Monday, September 14, 2009

National Pastime: Arms Race

(photo by Lon Horwedel)

The following is the first of a two-week series of essays about the game of baseball. This week’s essay “Arms Race” deals with my decision to coach my son’s Little League baseball team. Next week’s essay “Bat Man” is a story about Ron Reed, a 61-year-old Milan man who whose love of hitting baseballs takes on epic proportions.

Arms Race

Not to brag, but I was a pretty good athlete as a kid - maybe even a standout as 10-year-olds go.

I picked up sports quickly and easily - then mastered them almost as fast. In Little League I tossed four no-hitters, batted over .600, and played third base like a vaccum cleaner – nothing got by me. I was so good there was never a doubt in my mind I would become a professional ballplayer when I grew up.

My control on the mound was uncanny for a kid. I beaned only two batters my entire career and rarely walked a hitter unless it was intentional. I threw plenty hard too, chucking 45 to 50 mph fastballs as 10-year-old and 65 mph heaters by the time I was 13.

And then it was over.

By the time I was 15, I had peaked. My fastball never got any faster and my uncanny control had backfired on me. With little fear and faster bats, kids now were smacking my pitches all over the park knowing I would always throw strikes.

It was embarrassing. My no-hitters had turned into “no-outers.” I was lucky if I lasted three innings before my opponents put up a 10-spot on me. My dreams of a major league career were dashed, but my love of the game never waned.

As a fan, I faithfully suffered through losing season after losing season of Cleveland Indians baseball while they consistently gave up 10-spots to their opponents in a manner which I was all too familiar. As a player, I had a resurgence of sorts playing co-ed softball in college, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing against softball, but it’s just not baseball. So after college I put the glove in the closet and went on with my life.

And that’s the way it remained for nearly 20-years. Sure, there was the magical run of the Cleveland Indians in the mid-90’s where they sold out 425 straight home games and went to two World Series (of course they lost them both). But as for me actually playing? I didn’t so much as even play catch.

That all changed when I was lucky enough to get married and have three kids whom inherited their father’s love for baseball. Truth be told, they weren’t much good to me at first. Their throwing was terrible and they couldn’t catch worth a squat. Not to mention our games often had to be put on hold so I could change their diapers. Still, I tried and tried and they seemed to enjoy watching their old man chase after their errant tosses.

It was frustrating, but it was an important lesson for me - I just didn’t know it at the time. My kids were teaching me patience; something I desperately needed – and fast!

Patience, it turns out, is exactly what you need as you watch your once-awful kids slowly turn into pretty good ballplayers in the span of only a few years and a few thousand backyard tosses. And not only did they improve, but I had the nice side effect of getting my throwing arm back in shape as well.

In fact, my youngest son got so good I decided it was time to take my love of baseball one step further and take on the task of coaching his 10-and-under travel baseball team for next season.

This meant I needed to host an open tryout to find the best 10-year-old ball players in Ann Arbor. To get the word out, I contacted every Rec & Ed baseball coach telling them to send me their best players. To try and reach even more kids, I also put an ad in the local paper. I didn’t know what to expect, but I assumed we would have about 25-30 kids show up for the tryout.

Earlier that week I attended a different tryout to see how their coaches ran things. I noticed they used a pitching machine when the kids took batting practice. This was okay, I guess, except every kid knew exactly what to expect after two pitches. At that point, I decided I would throw live pitching at my tryout to see how well the players would adjust to different pitch locations. Besides, I didn’t own a pitching machine.

Two days later, tryout day arrived. My son and I got there a half hour early to warm up. I threw him batting practice for roughly 20-minutes to ease his nerves … and mine. I had no idea what to expect, but it wasn’t much longer before car after car began pulling up and dropping off 10-year-old kids in all shapes and sizes toting gloves and bats.

Within 15 minutes, more than 40 kids had descended upon the park, all looking for a spot on the team. For the first hour I had the kids run the bases, field grounders and shag fly balls. Then it was time to see what they could do with the bat. To be fair, I told every kid I would give him 7-10 pitches figuring that would be enough to see if they could actually hit.

My son, who’d already done plenty of hitting, volunteered to put on his catcher’s gear and sidle in behind home plate to help out his old man on the mound.

“Better give me a few warm ups so I don’t drill anybody.” I joked to the waiting batters.

They laughed nervously.

I reached down and grabbed a brand-new Rawlings baseball out of a 5-gallon bucket sitting near the mound. The ball felt good in my hand. Its seams fit perfectly under the fingertips of my middle and index fingers; slightly raised from the otherwise smooth surface of the ball, they gave me just the right amount of friction for a perfect grip – not too loose, not too tight. It’s hard to describe the perfect feeling of perfect-sized object, like a baseball, and how it relates to the human hand. I just knew that it felt, well … perfect.

As I stared in at my pint-sized son crouched behind the plate, I realized the last time I pitched worth a darn was against kids this age. Only now I was twice their size, so I had to remind myself I was here to see how well these kids could hit, not how many I could strike out. But just for fun, I poured one in at full speed (still only 65 mph) on my last warm-up pitch leaving a nice, loud SMACK into the pocket of my son’s catcher’s mitt. 

The batter’s eyes widened at the sight and sound of my last offering.

“Okay, I’m ready." I announced. 

Then I shouted, "BATTER UP!” 

The first batter nervously approached the batter's box and stepped in ... sort of.

“Son, you might want to scooch a little closer to the plate.” I said. 

Slowly, he inched his feet to the outside edge of the box.

