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Size matters in the littlest of leagues

How coaching a t-ball team can lead you in some needed and unforeseen ways.

Rob Carr

I've coached youth sports now for 19 years, most of it soccer. I love it, now. But my very best coaching will be t-ball 2011. There was a family in town from England seeking cancer treatment for their son at CHOP. He and his twin brother were on my team. The one boy was only well enough to participate in a couple of practices and one game, I think, but always came to the field in his team shirt even if he was on his mother's shoulders the whole time. His twin brother was a good athlete, but knew nothing about baseball. (His nickname was the British Bomber. On my t-ball teams every player has an old-timey baseball nickname I write on athletic tape on the back) Whatever he was able to do was just my instruction, so I felt good about that, of course, but I knew from the soccer field that I had a "natural" of sorts to play with.

His twin got worse over the summer and died. A few weeks later I found the blog his mother kept about his treatment and their life here in the US. There were two passages, one about how no matter how sick he felt he would will himself out on Saturday mornings to be with the team and how good it was for him. The other picture was from a visit they made to the Phillies game, and both boys were wearing their team caps. I was a wreck, of course. I knew they enjoyed coming out, I knew what was going on with their son, but in other ways they were one of 10 families. And yet here I had volunteered to do t-ball once again and a kindergarten-aged Bang the Drum Slowly broke out.

I think of that boy a lot because I coach a lot. That experience changed me because I was able to see what was really important. Before you sigh at that cliche, allow me to explain.

I'm in a town that generally has its priorities straight, but like any town it has its share of folks who take sports WAY TOO SERIOUSLY and let that affect what they want for their 4-10-year-old children. So they make a lot of genteel suggestions, forge coalitions, ask earnest questions like, "Have you ever thought about...?" or "Why doesn't the program...?" And while on the one hand I'm not going to just mess around with my program or team, on the other hand there's a point of diminishing returns for anyone, no matter what role you play. But these are earnest and well-meaning people, and you try to be accommodating and answer them. Beyond about the 12th year of involvement, however, they wear you down. You get pissed off. You tire of the same discussions. You find yourself discussing the program by yelling at your wife. You think about leaving. I did all those things.

That experience slapped me in the face, but metaphorically burned my own happy rhetoric, which was always (and always will be) about learning a game and having fun, clean to the ground. Since then I mean it in a deeper, core way, a liberating way. And I've been happier doing it. Someday I'll hand over the reins, but now I'm looking forward to leaving on my terms rather than going out in a blaze of angry middle fingers and Saxon words. It was a gift to know that what I do had an impact, and while I recognize what I do doesn't mean a lot for every kid I come across, how many more do you really need than one? After that boy, every other season is like playing with house money.

Even if you can't stick around a league for a whole season because of work or school schedule, leagues are also looking for work gangs to do field cleanup, line, paint, mow, etc. - that doesn't need to happen at any particular time. Contact info can be found as close as your local elementary/middle school.

So sign up somewhere. Grab a rake. You never know what it will do for you, or to you.