Hollywood wants us to believe that Little League season is a joyous time – endless summers of inside the park home runs, Big League Chew, double headers and rally caps. And, if society left the game in the hands of the kids that played it – Little League would probably be a blast.
Unfortunately, a bunch of adults had to come along with their khaki shants, tube socks and mesh hats, proclaiming themselves to be “coaches.” When I was growing up, there wasn’t just one coach. There was a whole platoon of them – a hierarchy of youth baseball experts, each with their own section of the field to marshal.
These men, mostly in their early forties with careers and mortgages, met up at the local fire hall every April for the annual Pleasant Hills Pony League draft. Over chicken wings and pizza, the head coaches and their assistants would pour over lists of fourth graders – complete with their heights and weights – agonizing over decisions like whether to take Jimmy “McNuggets” Houllihan in the third or fourth round.
“We need more size!” one assistant would demand.
“No, we need a lefty in the pitching rotation!” a head coach would fire back.
And so on. The whole spectacle was a lot like fantasy football, only instead of drafting 25-year-old physical specimens, they drafted pre-teens with G.I. Joe collections and cootie phobias.
On the field, the coaches took the games a lot more seriously than the players ever did. Win or lose, we got free Slush Puppies from the snack shack. For the coaches, the games were serious business. They gave every nine-year-old a permanent position based on the natural abilities they displayed at a handful of practices before the season started.
Strangely, the sons of coaches were always pitchers, regardless of their dexterity, and they all threw “curveballs” taught to them by their fathers, which looked just like regular pitches, only they would unfailingly land two feet in front of the plate. Curveballs were one of the many ills of youth baseball that caused an average game to run longer than Les Misérables.
Our team had a third base coach. He was an overweight man with over-the-top, vaudeville mannerisms and a crew cut. For the sake of this column, let’s call him Hank. Hank’s sole responsibility was to tell the batter whether to bunt or to swing for the fences – on the surface a straightforward task. But since the other team’s pitcher or coach would surely pick up on this sensitive, strategic information if it was said aloud, Hank communicated with each nine-year-old batter through an absurdly complicated system of sign language.
Before anyone on our team could step up to the plate and have their 45 seconds of fun, they were required to look down the third base line and scrutinize Hank’s one-man tango of top secret gestures.
Hank winked. Hank blinked. Hank tapped his ear and scratched his rear.
In the spirit of normalcy (so as not to tip off the other team), Hank made gesticulations and gyrations that would seem perfectly routine, had they not been done in such quick succession.
Hank coughed. He belched. He tipped his cap and clapped and flapped.
As each kid stood somberly, awaiting the dreaded “bunt” signal (two winks and a yawn), Hank looked like an epileptic at a Pink Floyd laser show.
Hank’s dance would go on for about 15 seconds, then he’d clap his hands together and if you weren’t a deft slugger he would say something patronizing like good eye, partner (which was code for you better not swing unless it’s right over the plate).
Some of us got the bunt signal more than others. Our left fielder, who had just moved to Pittsburgh via China, was instructed to bunt about 75 percent of the time. With both of his parents in the stands at every game, he was publicly shamed in order to advance one of his teammates to second or third base.
Even if it wasn’t a bunting situation, Hank would silently instruct our left fielder not to swing. Ever. Even at balls over the plate. He hoped that the noodle-armed pitcher would walk him.
For most of the Little League, ice hockey and basketball coaches I had growing up – the game wasn’t about the journey, or having fun with your friends, or learning to be a better player and person. It was about winning, at any cost.
Hopefully, with Tomlin and Bylsma to look up to, youth coaches throughout Pittsburgh will all understand that sports is not just a quest for silverware, but character too.