“Don’t worry," I said reassuringly,  "I’m not going to hit you ... I promise.” 

After he actually got in the box, I peered in at the plate, 46-feet away, and started my windup. My motion was as fluid as ever. Nothing had changed in my 33-years away from the mound except my size. My mechanics had remained the same. The first pitch slid effortlessly off my fingertips and soared across the middle of the plate. It was only a 45 mph fastball, but it was a beauty. The poor kid never swung the bat.

“STEEE-RIKE ONE!” I yelled. “Remember, you only get three and your out.”

Three more beauties followed, but soon the kid in the batter’s box, as well as the hordes of kids on deck, slowly began to realize that not only would the full-grown man on the mound not kill them, he was, in fact, giving them nothing but flat, right-across-the-middle-of-the-plate, 45mph fastballs.

By my fifth pitch the kid foul-tipped one to the backstop. By the sixth, he fouled one down the first base line. On my seventh pitch, he cracked a single right back up the box.

“All right, that’s more like it.” I said.

With that one single, the confidence of every batter waiting on deck grew by leaps and bounds.

“Next!” I yelled.

Batter number two came out swinging. A big kid and a good hitter, he jumped on my first pitch and drilled it deep to left field. The sight of the ball sailing over the left fielder's head sparked a bad memory of my last year in Little League when kids were spanking my pitches all over the park. A little perturbed at the thought, I dug my foot a little deeper into the loose dirt on the mound and reached for the next ball.

“Okay kid,” I said under my breath, “let’s see you hit this.”

Inside my glove I gripped the ball with nothing but my fingernails, then I proceeded to float a beauty of a knuckleball toward the plate. It was like watching a butterfly as it flittered and darted this way and that on its 35 mph journey to my son’s glove.

I couldn't help but watch in admiration as my pitch approached its destination. The ball hadn’t spun at all - not even once. It was so without rotation, you could read the Rawlings on the ball’s cover as it floated through space between the mound and the plate.

Suddenly, my admiration was shattered by the sharp, stinging sound of a metal bat crushing a cowhide baseball into the stratosphere. The kid hit the ball so high and so far I think it burned up on reentry. 

“Throw that pitch again coach,” the kid yelled back at me, pounding his bat on the plate, “I liked that one.”

“Damn!" I said to myself. "This little bastard is making me look like a fool." 

Three more 45 mph fastballs were followed by three more blasts to left field.

“Next!” I yelled, as sweat began dripping from my brow.

Now the kids were licking their chops to get into the box and take their cuts. There was no doubt I still had my uncanny control, but I wasn’t any better than a pitching machine at this point. The kids were far from afraid - they were eager.

For a second, I thought about using my uncanny control to dust off a kid or two. The problem was most of the parents had stayed to watch the tryout and throwing a little “chin music” to their sons probably wouldn't sit too well. I thought about speeding up the pitches, but that didn’t seem like such a good idea either. I was, after all, trying to throw at roughly the same speed they would see from the average 10-year-old.

Instead, I decided to start working the ball in and out a little, then up and down - all the while throwing strikes. Then I started to mix up the speeds while still tossing the occasional knuckleball. It was a good plan and I soon realized that even though the kids could hit me, they still had problems when I moved my pitches around the strike zone. I was getting what I wanted – a good sense of who had good bat control, but not so good that I looked like a fool.

I had become a Little League Greg Maddux.

For an hour this went on. Batter after batter strolled to the plate getting 7-10 of my best pitches. Thinking we were near the end, I asked the kids who hadn’t hit yet to raise their hands - at least ten kids thrust their hands skyward.

“Holy crap, ten more.” I thought to myself.

The sun was getting low in the sky and we already were a half hour past the time I told parents we’d be done. But it wouldn’t be fair to cut it short and deprive a kid a chance to bat. Luckily, the parents seemed to understand this, so on we went.

For the next 20-minutes, it was more of the same.

Throw - hit.

Throw – miss.

Throw – hit.

Throw - miss.

Finally, as darkness began to fall, the last batter took his last cut and the tryout officially ended.

There was plenty of data to pore over after the three-hour tryout. Who could catch, who could throw, who could hit. But all that could wait. I was starving; and so was my son who’d spent the better part of the last hour crouched behind home plate being his old man’s battery mate.

“You okay buddy?” I asked as we gathered up our gear. “You did a lot of catching back there.”

“I’m fine dad.” He said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine.” I said surprised. “Why?”

“Well, you threw a lot of pitches dad, how’s your arm?” He asked.

“I didn't throw that many,” I said, “only 7-10 per batter.”

“Yeah, but dad, there were 40 batters.” He replied.

“Forty batters, hmmm, you’re right, so that’s like what?” 

 "That's like 350 pitches dad.” My son chimed in.

 “Holy crap! You’re right." I said. "I threw over 300 pitches!”

I checked the condition of my arm by swinging it back and forth and stretching it up over my head. It didn’t seem to hurt at all. In fact, it felt pretty good. Granted, most of my pitches were barely over 40 mph and I was only throwing from 46-feet away, but still, 350 pitches!

“Hmmm, my arm doesn’t hurt at all.” I told my son. "Not even the least bit sore."

“Good,” he said, “wanna play catch?”

1 comment:

  1. “Throw that pitch again coach,” the kid yelled back at me, pounding his bat on the plate, “I liked that one.”

    I liked that line ... but this exchange here:

    “Hmmm, my arm doesn’t hurt at all.” I told my son. "Not even the least bit sore."

    “Good,” he said, “wanna play catch?”

    I liked that best!