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The Joys of Coaching Little League


By David S. Griffel

Warning: Coaching may be hazardous to your hair.

Countless numbers of people have turned prematurely gray or sported new bald spots from their coaching activities. For instance, with each turnover in the defensive zone, Harvard men's hockey coach Ronn Tomassoni gets one step closer to turning to Sy Sperling of the Hair Club for Men. And every miscue makes softball coach Jenny Allard's hairdresser's job more difficult.

A coach obviously can't go out onto the field or ice and make a play. And when a team performs poorly, the skipper is usually the first one heading to the local unemployment office.

So why go through with it? Sure, there's always the chance at making the box score for getting the heave-ho; and without coaches, second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacks would be lost arts.

But there's a lot more to the whole thing than those glorious results.

I should know that, since I've made my initial foray into coaching this spring. Heck, my playing career ended in high school, the major leagues wouldn't want yet another washed-up ballplayer and covering sports for the newspaper is fun but it keeps you on the outside of the game.

So when my good friend Steve Zivin, a senior at MIT who went to my high school, asked me if I would like to volunteer to coach a little league baseball team with him, I jumped at the opportunity. What could be better than working with children on how to play America's national pastime?

When April rolled around, Steve called me up to tell me about our roster. Our team was the Astros, and we had nine seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds on the squad; the head of the league would work on getting us a couple of more players.

That sounded decent, but his next bit of information cost me a few hair follicles--only two of them had ever played baseball before, while every other team had more experience than us. The Bad News Bears immediately popped into my mind, in addition to Nancy Kerrigan's infamous cry of "Why me?"

Our first practice made the Boston Red Sox look respectable. Most of the kids couldn't throw the ball more than 30 feet, let alone catch it. One poor soul put his throwing hand into the glove before the ball arrived (a painful sight), while another closed his eyes and stuck his glove out, just praying the white sphere would land in there--it didn't.

But Steve and I knew right away that almost everyone there was a good kid, and that's what was most important. We would have to work long and hard developing their skills, while at the same time keeping the sport fun for them.

Any close game would be a moral victory, and any victory would be that much more special.

So the season eventually started and so did the losses. But despite the mistakes the kids made, there was no point at criticizing or making examples out of them if they made a bad play. We just tried to tell them what they should have done in a nice way.

There were highlights--one kid turned a groundball double play, even though Steve and I shouted out that he should return the ball to the pitcher instead of making the extra throw. (Every errant toss is a prime chance at one of those little league 'home runs.') Two others cracked homers in our second and third games.

We played two complete games out of our first six contests, and the kids' skills seemed to improve with each game.

There were also scenes that make Hitchcock movies look harmless. One player refused to go out into the field, making a path to the Mister Softee ice cream truck instead; he has since left the team. In another game, we yielded five runs in the last inning when we had a five-run lead, before losing in extra innings.

And the extreme lowlight occurred when one of the other coaches, with as much charm as Albert Belle, cursed us out and challenged us to a fight on the field after he thought we were intentionally walking a runner. That player happened to strike out, and thankfully the big bully was given a temporary suspension by the league.

But even the Bad News Bears pulled out a victory, and we finally got one last Tuesday. It was against the second-best team, and we rallied from an 8-1 deficit to win, 11-9.

It was that game which reminded me of why I was doing this in the first place. I personally am not so concerned about wins and losses (we're 2-7 so far), but rather on the improvement in the team's overall level of play. Then again, you should have seen the looks on our players' faces after our first win.

The joy was everywhere. The parents were jumping up and down, the kids were high-fiving each other and I was so caught up in the emotion that I even ran out to the pitchers' mound to carry our star hurler off the field.

At this level, nobody's in it for the money. The kids enjoy playing, the parents enjoy watching and most of the coaches love teaching the sport.

I do have to admit that I'm a tad jealous of our players. It would be great to be seven again and be able to play in little league.

But that obviously won't happen, so coaching is the next-best thing. And as long as there are children who are playing for the fun of it, then sports like baseball have a future.

Of course, winning helps, but the activity itself is what it's all about. And even if I need Sy Sperling's special procedure after June 6, the whole experience will have been well worth it.

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