I came across this article recently about the Little League coach who paid one of his players to deliberately injure an autistic kid on their team so he wouldn’t be available to participate in the play-offs. It’s one of those “signs of the apocalypse” stories about misplaced priorities that so often seem to be linked to kid athletics. It did make me remember, however, my first coaching experience.
The summer I was 18 I was recruited by a civic-minded person to coach a girl’s fastpitch softball team in the small town we had moved to six months earlier. Being new in town made me a perfect prospect because anyone who had lived there for awhile already knew better.
It was a league for girls 10-12 years old, and would be the first ball-playing experience for most of the younger girls. The town was so small that there was only enough kids to field three teams. The other two teams were coached by a pair of adult sisters who had been coaching in the league for a few years and were very … well, cut-throat is such a harsh term.
They were very cut-throat.
We got together one evening at the Commissioner’s house for the draft. I recognized maybe three names on the list of players, and had no idea of how much ability each had. The sisters would pick and then when it was my turn I’d say, “Who is this Mary such-and-such?” and their eyes would get big and they’d say, “Oh, she’s really good!” Sometimes they even managed to control their snickers after I’d picked the “really good” girl.
Obviously my team was going to start with some handicaps – literally. We had one little girl who really was a little girl, barely coming to waist high. The sponsor’s daughter was on the team, of course, and she was a sweet, game kid with the build – and range – of a fire hydrant. She became my centerfielder because my rightfielder wore braces. On her legs.
So of course we went 6-0 for the season (that’s right, undefeated) and it was fun leading the team across the infield after every game to shake hands with our worthy opponents. I think the difference is that from the first practice I said we were going to have fun while learning to play the game. I also mentioned that for me winning was more fun than losing but the main thing was that they get a good start in the skills of the game and that we’d work on what we could and then go out in the games and just let it rip. The two other teams were shouted at and criticized, especially after we had defeated each of them the first time. At one point in the final game a base runner from the other team got hung up rounding third and the shouting from her coach made her stop halfway to homeplate and begin bawling even before she was tagged out.
I wonder if that girl ever grew up to say, “Let’s play two!”
(Oh, and the little waist-high girl, playing second base in the last game of the year, in the last inning of the game with the tying runs on base, caught a pop-up for the final out!)