At the beginning of the year, I told Todd and his teammates (perhaps “warned” would be a better word) that, at the halfway point in the season, the pitching machine would disappear and “kid pitch” would begin. Many of the boys were visibly uncomfortable about the idea of saying goodbye to the boringly predictable mechanical friend that they had grown up with during their entire baseball lives – and with good reason.
Like a trusted friend, life was relatively easy with a machine. Except in the rarest of circumstances, the players knew exactly what they were going to get from the machine and where and when they were going to get it. As a result, Todd and his teammates always stepped into the batter’s box with confidence, knowing that, because the pitch was almost certain to come right over the center of the plate, at precisely the same speed, all they had to do was anticipate the timing of the ball’s arrival, make a good level swing, and then stand back and watch the flight of the ball as it traveled sharply into the field of play.
But substitute an 11- or 12-year-old boy who had never pitched before, and you never knew what to expect. One thing was for sure – no two pitches would ever be thrown at the same speed, and it would be nothing short of a miracle if a pitch crossed any portion of home plate, let alone came right down the middle. In fact, during the first few weeks of kid pitch at our afternoon practices, hardly any at bat ended without an Angel diving to the dirt to avoid an errant toss. More often than not, they didn’t make it in time.
Suddenly, to Todd and the rest of the freshly bruised and battered Angels, the path to the league championship, which only a few weeks earlier seemed flat and unobstructed, looked a lot more like a treacherous, winding mountain road.