Thursday, June 21, 2012

My own private East of Eden

A bad screen grab of a logo
I made for a Sacramento-area
Little League, where my son
played and I coached; a better
version is locked away in 20th
Century storage technology I'll
have to pay someone to pry open.
It was really one of my first forays
into digital logo design via
Adobe Illustrator. A cleaner
monochromatic version is here
(scroll down). I'm not sure whether
this league, small and having to
play other league's teams even
then, still exists. The Techno
typeface comes standard with
Adobe software products; works
here, I think. I never used it again.
Little Leagues around the world are wrapping up their regular seasons. All-star teams are starting their practices, disrupting summer plans for a chosen few families.

The closest I get to Little League any more is the chance glance of kids in their uniforms, wandering into a McDonald's or a Starbucks with their families headed out to or from the field.
Maybe it's the chance encounters that remind me: Nothing sews together the swatches of my life so well as Little League Baseball. Nor can I find a truer mirror to humanity in all its nobility and ugly shortcomings.

It's a well meaning, imperfect, hypocritical part of our landscape. Just like us.

Starting with me: Despite being my son's longtime coach, I managed to keep intact his love for baseball, which has rooted deeper than mine. Along the way I may also have helped a few other kids like baseball. But in a loss of my common sense I also spat a terrible curse word in a young player's face. I yelled at a teenage umpire — a kid who was probably enjoying his purely volunteer work up to that moment — for not calling the play at home the way I saw it. As if, in life's complex balance, it made any difference at all.

From childhood to adulthood, for better and for worse, Little League was that constant.

Little League baseball is my own personal East of Eden, an epic struggle across generations, good versus evil, with evil triumphing sometimes. It informed my childhood and early fatherhood, and will likely form the third leg of this stool I'm making of my life, when I'm watching grandchildren from the stands.

Or maybe it's my own Lord of the Flies, a long-running social experiment, ever demonstrating that humanity is a long way from humanity.

Little League was the great equalizer. Where I grew up, the rich people were largely corralled onto knobs of oak-strewn hills around a golf course, their internment known as the Village Hills Country Club.

Back row, second from left, inveterate blogger; also pictured, a venture
capitalist who passed away too soon; a dentist; a mechanic; the sacred
and profane scattered who knows where, but we were the same that day.
Of course, everywhere else was similarly segregated. Vandenberg Village was largely the middle class, airbase and civil service personnel, and it was subdivided at Highway 1; and my neighborhood, Mission Hills (sometimes called Welfare Hills, and probably not the Mission Hills you've heard of), comprised the lower middle class. All the neighborhoods that feed Village Hills Little League sit on a great mesa above the city of Lompoc in its coastal valley. The city below was a baseball power, and that's a different story entirely.

All classes, all colors and backgrounds met on the same field in Little League, to learn the same game and share in the complex struggle over what that meant.

With my own kids reaching Little League eligibility, I realized Little League is not really the great equalizer. Families pay the same amount for their children to play — with the occasional large-family discount — but players don't play the same amount. The families of players who aren't very good subsidize the families of players who are. Good players get most of the playing time; weak players get the minimum that Little League rules allow. The fact that Little League has a minimum-play rule reveals the inequity.

It was ever thus. We kids saw it, and I saw it as a coach. I wasn't much of a player; baseball at first was an unfortunate collision of physics and partially wired muscle and cognitive development. Over time I carved a niche as the league's only left-handed catcher, with a propensity for the position (and a wild screwball that made my niche a liability later on the 90-foot diamond), but I didn't start hitting until freshman year in high school, with a history teacher/coach who not only knew the fundamentals but knew how to teach them.

My dad, who led me and my sister to the game (she was the first girl in our league!), did his best teaching me the game, but "Just meet the ball" goes only so far and needs breaking down into 16 different steps to derive benefit.

My last year of Little League, on the varsity field at good ol' Cabrillo High School. I was playing the way my
freshman coach taught me: Always be alert and ready for the play.
Freshman year, my last year in Little League, was the only one in which I felt like a ballplayer. It ended in the most fitting way: In the last at-bat during the regular season, I had a chance to help my team go ahead for the win in the bottom of the last inning, with runners in scoring position. I hit Brian LaMay's curve hard to deep left center. The only way John Duffey was going to be able to catch it would be to fling his body like a bullwhip into the air and will his glove to gather the ball. Which is exactly what he did. Coulda been a triple; I hit it as hard as I could; John ran as hard as he could. That's baseball.

