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T-Ball Journal: No Cheering, Coach

Whatever you do, don't cheer. The kid has two strikes on him with two outs and runners on second and third. We are clinging to a small lead and if he strikes out, we have a real good chance to turn that lead into a win, our first of the season. But nobody is truly happy when coaches strike out the kids on their teams at this level. It is so much better when they hit it and we make a play on defense. So coach, don't cheer. In fact, don't move a muscle as the umpire cries out "Strike three!" But don't be too tough on yourself for feeling so relieved. It can't be helped.

Deciding just how much your T-Ball/coach-pitch team plays to win is one of the biggest challenges facing a coach at this level. It infuses every part of my son Noah's junior division games. Of course I'm not trying to win at all costs (Congratulations coach, your team just won the T-Ball championship! Thank you, thank you very much. I'm so pleased to accept this honor because it so clearly validates my entire life . . . I'd like to thank the grounds crews, the umpires, the bottled water distributors . . . ). But the "Can't we all just rise above this petty competition stuff?" approach doesn't work either.

There was a team in our league last year whose coach's daughter was a real good player. At the draft (before the season the coaches get together to form up teams - at our level teams usually pick a few friends of the coaches' kids and then use rankings to try to make sure all the squads are reasonably competitive), her team took as many girls as it could. But that meant taking kids from well down in the rankings with early picks. I'm sure there was a lot of fun female fellowship going on but the team lost all but one of its first 13 games.

When we played them late in the season, more than a half-dozen team members had simply stopped showing up. And when it came time for our game to start they only had seven kids (out of 16 on the roster). Five minutes later we could have called it a forfeit, but didn't (how can you not take the win right there coach? You could have improved your playoff seeding!). Ten more minutes later one more kid showed up to give the team the minimum. It didn't take long for us to build a double-digit lead and we eventually finished off a less-than-satisfying win.

One thing a coach has to be real careful about at this level, and even more so in my daughter's T-Ball division, is that with some kids it doesn't take much to prompt them to bow out completely. Alana's coach talked recently about a kid who struck out early in the first game last year and just like that "we lost him. I pleaded with his parents not to let him quit, but he was gone."

The "how much do I care about winning" questions begin before the game. Should I use my favorite method of lineup creation, the one in which "the players who get here first bat first?" Or should I have a set lineup going in, with my best hitters always batting first, second and third? I don't do that in part because last year we always had a couple kids who surprised me by not showing up, despite my begging and pleading with parents to give me a heads up if they weren't going to make it. And of course because a pre-game lineup requires just a bit more pre-game organization. Have I mentioned that isn't my strong suit?

Usually my lineups are mostly based on order of pre-game arrival. I made exceptions last year to try to spread out my weaker hitters but this year we have more hitting parity throughout our roster. And the kids are aware enough of the rule this year that some are running from their cars to the diamond before games to try to move up a spot.

Before our third game, which eventually became our second loss to go with a tie, I noticed the opposing coach walking away from his bench with one of his players. This coach was seriously organized - enough to have his lineup posted on an erasable clipboard hanging above where the bats were stored. As he went he was explaining, in a very serious way, "I decided to drop you down two spots in the lineup and I just wanted to tell you why . . . " to a seven-year-old . . . I hate to second-guess another coach but my feeling is that sort of move doesn't quite require a heart-to-heart chat.

At that point I realized that coach was probably tilting a bit more toward the "win at all costs" model. I probably should have figured that out earlier, especially after Noah and I arrived a full half hour before game time and his team, the Cubs, already had eight guys there taking precision infield practice. And then there was the contest's aftermath, when I walked by their bench after talking to my team, giving my son enough time to wolf down two snacks, gathering my dust-drenched equipment and picking up trash, and the Cubs were still sitting there, listening to their coach's post-game analysis.

Then again, the game with the Cubs was more fun than our most recent outing, which actually resulted in our second victory (we went into the Memorial Day break with a 2-2-1 record). We had recorded our first win a day earlier in a competitive contest in which we built up a lead during the T-Ball innings, scored a few runs during coach-pitch and hung on. It was a real nice result and it was a relief - we were off the schneid.

The most recent game was against the Giants, a team we knew a little about going in. A friend of ours' twin daughters play for the Giants and when we talked to her she readily acknowledged the squad was struggling. My son heard her say this and when we arrived at the game and I reminded him who we were playing he immediately said "We're going to win." I admonished him not to jinx us and he responded "Dad, there's no such thing as jinxes." I told him not to be overconfident and let it go at that. It occurred to me that the concept of a jinx is not easily defended, even if they so clearly exist.

The game began and sure enough, the Giants struggled. We took an early lead due in part to aggressive base-running. Sometimes in these games the best base-running policy is to just keep going, trying to egg the other team into making bad throws. And a couple of the Dodgers employed it to great effect during the first few innings. Yet another conundrum by the way: should you stop your players from doing that and avoid embarrassing the other team? Or does doing so corrupt the game? And while I'm at it, there is the question of who plays which position when? The Giants switched their kids around every inning after the third, letting whoever wanted to play pitcher play there. It probably cost them a few runs but was that the best way to do it? I always tell our kids that I'm trying to put them in the positions where they have the best chance to succeed but clearly that is at least a little bit of a cop out.

The game took forever to finish, what with the Giant coaches seeming to make up the defense as they went along the last several innings. The sun had gone down and their coach pitcher was still having his kids take a half-dozen practice swings every at-bat.

In the end the competitive questions continued to nag, as did the fact that my pitching had been sub-par, resulting in one of my better players striking out twice (Doh!) and others not getting enough good pitches to hit. Do kids have more fun when they play the positions they want to play, even if they then struggle to make plays at those positions?

My friend, the mother of the twins, had noted that after an earlier game the Giants had lost, "they thought they won and we weren't arguing." So did an actual win matter? It would have if any of the Giants had tried to tell the Dodgers they had won this one. In my experience any efforts to downplay the actual score have always been defeated by players insisting (my man Noah in particular) on knowing what the numbers truly are. You can fudge the goal totals in soccer a bit but in baseball it is all right there in the scorebook. So many questions . . . .but hey, I'm sure we'll figure it all out by the end of the season. On the other hand something tells me a few more questions will probably come up.

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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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