Let's just play ball, for crying out loud


THIS SPRING finds me dispensing my dynamic brand of baseball expertise as a coach of the Yankees, a Little League dynasty perched atop the standings with a gaudy 5-0 record.

Or maybe we're 0-5 and in the cellar. To tell you the truth, since this is a coach-pitch league, we don't really keep score.

Of course, you can't tell the kids that. Even though each team bats around every inning and each kid reaches base and scores whether he makes an out or not, both teams run off the field after every game yelling: "Yay-y-y, we won!"

But instead of saying: "Boys, boys . . . do the math," the coaches just say: "Yeah, you're right, we crushed them."

That way, everyone goes home happy and the Great Deception continues.

The good news is that none of the catchers in our league have been maimed yet by flying metal bats.

Oh, you can talk all you want about your Stephen King movies or your Tower of Doom at Adventureworld. But to me, the most frightening sight of all is a 7-year-old jacked up on Pepsi and a bag of M&M;'s getting a hit and then flinging his bat in the general direction of the catcher's head.

It's gotten to the point where I can't even look when a batter swings anymore, because I'm afraid I'll see a head rolling by like a bowling ball.

Thankfully, we now have one or two moms, who are very nice in real life, barking like Gestapo agents when our kids are up: "Ryan, don't throw the bat, OK? Just drop it! You hear me? Don't throw the bat!"

One thing our players seem to have a hard time grasping is the concept of "loosening up" before games.

For some reason, our players feel the best way to do this is to pair off, stand approximately three feet apart and whip the ball as hard as they can at each other.

The result, of course, is that many of our players end up crying during warm-ups, which is not something you want to see before your team takes the field. Then again, I would cry too if I had just been struck in the mouth with a baseball traveling at 40 mph, and now my teammate was rolling on the ground, laughing.

Our head coach, Mike, has tried to point out that this is not the way major leaguers warm up and that if, say, Cal Ripken and Mike Bordick warmed up this way, one of them would end up crying, too, due to the fact that he now had the word "Rawlings" embedded in his forehead.

Frankly, baseball at this level is also fraught with danger for the poor coach who pitches, too.

The way this works is, the coach usually stands about 30 feet from the batter and lobs the ball in softly.

The player takes a cut and misses. So the coach moves in closer and lobs the ball in again.

Only this time the batter hits a shot that, invariably, homes in like a heat-seeking missile at the coach's groin.

If the coach is particularly nimble and is not on cold medication or has not stopped off after work for a beer or two, he may get out of the way in time.

But, sadly, that is very often not the case.

Which is when the crowd is treated to the sight of the coach dropping as if winged by a sniper, then writhing in pain in the fetal position atop the cold, damp clay of the infield.

Baseball at this level also finds a lot of players employing various unique strategies to give their teams an edge.

During our game against the Rockies, for instance, one of the Rockies' batters hit a scorching two-hopper to third.

But instead of running to first base, as conventional wisdom dictates, this player sprinted as hard as he could right back to the bench and sat down.

When it was gently pointed out to the player that the idea is to run to first after you hit the ball, his response was something along the lines of: "Well, that might be so, but I'm pretty comfortable here on the bench, thanks."

The thing that keeps me coming back year after year is the central mission of the Little League coach, which is to yell conflicting advice at the players.

For instance, when we're up at bat, there are generally no less than four coaches yelling:

"Be a hitter up there!"

"Wait for your pitch now!"

"Easy swing. Just meet the ball!"

"C'mon, swing like you mean it!"

Seeing a kid's eyes cloud over with confusion -- that's what the game's all about, isn't it?

Pub Date: 5/14/98

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