Fast forward. Our son gets to the age where he might be interested in baseball. T-ball had been invented since I was a kid, a cute little division of Little League where every kid hits and every kid plays the field. They stand like a clearance sale of garden gnomes, filling the infield, while coach/parents run about, politely urging kids to pay attention so they don't get hit by the padded baseball. Kids at that age understand trying to hit the snot out of the ball, but that's about it. Foraging for dandelions trumped fielding. I had a great time with our son that year.

The next year looked like it could be fun too. Minor League. Players play Little League rules for the first time at that level. Scores are kept. And coach/parents begin to reveal their competitive aggression. This is a time of baseball in which hitting still rules; fielding is slowly catching up but still lags. Groundball putouts are rare, caught flies miracles.

Rather than adjust for this discrepancy in running and hitting, and having hitters stop at first or second, opposing coaches would just have the runners circle the bags, knowing what we all knew: That no players on either team were going to be able to do a thing about it. Almost every time a kid on the other team made any contact with the ball, the coach was sure to make him keep running for home.

After one game, I suggested to an opposing coach that perhaps all of us coaches could agree to limit hitters to first or second, to give defenses a chance to think about what to do when the ball comes to them.

His reply: "If your hitters had more discipline, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Discipline. While I arrived an hour-and-a-half before the game to water, rake and chalk the field, and set the bases, to give me time to warm up with my team, the other coach showed a half-hour before first pitch, unrolled his contraptions designed to help his players be better hitters, did no fielding work with them (why bother?) and offered no help with the field before or after the game. Discipline.

Still, I was having fun. I knew I'd be doing a lot of fieldwork by myself, and I accepted it. For one thing, I had a flexible work schedule, so I could. For another, I saw my dad do the same thing many years for Village Hills Little League (he called himself the Ways and Means Committee, and I laughed even though I wasn't quite sure what that meant).

The fun lasted up to the day one of the league board members invited me to a meeting. I didn't realize until I showed up that she wanted witnesses that would side with her in a Hatfields-and-McCoys feud among board members, so strangled with unresolved personal hurts that they couldn't manage the day-to-day operations of the league.

It was then I knew that grownups have ruined this organization, meaningless except for the sole goal of letting kids have fun learning baseball.

Though I tried to distance myself from the board level shenanigans, in short time that board imploded and the league operated with a group of adults who strived to keep the league afloat. I had no choice but to be involved. I'm sure we ran things wide of proper procedure, but we kept things going, even if we had to reclaim forgotten fields with sickles and donated paint, and travel to neighboring leagues to fill out the full schedule for older players.

Sierra Little League was long past its halcyon days when we joined. Old pictures from the '50s and '60s show manicured fields, crisp uniforms, crowds in the stands. The main fields, tucked in the far corner of an elementary school grounds, had long been abandoned. The remaining fields showed their fatigue in a string of little parks and school grounds. Ours wasn't the worst league, by far. We traveled to a league in a Sacramento neighborhood called Del Paso Heights (where I eventually taught); organizers had done their best to prep the high school varsity field, all dirt, for our game, but I had to gently point out to the president that the kids needed to play on a 60-foot diamond, and the raised mound was going to about just about where second base should be. We moved the game to a softball field, and were it not for some thin rubber bases in the trunk of my car, we would not have been able to play the game.

Village Hills, where I grew up, had its own place, carved out of the chaparral behind the high school. Buildings were made of utility poles stacked like log cabins held in place with concrete mortar; GI-built, I'm guessing. The crumbly sand was tamed by years and years of liberal applications of fuel oil. The sharp smell of diesel still reminds me of the place. We spent entire Saturdays there, showing up early so my dad could prep the fields, my sister and I playing at some point, dad likely helping coach, mom selling burritos and baseball cards out of the snackbar, me showing off a girlfriend during our brief springtime relationship, dad cleaning up and setting the sprinklers after the last game was played. Many Sundays we'd come back and mow the fields.

