Kids everywhere are rejoicing because summer vacation is on the horizon. Some youngsters are getting ready to play some form of Little League baseball, just like I did…a few short years ago (ha!). Lately I’ve been reminiscing about my Little League career, so I decided I might actually be able to fill a blog post with those memories…
My road to baseball futility began in Tee Ball. Like many other kids, I could never quite master the skills needed to hit a ball off a stationary tee. However, I was quite adept at hitting the actual tee. The concept of the game never sunk in with me either, mostly because I hadn’t seen a major leaguer hit off a tee. Why I needed to learn something I didn’t think I’d ever use again was beyond me, but the whole prerequisite thing became clear years later when I took Pre-Algebra (which became yet another unused skill in my repertoire).
Even though it seemed as though Tee Ball would go on forever, eventually I got to move into the politically incorrect Midget League. My hometown didn’t call Little League by its formal name. Tee Ball, Midget League, and Junior League were the levels. After that you were in high school and hopefully by then had figured out if you had a remote shot of playing on the school baseball team.
It was in Midget League that I discovered my skill level. In my case it was more of a lack of skill level. I profiled as what I’d call a “two-tool player.” I could run like the wind and catch the ball, but hitting and throwing were a problem. I couldn’t hit for average and I certainly couldn’t hit for power. I just flat out couldn’t hit, although once in a while I’d get lucky and actually trickle a ball out of the infield between diving kids that had the opposite problem – they could hit the ball – but not field it.
Fortunately, the teams I played for were often managed by the father of a friend, so I at least had an “in” and didn’t see much time on the bench. I’d usually spend the summer getting moved from position to position until I’d wind up in the outfield. At least I could catch the ball out there, although getting the thing back into the infield was another story. A couple times I actually ran the ball to second base because it was faster than me throwing it. I didn’t really want to watch and painfully count the number of times the ball bounced before it reached its destination. Talk about super-slo-mo!
Thankfully I didn’t often wind up in the position that was considered purgatory – right field. My speed and range kept me in center or left for the most part, and usually I was forgiven for an errant throw as long as I at least caught the ball. Yet at the plate I was the one you wanted on the bench when the bases were loaded and the game was on the line. I wouldn’t have blamed the coach if he would have called time and went to grab a kid off the street to replace me in those situations. I was often among the league leaders in tapping the ball back to the pitcher with runners on base.
Even though I was a poor hitter, I almost always managed to put the ball in play, at least until Junior League when I started striking out on a regular basis. A few kids had quickly grown like weeds and suddenly 12 years old was the new 16. I saw my first curveball on the outside half of the plate, and that curve came in faster than most fastballs I’d encountered previously. I pondered retirement but stuck it out – and struck out often.
Meanwhile, my lack of an arm hurt me in the outfield as balls were being hit deeper as kids got bigger. Those same guys throwing hard fastballs and curves were usually the ones who could clobber a ball. At some point our coach thought maybe I should get a shot to pitch. I had been practicing for months by throwing at a backstop my Dad built. Since I didn’t have any power in my arm, I went with trickery. I was going to be a sidearm pitcher! What could go wrong?
Everything could go wrong, and did in my debut. First off, I was no longer throwing at a big sheet of plywood with a not-to-scale square painted for a strike zone. Actual kids of all shapes and sizes were standing next to the plate, and some of them were left-handed. I had a plate at home in front of my backstop but quickly realized that I rarely paid attention to it. I was too busy trying to hit the painted strike zone box thingy!
So I walked some hitters, then gave up a few runs before getting out of the inning. I’m sure the coach would have rather run any kid but me back out to the mound in the next inning, but my Dad probably promised him a beer or something to let me stay on the mound for a while. One of my good friends was hit by a pitch when we were at bat – and we speculated it was on purpose because he was about the only good hitter on our team. I vowed revenge.
When I got back out on the mound (which was actually flat ground in our league), I decided to throw inside at the first kid up to bat. One advantage I had is that it wouldn’t look like I was throwing at him intentionally since I was pretty wild in the first inning. I came pretty close to hitting the batter on the first pitch and succeeded at making him wonder where my next pitch would wind up. I had such a good time throwing inside that I decided to do it again, and aimed for his bat while pretending it was the painted strike zone on my backstop at home. Let me tell you, it was the highlight of my career to hit his bat with the ball and have it trickle into fair territory in front of the plate.
That day was the beginning and end of my starting pitching job. I played a lot less after that and spent some time in right field purgatory, but still was hard-headed enough to continue dreaming about a big league career. My parents never discouraged me, and I just kept on practicing while waiting for a growth spurt that never happened. Along the way I imitated the batting stance of every Milwaukee Brewers player with the hope that I’d start slugging the ball. What if Robin Yount’s way to bat is THE WAY? It was – for Robin, but not for me.
After reading all that, you might not believe it, but man I had a great time in Little League. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything! Somewhere along the line I noticed that I wasn’t the only kid that couldn’t throw or hit. Just one inning could provide more blunders than a whole season of big league baseball put together. If Little League had been around in Shakespeare’s time, it’s possible that Comedy of Errors could have been a totally different play.
Despite my love for the game, there was no way I was going to try out for the high school team. But I kept playing baseball in back yards that we all imagined as stadiums and started learning how to hit left-handed (I’m naturally right-handed) with the help of a good friend. For whatever reason I found that I could hit pretty well from the left side of the plate, but it was too late for me to use that newfound skill. Right after high school that same friend told me about upcoming tryouts for the Kansas City Royals in a nearby town. Eventually we shot down the thought of showing off our “skills” and didn’t go. Instead we moved on to playing in a softball league, and for me it was more of the same – I had no batting average but playing the game was still tons of fun.
With fun in mind, my hope for all the kids playing Little League this summer is that enjoying the practices and games is first and foremost. Years from now all those moments will fade into one big blur. Be yourself. Imitating Kent Tekulve on the mound didn’t work for me, nor did pretending to be Robin Yount help me become a better hitter. Don’t freak out when you see that first curveball – unless you’re the one throwing it. And if you have a chance to pitch in a game, don’t ever throw at a hitter. Wait until you try out for the Royals to do that! Scratch that. If you have the chance, just go try out. Trust me on that.