Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Ol' Abner's Done It Again

The Favorite Son: Tee-Ballin'.
Well, it is The Single Father’s Guide to Life, Cooking, and Baseball.

If you’re a regular reader of this this blog, then you know I’ve coached or managed The Favorite Son’s (TFS) Little League Baseball (LLB) team since he played tee-ball. I’ve even written about some of the ways that I think Little League Baseball provides valuable parenting opportunities, like in “Life Lessons Learned in Little League Baseball,” not to mention a great way to spend quality time with your sons and daughters.

This year is TFS’s last year of Majors and he’s playing with a very special group of kids. There is an unusual number of very talented baseball players who were born in 2004 around here and I think this group will have a lot of on-field success during their playing careers. I think a few may play baseball past high school and one or two may even have a cup of coffee in the Majors someday.

By the way, TFS is having fun, as always. He’s a solid defensive player, but TFS has more fun when he gets to run the bases. As I write this, more than half the regular season is complete and TFS is third on the team in batting average and on-base percentage, first in stolen bases and tied for first in runs, but I digress.

Youppie: Mascot for former
Montreal Expos franchise.
I'm managing one of the seven teams in the Warwick (NY) Little League Majors Division. (Of course, we’re the Cardinals, but there is a part of me who wishes I’d picked the Expos. That would have been kinda cool, I think.) I enjoy seeing a player be successful, regardless of his skill level. When a kid makes a great catch . . . or an easy one, hit a big home run or makes contact to move a runner from second to third, I’m having fun.

I had a lot of fun at a recent game.

Back in the day, a LLB manager might have had just one strong player on his team. That manager, who perhaps thought of himself of the LLB version of Casey Stengel, in an effort to win at all costs, would make that kid his workhorse and pitch him every game. A lot of young and talented players injured their arms and needed (Tommy John) surgery. It didn't make sense, financially, for a lot of families for their 12 year old son to have arm surgery, so some kids stopped playing baseball all together and that was a shame.

So, LLB now has rules governing the number of pitches a player can throw in a game with associated days of rest. Some managers still take advantage of the rule and have players throw 85 pitches in a game. I think that is still think that's a lot of pitches, especially during the early part of the LLB season in April or the first part of May. My general guideline is 35 pitches per player followed by at least one full day’s rest during the first three weeks of the season, 50 pitches with two full day’s rest for the second three weeks, and up to 65 pitches with three full day’s rest for the last part of the season. On one occasion, I've allowed a more experienced and mature player to throw 85 pitches during the latter part of the season, but only speaking to the player and getting input and permission from the player's father.

Angry Cardinal
In a recent game at Koch Field at Veteran's Memorial Park in Warwick, the Cardinals were playing as well as they had all season. Our starting pitcher threw 38 pitches and after two innings, the Cardinals led by a score of 1 – 0 over a very well managed Orioles team. My middle reliever made 48 pitches and, after four innings, the Cardinals led the Orioles 6 – 2. In the bottom of the fifth inning, that day’s closer struggled with his control, walked three batters, hit another, and gave up four runs. In the process, the player, who is one of the most respectful, baseball-smart, and hard-working kids I've coached, threw almost 40 pitches.

Between innings, the he was visibly upset in the dugout. Obviously, he felt that he let his teammates down by allowing the O’s to get back in the game. As I went out to coach a base in the top of the last inning, I said to the player, “Shake it off. Keep your head up. We’re going to need you to close this out for us.”

In the top of the sixth inning in a tied, 6 – 6 game, the Cardinals had the top of the order up. TFS wriggled a single out of a sharp hit ball down the line that first baseman couldn’t handle. Our second hitter walked and the third spot reached on a dropped third strike to load the bases. Then, our clean-up batter added his fourth and fifth RBI’s with a clean single to left-center. The Cardinals tallied once more on a wild pitch and led 9 – 6 heading into the bottom half.

Ol' Abner's done it again.

Wearing the score book on my head during a game.
(Photo Credit: Michele Branch)

Our closer had 11 pitches to reach 50 and, although we were on the cusp of the last part of the season, I still didn’t think there was any reason to push any player. The Orioles’ lead-off hitter was the clean-up hitter who singled on the first pitch. Then, our pitcher walked the next two batters on eight pitches to load the bases. He was at 48 pitches; I called time and walked out to the mound. As the infield huddled around, I said to our pitcher, “Great effort to come back this inning and battle, but the next batter puts you over 50 pitches.”

As I was about to make the change, our pitcher looked up at me with a tear welling in his eye and said, “Please, let me finish. Please.”

For a moment, I was undecided. I didn’t want to tax the young man’s arm. It was clear that he felt intensely about finishing and I respected that. I saw how important it was to him. I considered also that this player was one of the physically stronger and more mature players and believed he was in a good place to throw up to 65. We were also late enough in the season when players arms are strong enough to handle more of a workload. So, after talking to the infield about positioning, I said, finally, “Okay. Go get ‘em.”

Our pitcher walked the next batter allowing the O’s to score a run and bringing the score to 9 – 7. The next hitter stepped into the box with the winning run on first base. Ball one. Then, something clicked. The pitcher found another gear, got the ball down, and struck out then hitter. Then, it seemed as if a light switch was flipped, started to throw nothing but strikes. The young man very efficiently struck out the next two and ended the exciting, well-played game with a 9 – 7 win for the Cardinals.

After shaking hands with the Orioles' players, the Cardinals players sat on the bench. The other coaches and I told the kids how proud we were of them to battle back, congratulated a player for getting his first hit of the season, and gave the game ball to our closing pitcher. He had his head down and was very upset after struggling, I think, may have learned another great LLB lesson, which may last him a lifetime, “Regardless of the things that have happened in the past - good or bad, work hard, give your best, and good things can happen.” 

Like I said, I’m having fun.