorable performances along the way.  It took a while for Michael to find a consistent position on the field.  He spent time in the outfield, second base, third base and shortstop.  As the season progressed, he settled in mostly at second base and short, although his relatively weak throwing arm meant that second base was generally the best place for him.  Nevertheless, it became clear as the season went along that as an overall plus defender, he had become one of the few players to spend regular time at shortstop.  

With the exception of a brief appearance on the mound in a mid-season tournament, Michael did not pitch at all during the season until a Memorial Day tournament held between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs.  In the first game of the tournament, we were demolishing a team from my old home area (Mountain View-Los Altos), coincidentally also named the Mavericks.  In view of innings limits on all pitchers, and to save his regular pitchers’ arms for more important games, the manager decided to put Michael on the mound for the last inning.  The thought process was apparently even the inexperienced kid couldn’t screw up so badly to cause us to lose the game, and having him pitch an inning meant our real pitchers could save that inning for their own allocation in later games.  To the shock of everyone except maybe me, Michael faced the minimum three batters, striking out two of them.  Michael had been one of the primary pitchers for the teams I coached for the previous two years, but since none of the other dads had paid too much attention to him then, his performance came as a surprise.

On the mound for the first time all year
As an apparent reward for his dominant inning of work, the manager gave Michael the starting assignment for our next game, against our archrivals who happened to be playing the same tournament.  Michael now had everyone’s full attention.  In scorching heat, he pitched four innings of one-run ball in what ended up five-inning victory, striking out six and earning the win.  The team dinner that followed could not have been more sweet.  All the players and their moms and dads showered him with praise all evening.  

He was the quietest kid on the team, but over the course of the season, culminating with the two pitching performances nobody saw coming, he proved his versatility and skill.  He wasn’t the best player on the team, but everyone realized he had become one of the most indispensable players.

At third, where he was a frequent visitor as the season went on
The season ended with a memorable run through the playoff tournament, which included a dramatic extra-inning win, a seven-inning complete game under the lights from one of our top pictures, and a showdown yet again with our archrivals.  By that point, we were in our sixth game of the three-day playoff tournament and were starting to get a bit thin in pitching.  We were now also running up against the top teams in the league, all teams that had been above us in the standings during the season.  We played our archrivals tough, but throughout the game we had a sense that we were just barely escaping disaster inning after inning.  The dam finally broke late in the game as we started issuing walks, giving up hits and generally losing the ability to get their batters out.  Inevitably, it seemed, with the season now literally on the line (with a few more runs, our opponent could end the game under mercy rules, and thus also end our season), the manager brought Michael in with the bases loaded and nobody out – an impossible situation.  Having already pitched six innings in two games that weekend, facing a team that was too good to be denied forever, Michael was unable to stanch the bleeding.  Uncharacteristically wild, he gave up some walks and some hits.  He did manage to get some ground balls that, but for errors on defense, would have gotten us out of the inning.  Unfortunately, the game, and the season, ended there.

After such a great season, filled with many exciting moments and a high degree of success, it was jarring to have everything end so suddenly.  The game over, parents packed up their foldable sports chairs and drifted away to the parking lot.  I felt heartbroken for Michael, empty, and mystified.  It is hard not to feel that your kid is absorbing the blame for the season coming to an end, particularly when everyone scurries away almost without a word.  No post-tournament lunch, no post-season banquet, nothing.  We are so often such insecure creatures that the confidence born of six months of consistent improvement, accomplishment and success can vaporize in the face of sudden adversity. 
Baseball is the loneliest of team games.  Gameplay proceeds sequentially from one player to another, not in parallel where players work together in the same moment.  The player on the mound when the season ends in a loss can be viewed by some, rightly or wrongly, as the loser of the game, or in this case the season.  I’m sure the players and their families did not intend to make Michael feel small, but I’m also sure they all probably would have rather seen somebody else pitching at the end of the game.  This would change in the coming seasons, but in that moment, on the drive home I died inside a little bit for Michael.

I had my own harbinger of things to come.  I arrived at our first game of the season part way through the first inning after helping out at the high school for the spring musical in which Kelly was participating.  One of the other dads ran up to me holding the scorebook, asking if I could score the game.  He may have recalled that I kept track of every pitch in the previous two seasons while coaching.  Like any other new guy joining an established organization, I was eager to help in any way I could and gladly took on the role of scoring the game, something I had never actually done before.  As it turned out, once I picked up the scorebook, I never let it go. With the exception of a few games here and there, I scored every game.  That gave me the opportunity, for my own amusement, to compile statistics for all of the players.  In the end, Michael was just about mid-pack in all the batting categories, and a surprising number two in RBI and fourth in runs scored. After a full season, the numbers proved that he was no longer the 12th man on a twelve man team.

I knew it would take Michael getting back on the field with his teammates to push aside the bitter memories of the very end of the season, to
finally earn the unconditional respect and trust of his teammates and their families. In the seasons to come, he would make that happen, in spades.
Good times with friends in the playoffs.  So much older in just a few months

Monday, February 06, 2017

Rain Delay

Today is supposed to be the first day of tryouts for the high school baseball program.  Just about any other year, especially the last four, this goes off without a hitch.  This year, after years of historic drought, Northern California has been soaked by equally historic rainfall.  This is not typical of most years, but it describes this winter well:

Rain itself is bad enough for a baseball program, since baseball is one of those outdoor sports that simply can't be played in the rain.  Our boys suffer a double whammy thanks to the geology of their school, which sits on clay soils where lakes and streams once ran.  The ground holds water and does not let it go.  The fields are currently marshes with shoe-sucking mud and standing water everywhere.  We have already seen that it takes more than a week of dry weather for the fields to become anything close to playable.  Tryouts were to have taken place every day this week; that entire schedule will have to be moved back not only to the first sunny day, but the first sunny day after enough sunny days have passed to dry the fields.

Some of the boys, Michael among them, have been working out since September.  Early on, they took fielding and hitting practice on the varsity field three days a week.  As the weather turned colder, the boys moved into the weight room, building up strength for the demanding schedule to come.  Through it all, they have quietly speculated about who looks good, who is not showing up, and who will make which team (the school has freshman, junior varsity and varsity squads).  They are ready to compete and answer some of these questions.  Someone needs to appease the weather gods so they can get started.