How We Screwed Up Little League Baseball, and How We Can Fix It
Ever since Mike Tomlin took the reigns as head coach of the Steelers in 2007, he has deflected post-game criticisms with the same simple mantra:
For this team, it’s not just about the destination, it’s about the journey. We learn from both our wins and losses.
Tomlin’s calm, composed on-and-off the field decorum is a huge departure from the brusque barking, finger waving and jersey wrangling that defined his predecessor, Bill Cowher.
In an era defined by widespread steroid abuse and slew of over-the-top press conference tantrums like Herm Edwards’ zero-sum manifesto “You Play to Win the Game” and Dennis Green’s royal conniption, Tomlin’s holistic view of sports seemed almost unambitious.
Local critics worried that Tomlin was “soft.”
Then he won a Super Bowl.
After winning the Lombardi Trophy in only his second season as head coach, many commentators hoped that Tomlin’s success would be another giant leap for minority coaches in the NFL.
I have another great hope: that Tomlin’s levelheaded outlook on the game, even at the highest level of the profession, will finally convince youth coaches across Pittsburgh and the whole country that sports is about more just than wins and losses.
It’s summer time in the ‘Burgh, and that means ball parks from Aliquippa to McKeesport will be humming with the sound of fireflies, flood lights and fastballs.
Little League season is supposed to be a joyous time – endless summers of inside the park home runs, Big League Chew, double headers and rally caps. And, if society left the game in the hands of the kids that played it, Little League would be a blast.
Unfortunately, a bunch of adults came along one day in their Bermuda shorts, tube socks and mesh hats, proclaiming themselves to be “coaches;” the bureaucrats of baseball. And surprise – they ruined everything.
“Repeat after me kids: ‘Winning is everything.’ That’s a lesson I learned during my divorce proceedings.”
When I was growing up, there wasn’t just one coach. There was a whole platoon of them – a hierarchy of youth baseball experts, each with their own section of the field to marshal.
These men, mostly in their early forties with careers and mortgages, met up at the local fire hall every April for the annual Pleasant Hills Pony League Draft. Over chicken wings and pizza, the head coaches and their assistants would pour over lists of fourth graders – complete with their heights and weights – agonizing over decisions like whether to take Jimmy “McNuggets” Houlihan in the third or fourth round.
“We need more size!” one assistant would demand.
“No, we need a lefty in the pitching rotation!” a head coach would fire back.
And so on. The whole spectacle was a lot like fantasy football, only instead of drafting 25-year-old physical specimens, they drafted pre-teens with G.I. Joe collections and cootie phobias.
“Gee, Fred, I’d like to draft this Houlihan kid for his upside, but rumor has it he’s got an unpredictable bladder. Think we can trust him for five hours in the outfield?”
On the field, the coaches took the games a lot more seriously than the players ever did. Win or lose, we got free Slush Puppies from the snack shack. For the coaches, the games were serious business. They gave every nine-year-old a permanent position based on the natural abilities they displayed at a handful of practices before the season started.
Strangely, the sons of coaches were always pitchers, regardless of their dexterity, and they all threw “curveballs” taught to them by their fathers, which looked just like regular pitches, only they would unfailingly land two feet in front of the plate. Curveballs were one of the many ills of youth baseball that caused an average game to run longer than Les Misérables.
Listen up, nine-year-olds: I’ve got some bad news for you. If you think you know how to throw a curveball, you don’t. Lob it over the plate already. We all want to go home and watch SpongeBob.
One of my teams even had a third base coach. He was a paunchy man with over-the-top, vaudeville mannerisms and a crew cut. For the sake of this column, let’s call him Hank. Hank’s sole responsibility was to tell the batter whether to bunt or to swing for the fences – on the surface a straightforward task. But since the other team’s pitcher or coach would surely pick up on this sensitive, strategic information if it was said aloud, Hank communicated with each nine-year-old batter through an absurdly complicated system of sign language.
Before anyone on our team could step up to the plate and have their 45 seconds of fun, they were required to look down the third base line and scrutinize Hank’s one-man tango of top secret gestures.
Hank winked. Hank blinked. Hank tapped his ear and scratched his rear.
In the spirit of normalcy (so as not to tip off the other team), Hank made gesticulations and gyrations that would seem perfectly routine, had they not been done in such quick succession.
Hank coughed. He belched. He tipped his cap and clapped and flapped.
As each kid stood somberly awaiting the dreaded “bunt” signal (two winks and a yawn), Hank looked like Charlie Chaplin with fire ants in his pants.
“I’m just acting normal. Yep. Nothing to see here.”
Hank’s dance would go on for about 15 seconds, then he’d clap his hands together and if you weren’t a deft slugger he would say something patronizing like good eye, partner (which was code for you better not swing unless it’s right over the plate).
Some of us got the bunt signal more than others. Our left fielder, who had just moved to Pittsburgh via China, was instructed to bunt literally 85 percent of the time. With both of his parents in the stands at every game, the kid was publicly shamed in order to advance one of his teammates to second or third base.
In particularly close or “meaningful” games, even if it wasn’t a bunting situation – say, no men on base, or two outs – Hank would silently instruct our left fielder not to swing. Ever. Even at balls over the plate. He hoped that the noodle-armed pitcher would walk him.
It’s one thing to teach kids the fundamentals of basbeall. It’s another thing to embarrass them in the name of winning.
Once, in a tight and supposedly momentous tournament semi final, our left fielder blew the game with a check-swing. The kid was so scared to fail, so lacking in confidence, that he pulled back his swing at the last second, thinking the ball might be outside of the strike zone. It wasn’t. It was right down the pipe, but our left fielder didn’t know what it was like to swing for the fences.
As our rivals tossed their caps in the air in celebration, Hank spiked his cap in the dirt contemptuously. In the heat of the moment, he yelled at our left fielder for not being aggressive enough.
“Eye of the tiger,” Hank said. “You gotta’ have the eye of the tiger, buddy!” Our head coach even tossed around a few hushed cusses.
Without a word, our left fielder tipped his helmet over his eyes, slumped back to the dugout, and slouched there crying his eyes out until everyone fled to the snack bar for free Slush Puppies. He snuck away to his family’s minivan and never showed up for the remaining few games. (Editor’s note: Though he had the last laugh…he grew up to be an aerospace engineer).
Hank looked a little glass-eyed himself.
I’m not sure anyone else on our team cared. We sat in the bleachers enjoying our cherry slushies, talking about Super Nintendo games until the flood flights clapped off.
Stories like this are all too common in youth sports – and they prove one thing. Kids aren’t the only ones who need role models. The in-your-face, hypercompetitive coaches that America loves to mythologize (even local legends like Cowher) have just as big of an effect on adults as superstar athletes have on the kids who idolize them.
Hopefully, with Tomlin and Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma to look up to, youth coaches throughout Pittsburgh will all understand that sports are not just about a quest for silverware, but character too.
Not just about the destination, but the journey.