Spring is here and all across this great nation, Little League is gearing up for another season of turning young ballplayers into hopeless neurotics.
This year I'm coaching the Phillies of the Cockeysville Pony League along with my partners John Alecci and Rich D'Adamo, and we're certainly doing our part to thoroughly confuse the 12 boys on our team.
This was evident the other day at practice as the three of us took turns shouting advice to one aspiring slugger:
"Be a hitter up there!"
"Patience! Make it be your pitch!"
"Walk's as good as a hit!"
Well. You didn't have to be Ty Cobb to recognize that these were three conflicting statements. Apparently the kid at the plate recognized it, because he struck out and walked away mumbling to himself. He probably ended up in the parking lot firing up a Marlboro.
Yes sir, 20 years from now, I envision at least one of our players sprawled on a Scandinavian leather couch in some shrink's office, dabbing at his eyes with a tissue and sobbing: "Little League was tough on me. One coach told you one thing, then another coach would tell you . . . never mind. Anyway, that's about when I started sniffing glue."
Many parents new to Little League are struck by how quiet the games are now.
Back when I played Little League ball, each player in the field was expected to provide "chatter." This was supposed to be verbal encouragement for the pitcher, but more often was so dopey that it drove him out of his mind.
For instance, if the pitcher's name was Fred, an example of snappy, creative chatter would be: "C'mon Fred, c'mon Fred, c'mon Fred . . ."
Now imagine this delivered in a lifeless monotone by eight 12-year-olds for the better part of two hours. You don't think that got a little old after a while?
Me, I was always surprised that the pitcher didn't suddenly whirl around and scream: "WOULD YOU JUST SHUT UP?!"
In the event of a pitching change -- Tim was brought in to relieve Fred -- our computer-like minds would instantly process this new information and our chatter would take on this unique twist: 'C'mon Tim, c'mon Tim, c'mon Tim . . ."
No one ever looked at our teams and thought: "By God, I bet we have some future Cabinet members here!"
But Little Leaguers today, they don't want to hear about chatter.
If a coach yells: "C'mon you guys, let's hear it out there!" he'll be met with quizzical looks, as if he just suggested everyone take off their pants.
On the Phillies, we've spent the early part of the season working on the fundamentals, which involve learning how to duck when the ball takes a bad hop and comes screaming in on your jaw.
As we told the players during our first pep talk: "Men, we're playing on some rough infields. So what each of you has to do is look deep into his soul and ask: 'Am I fully prepared to undergo major facial reconstructive surgery? If the answer is yes, you're our kind of player. Besides, that's what they have anesthesia for, right? Now let's go get 'em!"
Oddly enough, this didn't fire up the players the way we hoped it would. Therefore, much of the rest of practice was spent explaining exactly what a skin graft is, and that many of the scars left by modern plastic surgery are virtually undetectable by the naked eye.
But I'll tell you something: If you overlook the wristbands, batting gloves, fielders' gloves the size of butterfly nets, $120 Nike cleats, sports bags, over-booked schedules, deteriorating good sportsmanship and major attitudes, Little Leaguers today aren't much different from the way they were in my day.
As our season opener against the A's neared, you could see each player consumed with one over-riding thought, namely: Do I look dorky in this uniform or what?
At our last practice, the coaches went over the steal and bunt signs, pick-off plays, where to hit the cut-off man, etc. You could tell the kids were riveted by all this when one boy stood and said: "Why do we have to be the Phillies? The Phillies stink. Why can't we be the Orioles?"
As patiently as possible, I explained that we had to be the Phillies because that's what it said on the front of our uniforms.
No one said anything for maybe 10 seconds. Then another boy stood up and said: "Is that the ice cream man?" and they all sprinted to the parking lot. So that pretty much took care of that.
Still, you could see how fired up they were.