With the Little League World Series in full swing and the Phillies about to play in the second annual Little League Classic on Sunday, we at The Good Phight decided to reminisce about one of the most memorable aspects of playing ball as a kid: the coaches.
Join us, why don’t you, as we re-live adolescent summer glory and the grown adults who consoled, comforted, congratulated, ignored, or screamed at us along the way. Then let us know your own experience with little league coaches in the comments!
More and more, my memories of little league baseball have been replaced by the far more recent memories of rec league softball, a game much closer to my speed and one in which you are allowed, and occasionally invited, to drink on the field. But once I open the floodgates, I can recall a short line of adult men who failed myself and the gaggle of uncoordinated preteens with which I played baseball as a child.
There was “Coach J,” a stern man from a family that bred solely jocks and had no patience for the spawn of non-jock broods outside of his bloodline. His wife, who served as a softball and girls basketball coach in the area, was just as intense and willing to scream herself hoarse. Once, as I and a few kids were playing around near a patch of woods adjacent to the ball field, she yelled to her son to get away because a “big snake is going to come out of there and grab you,” which was a weirdly specific concern to yell at some kids at a baseball field outside of the Amazon.
Coach J was stricken with premature old man jowls, rarely yelled (except at his own son), and quite callously dismissed the children who would ask him questions or require instruction; you know, things a coach does. I think that he, and all of the versions of him that exist, simply wanted to be the steward for what he believed to be the next-level talent with which his children, and only his children, had been born. To his credit, he was right—his sons were great players. But that didn’t make him a good coach. Because nobody else enjoyed playing for him. And I doubt his kids did, either. Nothing like watching a screaming match—that is clearly based on other, far deeper issues—erupt between father and son in front of everyone else on the team during fielding drills.
Coach J and others like him popped in and out of my life as I grew up playing in a league where kids from the same three Catholic elementary schools were mashed together based on their skill level over the course of about eight seasons. Once, as I had entered my unforgiving pubescent years and become painfully self-conscious about wearing rec specs, I removed them while on base. The coach at that point—a large, coarse, mustachioed man who also wasn’t really there to “help,” per se —had told me before an at-bat to watch for a his signal from the dugout telling me to steal if I reached base. I did get on base, but I couldn’t see him without my rec specs. So I tried to interpret as best I could the increasingly frantic gestures of a large, blurry blob, until my coach finally just screamed across the diamond, “JUSTIN WILL YOU PLEASE STEAL THE GODDAMN BASE!”
One season earlier in my playing career, our team was led by a trio of younger guys--a departure from the grumbling dads who typically took up the mantle. None of them had kids on our team, they all seemed to be established friends, and one of them had an extremely attractive girlfriend. They were, undoubtedly, the coolest people we’d ever seen.
During one game in which we were struggling to hit the ball against a team with an especially insufferable coach, you could tell things were headed to a boiling point. One of our players, a frail kid named Danny who never made contact, was actually the first one to solidly hit a pitch, sending a soaring fly ball over the right fielder’s head. “FOUL BALL,” someone yelled, and Danny trotted back to home plate, where the ball was relayed in and he was tagged out. Danny was furious, inconsolable, and in tears. It turned out it had been the opposing coach who had yelled that the ball was foul, not the umpire, so it had been a live ball. Danny, quite emotional, let off a string of expletives for about five or ten straight minutes, at an age where doing so within earshot of our parents was unspeakable. After the game, one of the coaches sat us down in the outfield and gave us a forgettable spiel about taking the game more seriously, but then, instead of blasting Danny or talking to his parents, he simply, casually said, “Danny was the only one here tonight whose competitiveness was on the right level, but Danny, if I ever hear you speak like that again, you’re off this team.”
I don’t know why that stuck with me. I guess because as a little league coach—if you’re there to actually help, that is, and not there just so someone else doesn’t coach your son wrong—you’ve got to walk that line between disciplinarian and instructor, understanding that “being competitive” means getting some hormone-riddled kids even more worked up, but also not turning a team full of impressionable youngsters into a bunch of a-holes. And that gentle, but firm, chiding of Danny seemed to do that perfectly.
Then, while driving us to an away game, one of those three young coaches turned on Creed, saying it was his favorite band. And even I, a 13-year-old, knew how defining a moment it was. I could never look at him the same way again.
For four years, my little league coach was an adult league player who happened to be the son of a former minor leaguer. He did a solid job of teaching us the game and fairly distributing playing time and positions. Was I only on his team because he was the father of my best friend? Yes, but who cares?
It was a nice change from my T-ball coach. He used the same batting order in every game, and unfortunately I was next to last in said order.
I’m not implying that I was a great player and should have been in the cleanup spot, but I certainly wasn’t a disaster that should have been relegated to the penultimate slot either. Speaking of the cleanup spot, would you like to guess who got to bat there every game? If you guessed the coach’s son, you’d be right!
I seem to recall only winning one game our first season. Considering we weren’t winning, maybe that was a sign that the lineup shouldn’t have remained static.
I got some payback years later when my own father was the coach and he batted me second every game. In his defense, I was legitimately good that season. Honestly! I had two triples, and one of them would have been a home run if I hadn’t stood and watched it for a few seconds.
I played baseball in one form or another from age eight through 16. I wasn’t very good--In ten seasons, I think I hit three extra base hits. I was okay as a pitcher later on, but never good with a bat.
