Monday, October 22, 2012


The boys finally got in the win column.  It is the way they did it, in the best traditions of the long history of baseball at all levels, that makes it special.

A couple of weekends ago, in front of a crowd of eleven family members (plus three family dogs), Michael started the game on the mound.  He was uncharacteristically wild, walking a couple of batters and hitting one in a couple of innings of work.  An old baseball adage holds that leadoff runners usually score, and it proved true for Michael, as the leadoff batters he walked came around to score on the usual collection of lightweight hits that could just as easily have been outs.

After falling well behind, though, the boys chipped away all game while holding their opponent to couple of scoreless innings along the way.  By the bottom of the seventh, they were down by only two.  One of our players finished a spectacular day at the plate by legging out a triple and later scoring on a single.  With two outs, a runner on second, and a run down, Michael came to the plate.  After a short battle with the pitcher, Michael drove a low and away pitch into the right-center field gap.  He cruised into second with a game-tying RBI on the longest ball I've ever him hit.  With the dwindling home crowd energized in the fading afternoon light, Michael stole third, then came home on a bloop single that fell just behind the third baseman.  Cries of "we won!" erupted from the bench, and there was joy in Mudville.

(A nice sideline to the story is that Michael and the boy who drove him in, Sam, have teamed up for good baseball in years past.) 

Michael wore a very satisfied glow about him the rest of the evening.  He was rightfully proud of his hit, which was powerful and, most of all, timely.  The team needed him to contribute and he delivered.  Everyone should get a chance to feel that joy at least once in life.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

2012 Fall Sports Report: Baseball

After a year hiatus, Michael is playing fall baseball again.  He is moving up a division, playing on a larger field with older teammates and opponents, and fall ball provides a relatively low-stress opportunity to adjust to the new surroundings.  Our league's fall ball program is intended to be a developmental league.  We play teams from the neighboring communities of Orinda and Piedmont, but the game results are not recorded and standings are not kept. 

Over the summer, Michael and I spent some time hitting, pitching and fielding on the larger field, but nothing can substitute for the game-time experience, especially when you find out that what would have been easy double last year is now a close play at first.  This is also the division (11 and 12-year-old boys) when the divide between little boys and fiercely adolescent men-to-be is the most stark.  In our last game, half the other team's players were bigger than our biggest kid.  In game before that, I saw somebody in the opposing team’s on deck circle for the other team that I would have sworn was a coach.  He had muscles!  (And I think drove the team home in his van.)  Although he is growing quickly, Michael remains one of the little guys, so it is just a little alarming to see him face these relative behemoths.

Our league has divided up the fall ball participants into three teams: a travel team for 12-year-olds, a travel team for 11-year-olds, and a team of the remaining players that plays locally.  The travel teams were selected through a tryout process, and are essentially all-star teams with a few additional players thrown in.  Those teams play a weekend tournaments throughout the fall.  We decided that Michael would not try out for the 11u team, even though I figured there was a very good chance he could make the team.  I expected several of the players from the summer all-star team to either play other sports that conflict with baseball or simply choose not play baseball in the fall.  That would open up a few roster spots, and given that Michael was one of the top 10-year-olds who was not on the travel team this summer, he was pretty close to a shoe-in.  Having now seen the fall 11u team, which includes one of the least capable players from our spring team as well as another couple of players who did not make any of the tournament teams in the spring, it is clear that Michael could have been on the team.  However, by the time the league announced its fall schedule, Michael had already committed to playing soccer, and we all (Michael most of all) wanted to honor that commitment.  It also does not break our hearts to not have to travel for weekend tournaments in such garden spots as Modesto and Sacramento (although the tournament in Sunnyvale last weekend might have been fun).

Because the two travel teams siphon off the top players, the team that plays locally during the fall is a motley collection of mid-range players.  Made up almost exclusively of 10- and 11-year-olds (i.e., kids in their first year of this level), they would probably be at best a mid-range team in the younger division they just played in last spring.  The team is short of sluggers, pitchers, and baseball instincts in general.  However, they are receiving excellent instruction from their coach, a knowledgeable man who is giving them new aspects of the game to focus on at each Saturday practice.  He is assisted by his two sons, both of whom play for one of the local high schools.  They bring the unique energy and swagger to the group that I think the boys enjoy. 

