Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Freshman 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.

[tap tap tap] Is This Thing On?

Somehow, almost four years have passed since I last published a thought here.  My epic car-buying road trip story deserves a conclusion, which I will provide sometime soon.   My reasons for returning to this format, however, have less to do with wanting to wrap up the loose threads of that story and more to do with preserving for my own future enjoyment these last few years of  parenting a non-adult child.

I get a kick out of looking through my old blog posts, which cover almost ten years.  Many of those posts concern current events and other things that seemed interesting at the time but are perhaps less so now.   The items I find myself returning to with a purpose are the stories of the kids and their activities.  Michael has three and a half years left of high school, and Kelly has two and a half years left of undergraduate university life.  Over that time,  Michael will have numerous adventures with friends if his first six months of high school are any indication, plus a lot of baseball.  Kelly will have a year abroad in Spain, plus graduation and whatever follows it.  My future self demands that these things be chronicled, to remind my empty-nest self of what life was like these exciting days.

Regrettably, stepping away from the blog has left a large void in our family's online diary.  In that time, Kelly powered triumphantly through high school and began her studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, just like dear old mom and dad.  Michael worked his way through middle school and perhaps the defining feature of these days, four amazing seasons of youth baseball.  Memories of these days now mostly reside in our Facebook timelines.  Of late, however, I have found myself wanting to return to the longer-form, more self-indulgent blog format where I can tell stories of Kelly's studies and travels and Michael's social life and baseball games.

Even if I'm the only person to read these accounts, I will be glad I wrote them.