A hundred years ago, I coached a renegade band of 5-year-old T-ballers known as the Fuddruckers’ Sluggers. For those who are not familiar with the game, T-ball is identical to baseball with three fundamental differences: (1) instead of being pitched, the ball is placed on an adjustable rubber tee at home plate, making it easier for the batter to hit; (2) the defensive team is allowed to station as many people in the field as it wants, the idea being that 1/2 of them will be afraid of the ball (even though it is rubbery and soft, rather than rock hard like a traditional baseball) and that those who aren’t will have absolutely no idea what to do with it on the off chance they manage to field it; and (3) balls hit to the outfield need only be thrown back into the infield to bring a play-in-progress to a stop.
Candidly, I’m not sure what possessed me to want to coach a T-ball team. Maybe I was afraid if I didn’t my son might wind up with an axe murderer for a coach or, worse yet, someone obsessed with winning at all costs (even at the T-ball level), thereby causing him to end up hating baseball before he’d even played his first game. Maybe it was an ego thing. Maybe I just thought it’d be fun, because I always had an affinity for baseball and kids – and it was. Whether it was watching one of my players get his first hit or seeing another cross first base and continue running down the right field line because he forgot to turn and go to second – there was never a dull moment. One time, a Slugger actually ran directly from first to third, forgetting that second base even existed!
But there’s one image from my short-lived T-ball coaching career that is fixed in my mind. It was late in the game and we actually had the lead for the first time all season. The sweetness of victory was so close to my lips I could almost taste it. Then, with the bases loaded, the opposing team’s batter hit a hard ground ball up the middle. Predictably, my “pitcher” jumped out of the way. As the base runners advanced, three more Sluggers converged on it. Two collided and fell to the turf in a heap and it went under the legs of a third and into center field. Everyone on the field, including yours truly, were screaming like banshees for our center-fielder to pick up the ball and throw it into the infield to stop the seemingly endless carousal of players circling the bases.
To my amazement, my center-field Slugger, seemingly in slow motion, bent over and tried, repeatedly, but quite unsuccessfully, to pick up the ball with what appeared to be a clenched fist! What he actually did, of course, was “muddle” the ball into the soft dirt as the last of the four base runners crossed home plate – a not-so-rare T-ball grand slam! I called time and jogged out to center-field, in part to retrieve the game ball and in part to figure out what had gone so horribly wrong at such a critical moment. When I arrived, my young Slugger, with his right hand still clenched in a death grip, appeared mostly indifferent to what had just occurred. “Steven,” I exclaimed, exasperated, “what in the world do you have in your hand?!?”
He slowly opened his hand to reveal four shiny pebbles, the bounty of what likely had been a game long scavenger hunt in the outfield! As I glanced back at his face, it bore a sheepish, almost apologetic smile. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I simply shook my head in disbelief, bent down to pick up the ball and headed back to the dugout. It was much later before I “translated” the hidden message of that smile: “Coach, I’m sorry. I know the 4 runs that just scored were probably really important to you. But these 4 shiny pebbles were really important to me. I worked hard to find them and I wasn’t about to risk losing them in this tall grass just because you wanted (maybe even “needed”) me to pick up a baseball and chuck into the infield. Simply put, I know I’m only 5, but I had other plans. Go ahead, coach, you can smile now.”