Steve Wiley is Jackalope Ranch's Parent Hood. He's a slightly unorthodox father of five who will weigh 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 ponders how an anti-authority hoodlum ends up coaching Little League for 8 years.
It came in the mail the other day -- the notice that the Little League season was kicking in again. Get your glove, your bat, and your birth certificate - it's time to play ball.
It sent me a-pondering. (I do that sort of thing.) I thought about baseball, my sons, and what long journey it had been since my first encounter with Little League almost 8 years ago.
True Baseball Fanatics
You see, in this moment you can't separate my sons from baseball. They play high school and club baseball. Really high level stuff for their ages. They work their butts off to perfect their craft. They hit each other grounders out on the street. They fill the Wileysworld calendar with weekend baseball tournaments.
When they aren't playing, they are watching MLB Network. I know, a whole network about baseball might seem excessive to the average person and even to the average baseball fan -- like "how are they gonna fill all that time during the off-season?" -- but not to these guys. They RECORD the stuff. Prime Nine. Intentional Talk. Countdown. It's on all the time.
It's awesome. Because it turns out the old man loves baseball too. And it turns out the old man is part of the team.
Irony is the Curve Ball of Life
Did I intend to be a baseball coach? Not a chance. If you've read this column, or watched the intro video, then you know I'm sort of a hoodlum. I wasn't an authority-lover in my youth either. In fact, I had more coaches that made me nuts than I had coaches that influenced me. In my experiences and observations, there's not many more professions with a higher percentage of eye-rolling, testosterone-spilling goof balls.
So coaching wasn't something I had on my adult to-do list.
However, the two coaches that did have what I still consider to be a big impact on me, Mike Littler and George Cederstrom (names included because credit is due), were both baseball coaches. They accepted me as I was, and worked to help me get better at baseball ... and life. And they helped give me the necessary confidence for baseball ... and life.
And we played some damn good baseball. We traveled. We won tourneys. And despite authoritatively-wary side of me being ever-present, the good-student side of me dominated, and I paid attention and learned. Even though my love of baseball eventually lost out to my need to work (and hang with my friends) in the summer, the entire baseball experience had left a positive imprint on me.
Did You Do a Background Check on That Guy?
So when I first brought my son Ben down to sign up for YMCA baseball at age 5, and they asked me to coach, what could I say?
Was the thought of being a coach ironic? To say the least. But hey, they needed the help, and I had the type of schedule that allowed me to do it. Besides, at this level, how hard could it be? I remembered the fundamentals, and I figured I'd do some research to learn the drills. I conned them into letting my 3-year old, Jonah, play, and my coaching career had begun.
And you know what? It wasn't bad.
So I coached that little seven-kid tee-ball team. They learned. They got better. And best of all, I was spending time with my boys ... and my beloved game.
(BTW, they did do a background check. No problems.)
Will You Still Be Needing Me?
A year later, when we moved to Tempe and we showed up to join the Tempe Rio Salado Little League, I knew we weren't in Youth Baseball Kansas anymore. These guys had Spring Training. Opening Day. Coaching clinics. A total organization. They weren't gonna need me.
Uh, think again.
Better league, same need for coaches. So I'm coaching again. The tee is gone, and now I'm throwing pitches to kids. Same fundamentals. A little better skills. I can still handle this level.
One year later, and we are ready for the kids to pitch. This must be the level where actual baseball coaches take over and Dads like me hit the stands again.
Nope. The league is almost begging me to manage a "minors" team. I say, "Are you sure?" They say, "The parent reports have been great." So what can I say?
I guess I'm a coach.
Look Out Tommy LaSorda, Here I Come
Minors (9 and 10-year-olds) came and went. My teams made it to the championship each year. Then came Little League majors (the 11 and 12 year-olds you see on TV).
Every year I'd ask my sons if they still wanted me to coach. Every year they'd respond with a resounding yes. Every year I'd ask the League if they wanted me back. Every year they said yes. In Ben's final year, we finally won our first championship, all three of us on the same team (Go Twins).
Last year, Ben aged out of Little League, and headed for the world of club baseball. Only one more year of Little League left for Jonah, and surely my coaching "career" would be over.
Luckily, the boy made it last for his old man. Because, you see, I had grown addicted. Coaching had allowed me to stay in the game. In the dugout. A real part of the action.
He made the all-star team in our newly merged Tempe South LL, and we won the district. We skipped the family vacation in order to make the trip to Tucson, where we finally lost in the quarterfinals. I remained on the coaching staff - working with a tremendous team of gifted young athletes - and enjoying every minute of what was sure to be my final baseball coaching moment.
Thank You, Sir. May I Have Another?
About a month after the all-star season ended, the manager of the team called us and told us he was interested in keeping the team together, and giving it a go in the highest level of 13-year old club baseball. The best of the best.
And amazingly, he asked if I wanted to help coach.
I spent last weekend calling pitches on defense and coaching third on offense. In the thick of the game, watching kids execute the plays I called for them. Did I have to get up at the crack of dawn in freezing temps? Yup. Did I miss all four of the NFL playoff games? Uh huh. But I was in the middle of five baseball games with my son and our team. And we won the tournament.
A truly beautiful thing.
So as the first Little League season in 8 years starts without me, I look back fondly at where Youth Baseball has led me, with a big nod of Parent Hood thanks.
And Now: The List
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Here are my Seven of the Most Basic Baseball Fundamentals:
7) Step and throw at the target; 6) Hit the cut-off man; 5) Get in front of the ball; 4) Think about the play before it happens; 3) Use two hands; 2) Keep your eye on the ball; and 1) Forget about the mistakes and the failures and move forward.
FInally: The Take:
It doesn't have to be baseball, but I cannot endorse many fatherly goals more than staying as involved as possible in whatever piques your kids interest. Hopefully, you'll get lucky like I did and your kids will share some of your interests. But if not, I know lots of awesome dads that are just as involved in competitive dance, or art, or acting, or sports they themselves never even played (hell, our team manager never played baseball) who get the same "involved" rush I get coaching baseball. The important thing is to spend that time and share that interest.