Village Hills is still going strong. Sure, some disgruntled parent blew up the clubhouse a few years back, but volunteers put the place back together again.

Little League lives or dies, literally, by a peculiar rule that players have to live where they play. Babe Ruth baseball, by contrast, takes all players from however far they're willing to travel, but Little League requires you show proof of where you live in order to play in each particular league. By dint of demographic changes, our Little League was wheezing while across the main street in a more affluent neighborhood the Little League was thriving.

I pointed out to Little League that the residency rule posed an invasion of privacy — one woman in our league, for example, would have to reveal she was living apart from her husband with another man — but it never acknowledged my letter.

It sounds self-aggrandizing, but my main goal as coach was to make it fair for all who played. All these families pay an equal share to have their kids play equal time. It could be done; it took a lot of work to figure out the lineup each game to make it so, and it took an understanding from players and their families that they needed to hold up their end of the deal by making it to practices and showing up on time for games. Good players still enjoyed ample amounts of playing time, but players who needed more practice got many more opportunities.

I'm not sure my son realized until the last year I coached him that he would always sit on the bench to begin our opening game. I wanted to send families the message that I wasn't coaching so my son could shine; I was trying to help all of the players get a chance.

Coaching made me think about teaching. I was trying to figure out how to coach, which I now know is called pedagogy in teaching. Little League used to send around these two guys from Canada, former players and teachers calling themselves Big Al and Little Al, who not only knew magical ways to teach every aspect of the game so kids could understand and apply it, but they recognized that every team has Big Als (good players) and Little Als (developing players) and coaches should give both plenty of opportunities to do both.

Inspired, I went back to practices with what I learned and began breaking practices into rotating stations, enlisting parents to help. At any one time of practice, players were practicing throws, catches and a couple of different ways to hit.

But I'd bet most teams still practice the old way: Thirteen kids stand in the field, bored to death, while the coach throws 18 so-so pitches to the batter. Though Little League endorses the Big Al and Little Al clinics, it doesn't do much more to promote better baseball.

Long after I yelled at the teen umpire, I finally mellowed out and wised up. I was practically telling players when to breathe and how to walk. Suddenly one game I became so physically tired of hearing myself talk that I sat on the bench and closed my mouth. At Sierra Little League's fields, the bars supporting the cyclone fence in the dugouts block an adult's view of the field, so from then until the end of the season, I sat on the concrete pad of the dugout and watched the game from there, saying no more to the players than "Good job," or "Think about what you wanna do," or "Attaway!"

My reward was hearing players talk to one another (they hadn't bothered before because I was doing all the talking). The best moment was hearing a left fielder, playing his first season, call in to the infield letting players know where to throw the ball if it came to them.

By the time our son was going to Senior League on the 90-foot diamond, we had moved, which put us in a different, larger league. Our son, like a lot of kids, had a hard time adjusting to a much larger field, and his body was growing in wildly uncontrollable ways. I helped the coaches as much as I could, but made it clear to my son that I was stepping away and supporting his effort.

Practices were the same old boring stand-in-the-field-while-one-player-bats kind of thing.

It was back to the minimum-play rules for our son, the same thing I was trying to change, and after eight or nine games of watching him sit the bench except for one at-bat and three defensive outs in the field, I quietly asked the coaches about his chance to play more, and even suggested what I did to give all players optimum chances.

"If we did that, we'd be Oh and eight right now," one of the coaches said. Another thing he said: "It's not easy to coach. Why don't you go out and get your own team, if you know so much?"

I was back to subsidizing the coaches' kids to play. Our son went on to high school ball, didn't play a lot (high school baseball is a different world, in which he and I understood he would have to earn his place on the field) but absorbed the coaching and strategy of his veteran freshman and JV coach before becoming interested in other things.

He grew up loving the game. Would he bring the next generation to Little League? I wonder. I wonder what he'd bring to the league to try to make things better. I wonder how he'd work with the same imperfections, in himself and the league.


  1. Good post, Dad. If there's any single think you've taught me that I want to pass on, it's probably baseball.

    I also don't recall starting the first game of the season sitting on the bench. But something I'll always remember is it seemed to me like everyone played the same — so much that I thought that was the point of baseball. I guess in Little League, it still is.

  2. you kids' love of baseball is what i'll treasure.