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T-Ball Journal: Pop Flies And Dark Skies

The clouds were intense. They didn't bode well for the successful completion of my daughter's T-Ball game on Sunday, but they were still something to see - truly mountainous cumulus confections. They rushed in over the park as the first couple innings played out and sure enough, the rain began to fall in the third.

Soon tiny raindrops felt more like big ol' smooches and the umpire called a halt to the proceedings. It wasn't clear if the game was canceled or simply delayed but the other team fled the field like they had just heard the siren song of the ice cream truck. When the precipitation quickly eased and play could have resumed (it simply continued without any sort off delay on all the other surrounding diamonds) my daughter Alana's Red Sox, most of whom had lingered near the diamond, no longer had an opponent. So I am hereby officially declaring Sunday's contest a forfeit victory.

During the earlier innings, a central thought occurred - baseball is ridiculously difficult. As I watched Alana make a few plays and miss a few plays (miss a few plays? How is she supposed to catch those one- or two-hop throws coming into first base? Those are errors on her teammates - got that pal?), I hoped she wouldn't get discouraged or discombobulated. Mostly, I hoped she wouldn't get hurt.

Actually even minor injuries don't happen very often at the Rookie League level thanks in largest part to those wonderful, slightly soft T-Balls. At the next level we start in with the hard balls. When I got my first batch last season and finally opened them up shortly before my son Noah's first junior division game, I thought a mistake had been made. They were hard as horsehide-covered rocks, and I had been sure we had another couple years with the T-Balls. On the bright side I realized I was wrong before I demanded a refund.

Hard balls are scary. We had only one bad-hop bloodied face last year but there were plenty of bruises and bumps. The kids' shins always take a beating. In particular I remember a line drive to first early in the 2006 campaign. Our player got his glove up but not quite far enough and the ball seemed to crash into his face. We rushed over and found that, miraculously, it had hit square off the brim of his cap, pushing it up and off his head and then continued on to hit his forehead. The initial impact absorbed most of the ball's force and saved the day. Our guy didn't suffer a scratch.

Anyway, regarding the degree of difficulty - it is awfully high for the little bounders. The first and second-graders on Noah's Dodgers have a tough enough time paying attention throughout an inning, let alone Alana and her fellow kindergarteners. I'm always telling my team "When the ball goes up (onto the T or in the coach-pitcher's throwing hand) - assume the ready position!"

But at some point you just have to let it go. They simply aren't going to be ready every play.

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A quick Dodgers update: We played our best game of the year to record a shocking 18-8 victory over the previously undefeated Athletics on Saturday. The best thing was 11 coach-pitch runs (during the final four innings after three innings of T-Ball). We had averaged maybe two in our first five games. It was definitely the best pitching performance of my career, even better than the glorious victory or two I recall notching on the mound for my tough-as-nails Latin Romans middle school squad in the late 70s. Of course that was followed by a sloppy 22-17 loss on Sunday to the Rangers (or was it the Packers?) that dropped us back to .500 (3-3-1).

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Back on the T-Ball diamond we're lucky if a majority of Alana and her teammates are ready on any given play. Fortunately opposing hitters usually don't hit it terribly hard and therefore the kids have time to wake up before the ball gets to them. On Noah's team we had a play on Sunday where one of my guys wasn't ready for a line drive hit his way and for a couple seconds it looked like it might hit him before he even realized the ball was in play.

Then there is the challenge of mastering specific baseball skills - throwing and catching and hitting. Some kids are naturals at throwing but plenty of others take a long, long time to work out the mechanics - long enough that it seems like they won't ever get it. A few players on Noah's team, who are in their second year of junior division competition, know how to use most of their arms to throw faster and farther. And they do it some of the time. But they also forget a lot of the time and then you get the elbow-bent, throwing-hand-behind-the-head mechanics that used to be referred to as "throwing like a girl." Anybody catch any of the softball College World Series on ESPN this month, by the way? That pejorative has officially been obliterated.

Catching is tricky in part because of the initial awkwardness of the mitt especially if it isn't broken in correctly, in part due to needing to work out basic depth perception issues, and in part due to the need to switch from one hand to both hands and back again. With the mitt you still want them to use two hands but unless they are scooping up a grounder, you want them to catch it by closing their glove hand around it and then locking it in there with the throwing hand (unless of course it is a sacrifice fly situation . . . OK, OK we won't go into that). The trickiest part is getting a feel for when to catch the ball with your glove straight up, when to turn it over (for lower throws) and when to go to the backhand.

And hitting, yikes, let's not completely break down hitting at this point. I will say it is amazing how often it comes down to the old saw "Keep your eye on the ball" at least in terms of making consistent contact. On the other hand, there is a ton of other stuff that comes into play.

With all this in mind, one does wonder what it is about baseball that made it the central sport of childhood, at least for boys, for what, the last century and then some? Soccer is not only easier, it is also, obviously, much better exercise. But baseball still captivates. And funny little stuff always plays out before, during and after the game.

Earlier on game day Alana, who is more than a little precocious about baseball thanks in largest part to an older brother who is very, very into it, was talking about one of her goals for the day. "I'll hit one all the way to second base and the second baseman will forget to step on second (for the force) so there won't be an out."

She is also aware that the standard of excellence for T-Ball hitting is slightly lower than it is a little further up the age-group ladder. Alana dreams of hitting "pop-flies," i.e. anything that rises above the weak ground balls that are what usually come off the T. Clearly there is a big difference between her pop-flys and the miserable sky-highers that so often result when, say, Cubs take their swings with games on the line.

Plus pop-ups force us to gaze skyward. And you never know what you might see up there.

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Jim Coffman's daughter is in her first season of T-Ball. Her older brother is in his last year in the Junior Division. Coffman is chronicling his travails as coach of his son's team and observer of his daughter's initial foray into this slice of Americana.

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