But this is about coaches, not me. I only had three memorable coaches in my career. One was my dad, who I love, of course, but the only memorable part about his coaching was that he was my dad. And he was probably harder on me than the other kids. It wasn’t a league in which the coaches pitched to their players, though I suspect that if it had been, he’d have given the other kids batting practice, and given me really heavy sliders with gas or something. Maybe even a spitball. I’m kidding, Dad.
The second memorable coach was fun. This would have been age 13 or 14, I think. His name was Jerry, and Coach Jerry had the science of heckling down. He knew what was age-inappropriate, which at the time wasn’t notworthy, but in retrospect let him use some funny phrases. His favorite phrases were “rock ‘em,” “crush ‘em,” and “whale it.” And every kid had a nickname. Steve was Steve-O. Roger was Rodg. Ben was BenJam. So he’d yell from the dugout stuff like “Way to rock ‘em Steve-O!” or “Get up there and whale it BenJam. Whale it and crush ‘em.” He also called other teams “two-bit punks,” so after a good game, we’d get a postgame speech like “You guys did good today. You really whaled it on them two-bit punks. Crushed ‘em.
Jerry was a lot like a stereotypical movie manager, and I suspect he patterned his shtick on that. The team--which I think was called the James Cerney, D.D.S., Lions--sadly, didn’t measure up. I think we were maybe 6-20 or so.
Then there was another guy, whose name escapes me, so lets call him “Douche bag.” He was my age 16 coach, the last time I played team ball. As a junior, I didn’t make the high school team, and my growth spurt was lagging behind those of peers, many of whom now were passing six feet. Still, I was an okay pitcher. This team, the Pirates, was actually good. We won most of our games, and did well in the local tournaments, missing an invite to states by a tiny margin.
Douche bag had a good team, and got a lot out of us, but had some weird coaching habits. If a pitcher allowed a home run, he’d make that pitcher run out and get the ball. Not during the game, of course, but afterwords, he’d ask for the ball, and if you couldn’t find it, he’d throw one out there for you to find. This still doesn’t make sense. One time I was in the outfield shagging flies, and one of the flies went over the wall behind me. D-bag yells “go get that fuckin’ ball 50 (my number)!” I run towards the gate in the corner. He yells “no use the infield gate.” So now I gotta run from right field to the infield gate which is by the first base dugout and then all the way around to right field and look for a batting practice ball lost in the brush. It took a while to find, but when I did and trudged all the way back in--I’m supposed to be running, remember--D-bag again yells “Don’t ever let me catch you loafing like that again!”
This was his deal. He was angry all the time. I could have sprinted all out and he’d have yelled at me for wasting energy or something.
He thought he could take advantage of pitchers being wild at that age, and told us to lean in and take a HBP as often as possible. I got two in one game once. Another one hit me in the jaw and shattered a tooth (we only wore the full mask helmets up to age 14 or so). Thankfully, I blacked out. One time at practice, he aimed the pitching machine at the batters every fourth pitch or so. One of the kids’ dads came out at this and there was a huge yelling and shoving match, and police were called.
This led to a meeting with the league staff and all the players and parents--it turned in to an airing of grievances or sorts, where each player relayed their experiences. All negative. After a few of these, Coach Douche Bag, who was there, uninvited, gets up and tells us we’re all lying, because he’s a good decent man and an experienced coach and would never do the things we’re accusing him of. And we’re only complaining because he makes us work unlike other coaches, who treat baseball like a game. “And fuck you too for attacking me,” he yells at the dad mentioned before.
That was the end of Coach D-Bag. Of course, we found out later than he was also a pedophile and had molested several of the kids on this team and previous teams as well. I hope he drowns in raw sewage.
The best coaching experience I ever had was an afternoon camp with some players from our local Semi-Pro team, the Alaska Goldpanners. Among them, ex-Major Leaguer Danny Boone. I was the only pitcher who showed up to the camp that day, so I worked one-on-one with Boone for several hours. He taught me to throw a knuckleball. Not great, but when it worked, I could be unhittable. Until kids just waited for me to walk them, that is. I could pitch three or four clean innings rather reliably, until it stopped working and the K’s would turn into BB’s. My curve rarely curved and my fastball never got above 80 m.p.h., and I did not have good control, so I didn’t have much else to go on, but that knuckler let me play for a couple more years than I should have otherwise. So thanks, Danny!
I had a coach when I was 14... which was my last year playing little league. I was a late bloomer and was a lot smaller than other kids my age, so my skills declined rapidly. I simply couldn’t keep up. But until that year, I had always been one of the better players on my team, a solid contributor. But my final year, I had two hits all season. TWO DAMN HITS and one of them was a BUNT.
I struck out a lot — I’m talking Jorge Alfaro levels of whiffitude. And I remember asking my little league coach, who was coaching his first year of baseball, for help. Can you see anything I’m doing wrong? Am I pulling off? Am I too late? Too early? Should I move up in the box? Move back? Close my stance? Open it? ANYTHING?
The problem was this man, who I’m sure was asked to do something he wasn’t comfortable doing, had no experience. He was a well-known soccer coach in the area, but had never done baseball before.
I was screwed. I mean, if I needed tips on how to properly “head” a ball to another player, I had the right guy. But in this case, I was lost and he couldn’t help me. He was also largely dismissive of me, probably because I was a freaking Steve Jeltz out there.
I quit at the end of that year and never played organized baseball again.