Not unexpectedly, the team has yet to tally a win after four games.  The competition they face each week varies widely.  The Piedmont team we played this past weekend was (as I noted above) huge.  Our little guys were, for the most part, no match for their physically much more mature players.  On the other hand, they had a few kids at the bottom of the lineup that were younger and not as capable, and our kids competed well with them.  The week before, we played a different Piedmont team that was much more similar to ours in general distribution of talent and experience.  We scored a lot of runs in the game, but they prevailed in the end in a very entertaining contest.

For his part, Michael is playing well and having a good time.  He is often the shortstop, and is also one of the regular pitchers.  Because he throws strikes better than anyone else on the team, the coach has taken to calling him his "closer," bringing him in at the end of games.  Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't.  Two weeks ago, when we were clinging to a one-run lead, Michael did what he does, which is throw strikes.  The other team put the bat on the ball, and ended up scoring four runs to win the game.  However, none of the balls they hit left the infield.  With more experienced players, we would have been out of that inning with a couple of ground outs and strikeout.  As it was, there were several missed opportunities to make easy outs. (To be fair, as I reminded him after the game, Michael cost his starting pitcher two runs at the very beginning of the game with some uncharacteristically poor play at second base.  Learning the give and take of picking up your teammates when you make mistakes and maintaining poise when they fail is a big part of baseball at this level.)  The coach, however, was very pleased with the way Michael pitched because he went after the hitters.  This past week, Michael pitched in the last inning of a blowout.  His first batter had hit two triples earlier in the game.  Michael got a called strike, another strike on a weak foul ball, and struck him out.  He retired the next (humongous) batter on a ground ball to shortstop, who got an easy force out at third.  

At the plate, Michael has been the leadoff hitter all season and has gotten a hit in every game so far (as fact he never fails to point out to me).  He has stolen several bases and scored several runs.  

The runner goes!

Flying around third on the way to scoring a run

He even came through in the clutch this weekend, for his personal stats.  Going into his last at-bat, he was 0-for-1 with a walk, with his hit streak on the line.  Facing a new pitcher who was at least a head taller than he, he worked the count, as he always does.  After watching a couple of balls go by, he fouled off a pitch up in his eyes, then took a called strike that was even higher.  He couldn't hide his frustration at what we call the "fall ball strike zone," but he showed his development as a player with the next pitch.  It was also up in his eyes (I have photographic proof below), but he went up to meet the pitch and drove it sharply into right field.  He promptly stole second and scored shortly thereafter.  When we talked after the game, he confirmed my guess about what he had done:  he told me he swung at pitch precisely because the previous pitch had been in the same location and had been called strike.  

The classic eye-high fastball
I am thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to watch Michael and his teammates play without any burden to coach, prepare, instruct or do anything other than refill his water bottle and take lots of pictures.  I take responsibility, along with a couple of the other dads, to prepare the field before each game, but beyond that, I am not needed.  I still sit through the two-hour Saturday practices, not because they need me there to coach or shag balls, but because I love watching the coaches work and the players play.  Those two hours every Saturday afternoon have turned into one of the most relaxing and enjoyable weekly interludes I have had a long time.  

It doesn't hurt that my kid, while far from being an athletic prodigy, is a very good player who is soaking up good coaching and achieving things on the field (six hits in 11 at-bats so far this fall) that have been his goals for himself for a long time.  I love that he is learning some of the finer points of the game and is physically capable of putting them into action.  As an example, two weeks ago I noticed that one of the opposing team’s batters stood extremely far from the plate.  Unfortunately, our pitcher threw to where the batter stood, rather than where the plate was, and gave up a very long base hit.  I explained to Michael after the game what I had seen, and reminded him to pitch to the plate, which would give him a huge advantage against someone who stood far from it.  This week, when called upon to face a couple of very capable batters, he noticed (as he told me after the game) that one of them stood well off the plate.  In response, Michael pitched ball over the outer half of the plate, with great effectiveness.  He turned a player who had drilled the ball repeatedly earlier in the game to a weak strikeout victim who could only foul off the ball to the right side with an excuse-me swing.  That is called having a plan and putting it into action; that kind of craftiness will serve him well as he waits for his body to develop the size and strength it will need to compete with most of the other rapidly-developing boys in the division.

The form is there, and the size will come
We may not see many wins this fall, but the players will benefit tremendously from the experience, and will be much more comfortable going into the regular spring season as a result.