Steve Wiley is Jackalope Ranch's Parent Hood. He's a slightly unorthodox father of five who weighs in weekly with his mildly rebellious views and observations. If you'd like to see how he came to write this column, watch the intro video. This week he tells a little baseball story in honor of opening day
The worst thing about being a youth baseball coach is that I never get to hit.
It's almost the only negative part. As I talked about the Little League of Our Own blog, baseball is a big part of Wileysworld, and I have really loved being a coach for the past eight years.
You see, even though I'm 48 years old, I still get to be part of the game and spend time with my boys. I play catch. I get to pitch batting practice. I coach third base. I'm in the dugout, deep into every aspect of the game.
But I don't get to hit. It stinks.
Hey Grandpa, You Wanna Hit?
You see, everyone who's every played the game knows that hitting is the shit. I watch kids hit off tees, off the soft toss, off me -- but I never get to swing the bat. I've lamented this fact to my players many times. I hit fly balls and grounders, but I don't get to face pitching.
The main reason, up this point in my coaching "career," is purely size. Allow my swing isn't nearly as sweet as most of my players (the coaching irony of telling kids to do stuff that you can't do anymore is never lost on me), at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, if I connect on one, I could really hurt some poor kid. Clearly I wouldn't want that, but it's a bummer.
So imagine how stoked I was to finally hear the words "Do you want to hit?".
It was nearing the end of the "winter" season (being a North Dakota boy, I still have to put that word in quotations when using it to describe Arizona) and it we had just arrived at my oldest son's (14) practice, which was set to be a scrimmage, followed by a barbecue. My younger son (12) was with us as well, although it wasn't our practice (I only coach on his team). It was a weekend, and we didn't have much to do, so we figured we go up and help shag balls (and then eat, of course).
But when we arrived, it turns out that even though it was a "pitching machine" scrimmage (meaning just a machine, no pitcher or catcher), one of the two teams was two players short, so the coach asked us if we wanted to play. There's never a question with my 12-year old, who's fearless and always ready to play. The question was whether the old man would put his money where his mouth was . . .
I jumped at the chance.
Any More Stupid Questions?
"Do you want to hit?" he asked.
"Are you kidding? Of course I want to hit."
Even at my size, I can't hurt a machine, and with my antique swing, on a full-size field, I'm certainly not dangerous to infielders or outfielders (at least not anymore than the high school kids) . . . so this was my chance!
I warmed up. Ready to go. Feeling good. I was going to show these boys that the old man could still play. I headed for the outfield (baseball coach hypocrisy means that even though I tell infielders to get in front of the ball, there's not a chance I'm going to do it, so that leaves me in the outfield). The sun was in my eyes, so I repeated my own sun-related coaching notes to myself, and prepared for the ball.
The ball came (baseballs have a way of "finding" the new guy), and there was just one problem: My body didn't quite react as quick as my mind. By "not as quick", I mean slow. Was it tough to see? Yes, but I'll be damned if I was going to use the old "sun in my eyes" excuse with the players.
Anyway, the ball got by me. I ran after it, hit the cut-off, and went back to right field. Our squad made our three outs, and we headed hustled in to hit. Finally!
The Old Man Steps to the Plate
Then the second-guessing began. I hadn't done this in a long time and it isn't exactly an easy craft. Plus, the machine was throwing bullets. I'm not sure whether I was more worried about letting the team down or taking endless harassment from my sons, but I began to get a little nervous.
So I grabbed a bat, got in the box, and focused. My first swing missed, and I was a bit rusty. My son laughed and said, "Dad, you need to load up" (meaning get the bat back, something I had only said to him about a hundred times).
So I loaded up and waited. Ball. On the third pitch, I connected. Yee-haw! I busted my butt up the line, practicing what I "preach" (baseball as religion metaphor intended), but I was thrown out. Oh, well, at least I didn't strike out.
It was on the way back out to the field that my legs first talked to me.
"Don't you think you should have stretched a bit before playing, dummy?" they said. "Probably, but I'll do some out here, and I'll be all right," my brain replied.
Turns out my legs are smarter than my brain. As the game progressed, between outfield action and running bases, they drove their point home with increasing emphasis. By the final inning, I was basically praying (to the baseball gods?) that I wouldn't have to use my "explosive first step" after a fly ball, or I knew my hamstring was going to explode on me.
But it was worth it . . . because I got finally got to hit . . . a bunch. I went 2-for-7, which I will take all day long, especially because I was robbed twice by the only senior on the field (coaches' kid), and I only struck out once . . . when the coach feeding the machine used a ripped ball (for you non-baseball fans, a rip in the seams of a baseball results in lots of movement) to get me swinging on strike three.
Big Pain, Lifetime Gain
Did I pay for the game physically? Uh, for weeks. My legs pain didn't last more than a few days, but at some point, probably due to an improper grip, I jammed my thumb and it hurt for more than a month.
But as I contemplated the pain and looked back -- I realized that what had happened was so much more than just getting a few at-bats. I had actually played a competitive game of baseball with BOTH of my sons. A scrimmage, but a game nevertheless. I had not only survived, but I had done so without embarrassing anyone.
It couldn't have happened in the past (they were too young and small, and it wasn't safe for them).
It wasn't supposed to happen this time (everything had to align, evidenced by the fact that I was the only dad playing).
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It will probably will never happen again (they are getting more powerful by the day, so it just won't be safe for me).
You can bet I'll never forget it.