Coaches should see children first, players second

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No sound can compare to the crack of a bat as a boy swings for the fences on a warm summer afternoon.

The “crack” itself is like an exclamation point to the prayer every boy says as he stands at the plate and looks for the gap in the field among the eight players who are themselves praying the ball won’t come to them.

Yes, the holiest place outside of a church on Sunday morning is a little league baseball field on Saturday afternoon.

At least, that was my experience during the one season I played baseball 30 years ago.

Of course, I never did figure out how to make that “crack” sound at the plate. The only sound I ever made was the “oomph” that one time the pitcher hit me with the ball, which also is the only time I ever remember reaching first base.

To say I was bad is an understatement. If I was only bad at playing baseball, then the Titanic suffered only a minor crack in its hull. I sucked so much, the folks at Hoover wanted to study my innards so they could figure out how to make a better vacuum cleaner.

Kids like me are the reason misguided adults created the rule that forces coaches to field every player for at least one inning each game. The rule — and any other like it — makes sense on the surface. It ensures a coach fields every child who signed up to play, even those who can’t hit or throw. If the rule didn’t exist, coaches who are only interested in winning would never field kids who can’t play.

The problem, however, is that once a kid is 11 or 12, he is old enough to understand the reason behind the rule. No one has to tell the kid he sucks. The coach says it all by only playing him one inning per game, and his teammates echo the statement in the way they treat him when adults aren’t around.

I probably didn’t play an entire game all season, and the team’s championship win meant nothing to me. I had as much to do with that trophy as the bugs that lived in the grass in the outfield.

I don’t think about that season often, but it obviously had a profound effect on me if I remember it vividly 30 years later.

I have been thinking about it more these days as my 5-year-old son Gavin is old enough to play T-ball or baseball this spring. He’s about seven years younger than I was when I played baseball, so I’m sure his experience won’t be the same as mine.

Still, part of me fears that he will be the kid for whom the one-inning rule was made, even though he is more athletic than I was as a kid. He showed me as much this winter when he played indoor soccer on a team I coached in the county recreation league.

I had never coached anything before, but the league would have been canceled if parents didn’t step up, and Gavin was eager to play. I didn’t want him to be disappointed, so I volunteered for the six-week league and enjoyed it.

I found myself thinking back to my season playing baseball, and tried to play all the kids for an equal period of time in various positions. It was difficult because some kids were obviously better than others, and I felt the temptation to give more time to those who played best (including Gavin).

But I did not want to be the coach who favors his son on the field and tells another kid he sucks by not playing him. I wanted to be the coach who gives all his kids a chance to play, and tells them all that having fun in youth sports is more important than winning, especially in a league that has no tryouts, doesn’t keep score, and in which everyone can play.

If other coaches felt the same way, I might look back on my season of baseball with fondness more so than as a cautionary tale about how not to treat kids who only want to learn to play a game. I might also have been able to play more than one inning a game, and might have even enjoyed it.

This is a re-post of a column that first appeared in The Gazette on March 10, 2011. Gavin is a year older, but did not play T-ball last spring. We signed him up for baseball this year, and I am his team’s coach. 

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