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This spring and summer my kindergarten-going daughter Alana has embarked on the happy little slice of Americana that is a first season of T-Ball. She plays for the Rookie League Red Sox at a North Side park a little less than a mile from our house. And her brother Noah, 8, is playing his last year in the Junior Division. At that level, the first three innings are T-Ball and the last four are coach-pitch. That's when the head coach, in this case me, tries to groove pitches for his own players to hit. We'll have more on that excruciating task later.
So this is the only season in which my two oldest kids are both utilizing the traditional youth baseball starter kit. And I'm cautiously optimistic we'll all make it through at least reasonably unscathed. Then again, one realizes early on in the process of coaching this sport to kids this age that there are a great deal of things that can go wrong.
Before Alana's season started I had considered volunteering to be an assistant coach for the Red Sox. But it quickly became apparent that my assistance wasn't needed. It is safe to say a sizable percentage of dads are more than a little fired up to help their kids' teams when they are first starting out. Sure enough, at Alana's initial practice a few weeks ago, a squadron of six paternal presences were already out on the diamond when we arrived. There isn't quite the fervor to coach at my son's level, but I've had as much help there as I've needed.
But back to the Rookie Red Sox and, specifically, their season-opener last week. It was early in that game, perhaps as early as the bottom of the first, that it became clear that abject begging would be required. The 5-year-old ballplayers weren't responding to quiet admonishments not to kick up the dirt covering the field.
They weren't responding despite the fact that the game was being played in what was at times an all-out dust storm. Wind gusts combined with dry, thin infield dirt to send large clouds of grit rushing off the diamond and through the area where many parents had initially gathered. Those clouds sometimes even managed to swirl back around to the other side of the field. And so the time arrived for pleadings, i.e. "Please, please, please! Don't kick up the dirt!"
That only worked for a little while. There was nothing to do but carry on.
That and to make sure our children stayed hydrated. Whatever you do, keep the water flowing!
My generation of parents worries slightly more than necessary about proper hydration. I know I somehow survived childhood in Chicago without ever having a water bottle handy. When we got thirsty, well, the game was usually good enough to distract us for a while longer. Except for my friend Scott, who lived in mortal fear of "cotton mouth" and would eventually wear us down and force us to go to the store for a pop.
He'd have had nothing to worry about in this era, when someone always seems to have an extra store of water. Thankfully, someone had deposited four bottles of water near our kids' bench. On a day there was no denying a little extra water was a good thing, those bottles were big, especially for those sad few parents who had forgotten water bottles for their little T-Ballers. Not surprisingly, I was one of those parents.
I forget water disturbingly frequently. And when I do remember it, at least half the time I leave it in the cup holder. Now, I'm of the belief that the children would survive for an hour or even two without water, but when all the other kids are slurping down perfectly chilled refreshment, there is a certain urgency to making sure your child isn't left out.
The quest for water was perhaps the biggest drama during the season-opener - against the Cubs, a team that amazingly enough was sponsored by "Obama for President" (a fact that was made evident by the message on the back of their uniforms above the number).
Kids hit the ball off the tee and run to first and stop. No doubles are allowed as baserunners proceed according to a strict base-by base protocol. And there is a limit of 10 batters per frame. The Red Sox struggle early on defense although at least one out is achieved by the pitcher rushing in for a ground ball, fielding it and then proceeding home to touch the plate for a bases-loaded force.
It gets better later in the game. More outs are achieved and the Red Sox actually pull out what is believed to be a 28-25 decision - not that any of the coaches on either of the teams will acknowledge having kept careful track of the score.
By the time kids get to the Junior League, careful score is definitely being kept. My son's first game is nervous enough - did I mention we play with hard balls as opposed to the slightly soft version used in the Rookie League - but even worse is trying to figure out who will play where before the game even starts.
League organizers decided a while back to try to give as many kids as many chances to play as many different positions as possible at this level. A noble concept sure, but I need some sore of new algorithm to determine how to create a defensive chart in which 16 players play at least three positions (one of which must be in the infield), take a one or two-inning break and oh by the way also take into account arm strength, left-handed vs. right-handed, etc.
And oh by the way also, 12 kids play at a time (there are five outfielders and one short-centerfielder who plays right behind second).
The night before, I put my chart together and it worked out OK. It is especially important to put your best players in the best spots in the first three innings, when the opposing team is whaling away at the tee, and I do that. We take an early lead but we can't quite make some big plays late in the game and it ends up a tie (we've got to get off the diamond to let the next game begin).
The coach-pitching goes reasonably well - hey, I didn't hit anybody! But it is still a nervous, difficult task during which I am sure my form is not nearly what it should be. For one thing, I almost hit Noah with a pitch, but he somehow manages to pull his bat in, make contact and beat out an infield hit.
Amazingly enough we finish seven innings and find ourselves in a tie. Baseball traditionalists would never allow for such a thing but it must be said neither I nor the opposing head coach is particularly unhappy about finishing the contest without losinig. Soon the Dodgers move on to the next challenge. The schedule says our next game is versus the Cubs, but we know the next big challenge is finding a place to practice that isn't a marsh (due to rain within the previous week) nor is it occupied by older ballplayers (CPS baseball and softball teams always have priority on park district diamonds). Whatever the obstacle, however, we know we'll find a way to slide past it.
Jim Coffman's T-Ball Journal will appear all season unless or until he is lost in a dust storm or dehydrates.