Sports Op-Ed: Learning the Game


Pitcher Cody Larkin, of the Livingston Royals, winds up for a fastball in a May 23 baseball game. Enterprise photo by Jordan P. Ingram.
By: 
Jordan P. Ingram
Enterprise Staff Writer

Baseball is God’s gift to mankind — it’s the perfect game. 

So when my friend John Belew, a press operator at The Livingston Enterprise, asked if I wanted to help coach a local Little League Minors team, the Livingston Royals, I jumped at the chance. I played baseball from the time I could swing a bat, but I had never taught baseball before. Honestly, I didn’t know the first thing about coaching. I decided to dig up some inspiration from legendary Dodgers’ skipper, Tommy Lasorda:

“I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.”

Growing up, I had the same little league baseball coach for eight years. He was crusty, hard-boiled and often had a chip on his shoulder. But he was dedicated and taught me the game. I didn’t back-sass or twiddle my thumbs lest I had to run laps or ride the pine. And more than anything, I wanted to play ball. I grew up with the same group of guys through elementary and middle school. 

As a team, we learned to play together — a baseball band of brothers. By the time I hit eighth grade, our squad was a tight-knit platoon and ready to bring home a championship. That year, I was lead-off hitter and we went 16-0, sailing through the regular season and the first rounds of the playoffs. 

The championship final was a night game under the stadium lights and our dreams were just a single run away. Tied 0-0 at the bottom of the fifth inning, I hit a shot right past the pitcher and into center field for the game-winning RBI single. It was the happiest moment of my life.  

Fast forward more than 20 years: Here I was in a position to share some knowledge and experience from my time spent on the diamond with a group of eager beginners. I wanted to be a good assistant coach, but more importantly, I wanted these kids to both succeed and have fun at the same time. As practice began, I started to realize what Lasorda was saying, that good coaches must find that perfect balance between being too easy and too tough. After all, these are just kids. 

 

“Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.” 

— Yogi Berra

 

I remember coming into the dugout for my first practice with the Livingston Royals. I noticed two of our players were having a conversation on the bench. I set my stuff down but wanted to hear what they were talking about. Perhaps they were sharing baseball stories or revealing ancient secrets of the game. 

“Ok, if you could have one super power, would you be able to fly or pee from your belly button?” one of the kids said. 

Not quite pearls of wisdom.

I watched these kids start from scratch, learning the fundamentals of the greatest game on earth. They didn’t know much, but they wanted to play baseball. And that’s enough. I believe that if you work hard and show up, you can accomplish anything. 

But it would be a learning process and we had to start with the basics: grounders. Most kids attempted to field the ball with their mitts roughly a foot above the ground, watching bewildered as the ball bounced betwixt their legs and into the outfield. The subsequent throws to first base often went to right field, the visitor’s dugout or gently rolled to a stop near the pitcher’s mound. Next up, pop fly’s. At first, our outfielders observed the spheroid arcing upward and then falling back to earth, casually stepping out of the way as if avoiding some kind of galactic turd falling from the sky.

But the kids kept showing up. As coaches, we didn’t make them do laps or push-ups (although at times, we probably should have), and tried to make learning fun. Our first game was a disaster, but they kept practicing. We were determined to get a win. And eventually we did.

 

“You wouldn’t have won if we’d beaten you.” 

— Yogi Berra   

 

As a coach, I was constantly observing both my team and opposing teams to try and figure out what we were doing well and what changes needed to be made. A team full of rookies, we often buried ourselves under our own mistakes. Coach Belew and I noticed a weakness in our opponents: If a runner attempted to steal second base, the catcher would almost certainly try to make the long throw for a pickoff. The throws were often lofty, overthrown or just plain off-target. And if we had a runner on third, they were a shoo-in to score — a runner could practically crab walk safely to home plate. 

So, whenever we had runners on first and third, we sent our guy to second, regardless of the pitch. If he got thrown out, so what? We were scoring runs. The kids picked up the strategy quickly. In fact, the Royals won their first game in large part by utilizing enhanced base-running techniques. 

Once they got that first win under their belt, the entire team felt a boost of confidence. The boys were starting to get on base and fielding improved dramatically as their baseball IQ increased. They knew what it took to win a game. And over the next couple weeks, we won a couple more to finish the regular season at 3-5 overall.

 

“You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.” 

— Roy Campanella

 

It was time for the postseason. The Royals had come a long way. As a team, we truly believed we could win the whole darn thing. After claiming first-round win over the Big Timber Orioles, we advanced to the semifinals to face the best team in the league — the Gardiner Bruins. 

And we had every reason to be a little intimidated. Their roster was filled with hulking man-children that looked fresh out of the Navy, dwarfing our modest group of guys. 

But what we lacked in physical size, we made up for in pure heart. The Royals had battled through double-digit losses all season and still managed to keep their heads held high. After holding the Bruins scoreless in the first inning, the Royals took a 1-0 lead after the first inning. The Bruins struggled to find their game plan and for a short time, we had them absolutely dazed and confused. I was proud of our guys, despite losing the game, 5-1. 

Winning that playoff game was never that important. The growth I had witnessed in every single one of those young ballplayers was a victory that will forever be etched in my mind. 

We had fun, we learned, we laughed and we cried, experiencing so many of the ups and downs that life can provide. I learned a lot about coaching and myself. I learned to be more patient and that kindness trumps anger any day of the week. 

Most importantly, I finally understand that losing is a necessary condition for any winning team. 

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