Ahead in the Count

To an Athlete Dying Young

Two days ago, I found myself driving with two of my South African colleagues through the winding streets of Umlazi Township in Durban. The mood in the car was solemn. We had recently learned that another colleague of ours, Shabba, had died unexpectedly on Christmas Day from complications due to HIV/AIDS. Though he had contracted tuberculosis (an opportunistic infection commonly associated with HIV) a few months earlier and had been weakened significantly, we all thought he was on the path to recovery and maintenance after starting a new treatment plan. The news caught us by surprise and also served as a stark reminder of the powerful and abnormally deadly combination of HIV and poverty.

While driving through Umlazi, on the way to Shabba’s father’s house to help deal with funeral arrangements, the three of us talked about Shabba – his fiery personality and sense of humor, as well as his love for the game of basketball. Unlike many South Africans, even those who enjoy hoops, Shabba was a true student of the game. He was a FIBA-certified referee and a stickler for fundamentals. As a coach, his emphasis on the fundamentals combined with his passion for the game shaped and inspired many township youth to use basketball as a vehicle toward a positive life. It was not an uncommon site to see Shabba leading a group of children in a post-game ritual of jogging around the court and singing at the top of their lungs. Shabba proved to them that joy and learning could go hand in hand.

When we arrived at the house, Shabba’s father greeted us and invited us to sit down inside. Speaking softly in Zulu to my colleagues, he had the look of a man dealing with the unnatural weight of burying his own child. After a few minutes, he turned to me and tried to explain in English what he wanted me to hear. “I was an athlete myself as a youth,” he said. “I played soccer, and I know that sport gave me discipline and kept me healthy in body and mind. Shabba also drew strength from sport, from basketball. He helped young people do the same. Because of this, his strength will live on through the activity of the youth that he coached and their joy of basketball.”

Nothing will make the fact that Shabba is no longer with us any easier. His death at the age of 28 was premature to say the least; he will be missed greatly. But the words of Shabba’s father shed an important light on the importance of what he accomplished in his short life. He found a way to better the lives of hundreds of youth – to give them hope for their future. He let them know that he had made mistakes and that they should learn from those as much as they learned from his basketball tutelage. Shabba did what he could to make the world better than the one he inherited. He didn’t get as far as he or any of us would have hoped, but his body of work will live on in the strength of those that he impacted – on the court and off.

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December 30, 2008 Posted by | Sports Around the World, written by Tal Alter | Leave a comment

Hey Swinger, Swinger!

written by Sean Flikke

My kid hits great in cages and then he/she gets in the games and struggles, sometimes just to make contact. What’s going on? How can I help them?”

This is a common scenario for coaches and families of young ballplayers, and the one I get asked about most frequently as a hitting instructor. While fear of the ball can certainly be crippling (especially for younger players), I do not think that ball fear is the biggest problem keeping young hitters from succeeding in games. It is only a symptom of a larger problem. I believe the primary problem is that young players know more and more about how to take a swing but less and less about how to compete as a hitter. The reason for this is simple: THEY DO NOT HIT COMPETITIVELY ENOUGH.

“How can this be true? I spend hours with my son/daughter/players throwing BP and working on their hitting…more than I ever got as a kid.”

This is true for most young players in the U.S. today. They have access to more resources and tools for improving their swings than any players in any era anywhere in the world – from cages and great equipment to private instructors and camp opportunities. However, what they do not have that those of us who grew up playing in prior generations did have is that dinosaur known as the neighborhood game (see also: sandlot).

These games, which usually lasted for about 12 years (with interruptions), involved playing with and against kids of different ages and ability levels. Learning how to hit in these games meant learning how to compete against bigger kids and older kids and kids who began shaving at 11 and kids who threw (GASP!) breaking balls.  These games thrust us into levels of competition that we may not have been ready for, but the advantages to reaching beyond our ability levels became obvious when our seasons would start and we would return to our own age groups.

With no swing coaches around, I learned how to shorten my hand path to the ball by swinging through Kenny Timm’s fastball 650 times one Summer when he was 10 and I was 7. I learned about balance and head discipline when neighborhood ace Keith Schmidt developed a nasty straight change to go along with his already potent hammer (see also: curveball) when he was 13 and I was 11. But more important than these swing aspects were the invaluable – and unteachable – lessons I learned about how to be an OFFENSIVE hitter.

