By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck
It is tournament time across the country. This is when league champions are crowned and then square off against champs from other leagues. Soon, all-stars will begin and thousands of kids will put aside those team jerseys they wore all season, joining forces with former rivals to represent their entire league. I’ve shared many great moments during this time of year while coaching my kids. But my greatest coaching moment came long before I had kids when I coached professionally in a recreational league called, "Wildcat".
The league was designed as an alternative to what some thought was an overly-competitive Little League system, and was structured so that anyone who wanted to have fun, learn baseball and be on a team could play, with more emphasis on instruction than on winning and losing. The players didn’t have full uniforms, just a Wildcat T-shirt and Wildcat cap. Most kids wore jeans or sweatpants to games. Boys and girls played on the same teams and the league motto was "Everybody Makes the Team."
Many of the town's Little Leaguers chose not to join Wildcat because it wasn’t the level of play they preferred. However, a lot of good Little Leaguers did play because they wanted to get extra baseball. The league hired high school and college players as coaches. We did not coach any specific team - we rotated and coached them all at various times. Standings were kept, top batting averages went on the bulletin board, but the biggest trophies we gave out at the end of the year were not for the League Champions, but rather for Perfect Attendance.
One summer, there was a twelve year-old boy named Alan, who played on the Astros. Alan was not gifted athletically, but was a nice, quiet, friendly kid who always came to every game. Because he couldn’t hit, field, or throw to save himself, some of the players on the team probably wished he wasn’t always there, but Alan was one of the few kids in the league who had perfect attendance, meaning he’d been at every practice and every game. Despite the other coaches’ and my efforts to improve his swing and his glove, he struck out nearly every time at the plate. He had a lunging chop swing, as if he were trying to fend off an attacking bird with his bat. When fly balls were hit his way in the outfield he’d get far enough away to feel safe, and then stick out his mitt only to have it drop a yard in front of him.
I remember spending extra time with Alan, before and after practices because he was such a nice kid and my heart went out to him. It was pretty obvious that this would be his first and last year playing baseball but at least he was out there giving it a try and doing his best. Still, it appeared that no amount of coaching could turn him into a hitter when a live pitcher threw that ball at him.
His team had a few pretty good players, which was one of the reasons when we coaches divided up the teams to make them fair, we assigned Alan to the Astros. And though we never allowed any negative comments or even groans of disappointment out of the more talented players when Alan was at bat, it was hard not to notice that the team got deflated when it was his turn to hit.
Alan had meekly connected with the ball a few times, but it was always quite by luck, and he had never reached base safely. Even though the pitching at this level wasn’t the greatest, he’d never even been on base with a walk because all the pitcher had to do was throw it somewhere in the vicinity of the plate and he’d take that wild swing hoping to hit something.
The Astros didn't make the playoffs that year, in part because one of their players had the only .000 batting average in the league. In the final game of the season the Astros were playing the Reds, and since this would be the last time we’d see these kids for the summer, we got out the Perfect Attendance trophies to present after the game. The Reds had two kids with perfect attendance; the Astros had one - Alan.
At some point during the game I watched Alan take a swing at a pitch and miss wildly, his wooden bat nearly spinning him around. I called time out, took the ball from the pitcher, and told Alan to get at the plate. I held the ball out in front of me and began walking it, like a slow motion pitch, towards him. I told Alan to take an easy swing when it got there. He slowly brought the bat around as the ball arrived and swung gently to my hand, stopping as the two touched. I tossed the ball back to the pitcher and stood behind Alan, put my arms around his shoulders and grabbed the bat above his hands and swung it hard two or three times, to give him the feel of a good swing. There were a few chuckles because it probably looked funny to the other 12 year-old kids watching. I went back into the dugout and picked up my score book without much hope. It would be nice to tell you that the next pitch was lined into left field and that Alan went on to become a Major League player, but that didn’t happen. However, the next best thing did.
The ball got to the plate, Alan took his best swing of the season, and hit a hard ground ball to third. He stood and watched for a second just like the rest of us, before his teammates started telling him to “Run! Run!” Amazingly, Alan knew where to go and began loping to first, looking only at the base. The third baseman had an easy play and Alan should have been retired, but the fielder expected a hop that never came and the ball skidded through his legs into the outfield. At full speed Alan reached the base, then screeched to a halt, trying to keep his toe on it, forgetting that he was allowed to overrun first. His teammates cheered like they’d just won the championship. At first Alan wanted to act like it was no big deal, but then he couldn’t help it. He smiled from ear to ear and pumped both fists in the air three times. I don't think he even knew the fielder should have made the play, and doubt it would have mattered to him anyway. In my score book it was written down in huge, bold letters as a base hit.
I don't remember who won or lost that game. I do know that when we handed out the Perfect Attendance trophies, I had the honor of presenting Alan with his. I recall watching him ride away on his bike at the end of that summer wondering if I’d ever see him again. I did. He showed up next year at registration ready to play another season of baseball.
Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.sportsbooks4kids.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.