Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Youth Baseball and the Old Men Who Coach It

boy in youth baseball program
(Photo: Insight Imaging: John A Ryan Photography via / CC BY-NC-SA)
Baseball requires intense preparation, starting well before the first pitch is every thrown. For this weekend's opening day of the local Little League where I coach, this pre-season demanded an unprecedented amount of ground work.

I’m not talking logistics or the political maneuvering. I mean literal “work on the grounds.”

Not even those guys in our league approaching their fifth decade of coaching in our New England-ish town ever remembered needing a shovel, let alone the gassing up of a snow blower, to find home plate in April. Yet just a few days ago, breaking up the layer of ice still coating the infield practically required commandeering a Coast Guard cutter.

None of that manual labor, though, even compares with the legwork required to scout prospects for the annual player draft.

In theory, coaches choose players for the upper-echelon “majors” teams based on how the kids perform at tryouts. This cattle call usually takes place in a school gymnasium though I remember being a kid some 30-odd years ago and having to prove my merit in someone's spacious backyard. I might not have stepped in the bucket at the plate that day, but I definitely stepped in some pet’s post-digestion kibble.

At our league's tryouts, we have each child: attempt to field a few ground balls (which bounce far truer along the basketball hardwood than any actual infield) and a few pop flies (when the flies don’t hit the gym rafters), take five or so swings at live pitching, and run the imaginary bases once. Not exactly the NFL Combine or even the audition scene from A Chorus Line, though if a kid ever did break into a credible rendition of “I Hope I Get It,” I’d lobby to draft him just to elevate the level of our team’s between-pitch chatter.

Surprisingly, you can learn a lot from such a brief look at a player’s skills. Does the kid have a fluid throwing motion? A quick, level swing? Know which hand his or her mitt should be on? We once missed on that last one. Our team drafted a decent right-handed thrower who turned out to actually be a lefty. His parents, Polish immigrants who didn’t know baseball, had bought him the wrong fielder’s glove and the boy didn’t want to raise a fuss. Turns out he had a cannon as a southpaw. If only we could have found a strike zone the size of the side of a barn for him to hit.

So as you see, it’s essential to do some homework before tryouts to really understand what each child you consider drafting could bring to your team. In his 1992 book Little League Confidential, journalist and author Bill Geist wrote about some of the various strategies he and others employed during the draft based on such insider knowledge. For example, along with trying to fill holes in his batting order and defense, Geist always sought a kid with a single, tangible asset not obvious in a five-minute tryout.

“I needed a kid with a pool. A swimming pool. For the post-season party. That’s my philosophy,” he wrote.

Most famously, Geist also quoted a fellow manager who made sure he always chose “the kids with the best-looking mothers.” No one today would ever – EVER – follow (or at least publicly admit to following) this sexist practice. Today’s Little League coaches are far more practical. We like to choose kids whose parents, male or female, have the strength and coordination to save us from raking the field and throwing batting practice before every game.

And that would be a nice draft for me, because after this long cold winter, the only ice I want to see is in a post-game cooler of beer and not wrapped in an elastic bandage being applied to my rapidly aging back.


  1. Parents who clean up their stuff after the game is nice too as well as those who make sure their kids are committed. Also good.
    A swimming pool sounds good too.

    1. Good call on cleanup. Thanks for the comments, Larry.


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