One of the things I like to do each spring, is watch my friends children hack away at the ball, usually at a T-ball level, and last Saturday, that is exactly what I did, first watching my friend Jeremy Steinkoler's son Evan play in the Albany (Ca.) little league, then Ben Klein's twins Isaac and Jacob, who play in the El Cerrito system.
All these lads--Evan, Ike, and Jacob, that is--are beginners, playing among 5-6 year olds. It is quite an adventure for the kids, I am sure, as each inning everyone bats, and outs don't really count, and the whole affair consists of an hour practice, followed by a couple of innings of a game.
And, even though the kids might be more than enthralled with baseball, short attention span is the enemy of the little league manager at this level.
But, as I like to say, one of the beauties of baseball is that these kids are playing the same basic game as the grown ups across the bay who inhabit ATT park. And, the chances of seeing something brilliant, or bonehead, are pretty much the same, irrespective of environment.
That said, I do have some observations:
-First, it is curious that Albany has their hitters hit off the tee from the start, while in El Cerrito, the kids get three pitches to try to hit, and then, if all else fails, they hit off the tee.
-This made me wonder about my own playing at that age, for we had whiffle balls, but nothing as sophisticated as a batting tee.
-As long as I am hyping El Cerrito, the parents were a lot punkier, with a whole lot more piercings and ink spread across their bodies than the Albany counterparts.
-Heads are protected by batting helmets, that are hard plastic, and have a facemask worthy of the NFL. They are also generic in size, and I cracked up watching one kid leg from first to second, holding the facemask with his left hand so the helmet would not rattle all over his head as he ran.
-There are a lot of seeing eye singles that become seeing eye home runs at this level.
-One youngster experienced base path dyslexia, hitting the ball correctly, but then running to third, ostensibly because first was occupied.
-It takes almost as long for a team to set its defense (and the centerfielder plays at the outer lip of the infield) with so many kids and instructions. The coach who does this should really confer with an NFL defensive coach, as the two might be able to share strategies of player placement.
-Kids tend to hit on top of the pitch, giving a lot of top spin, and making balls that should trickle foul to stay fair. This causes a lot of ball movement and player movement as runners run and balls are thrown to infielders and runs score and chaos sort of ensues (but it is a magical chaos).
-The bases are set much shorter than standard for these little guys, and I again cracked up as one kid nailed a double and then ran to the wrong second base, a good ten feet past where he was supposed to go. No one on defense, however noticed and the young slugger was able to amble back to the correct second base, unscathed. Of course a couple the couple of infielders who were engaged in a sort of dust war, tossing dirt back and forth at one another, did not help the defense at that point.
-Finally, it is funny to see the thought/muscle memory process, for the kids will swing and hit the ball, and then it takes a second of thinking and recognition (or listening to a yelling coach or parent) before it sinks in that you have to run to first base after making contact.
I will probably have a few more reports like this. Next week, while Diane is in town, we will go see our friend George and Julie's boys Zach and Ben take their hacks. And, my partner/guitar mentor Steve Gibson's daughter Willa is playing softball in Berkeley (she is seven), so that merits a trip, and then, I will finish in style, watching Jeanne Schuman's daughter Zoe take her hacks. Zoe, though, as a high school senior, is the real softball deal.
I really cannot urge you enough to spend a morning some Saturday following a friend with young players to the local yard. The kids love it, as do their parents. And, well, these days, as much as we can do to really build a community spirit is a good thing in my humble view.
And, who knows? In 15 years the Klein brothers might be the double play combination for the Giants.