A great hitter is an offensive threat when the chalk is on the field, a fierce competitor at the plate who finds a way to help his/her team score runs. Like the predators on a Discovery Channel show (See also: Big Cat Week or Shark Week), they have an attacking mindset that can only be developed in competitive situations. Overemphasis on hitting in non-competitive environments – like cages – with machines or coaches consistently putting the ball in the strike zone allows young players to develop a false sense of themselves as offensive players. Having not practiced enough with the “juice” of competition flowing through them and the pitcher, they get into games and look like completely different hitters – marked by quicker, jerkier movements and defensive swings (if they swing at all). In nature, there is a term for these nervous, twitchy creatures…they are called prey.

At the youth level up through high school baseball, the pitcher will be one of – if not THE – best athlete on the field. They often are selected to pitch based on arm strength and may not have great control (usually this is an inverse relationship: harder throwers = less control). So, it stands to reason that young hitters often are afraid that they are going to get hit. ALL hitters, to one degree or another, are conscious of the same possibility. It is hard-wired into our brains the same way that our tendency to move away from large snakes or spiders is…as a survival mechanism.

Great offensive players step through this fear, however, in order to compete and to help their team. Having shown themselves that they can, if necessary, get out of the way of a good fastball in competitive situations gives a young hitter the confidence to be offensive-minded. Over time, they actually learn the energetic lift that getting hit by a pitch and sprinting to first can give their team, in addition to taking away the intimidation factor that pitchers often rely upon.

“So, what’s the solution? There are no games in our neighborhoods and we’re afraid to let our kids ride their bike to a park…too many crazies out there.”

I won’t get into my feeling that the 24-hour news media has created a culture of fear in the U.S. or flaunt the fact that on a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I counted 5 sandlot games being played in a two-mile stretch of highway (author’s note: 1 in 3.5 professional baseball players in a Major League system is a Dominican). I will offer only that your players need to find a way way to hit competitively more often.

For the younger players, I recommend whiffle ball “battle royales.” Use practice time and create space for them to develop some kind of 1 on 1 game format with whiffles (tape ’em up for added velocity) where they are competing with the pitcher. Kids are very creative so allow them to develop rules – just shepherd them through the process. Then put on tournaments before or after practice where they get to umpire, score and compete. You’ll be amazed at how quickly their offensive mindsets improve.

For older players, in addition to whiffle ball battles, more competitive BP against live pitching is a great teaching tool. Utilize bullpen time for your pitchers in competitive hitting situations. It will certainly make both your pitchers and your hitters better equipped for competition. This can even be done in cages, if necessary, with pitchers behind L-screens. Develop scoring systems and/or competitive consequences. You can even simulate “pressure” by having the other players around the cages, cheering and/or jeering to get the energy flowing.

If you can help you player cultivate a predator’s mindset at the plate and couple it with a well-trained swing, then that mirage out on the mound may start to look less like a pitcher and more like an antelope on the Serengeti.

December 29, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized, written by Sean Flikke | 2 Comments

6th Inning…a Foreign Affair

written by Matt Whiteside

 

6th inning…..

 

It was toward the middle of the 2002 season, I was in Triple A, Colorado Springs, with the Rockies organization  when I was approached by a team from Japan.  The Yokahama Baystars wanted me to go to Japan and pitch for them in the 2003 season.  Some look at leaving the country as ending your career in the states.  I looked at it as an opportunity of a lifetime.  I packed my bags on January 29th of 2003 and 17 hours later I found myself landing in the Tokyo airport ready for the adventure.

 

There are many different topics I could choose to discuss from my experience over seas. However, what I found most enlightening was the purity of the country, the respectful nature of the people, and the unrelenting, disciplined work ethic of the people there.  I had always prided myself on the conditioning aspect of being a professional athlete.  When I made the decision to play in Japan, I reached out to people I knew who had traveled that road.  The one consistent message I heard was that the conditioning was nuts over there.  I put in more time that offseason training than ever before, but when Spring Training began the first week of February, I learned first hand what the Japanese think of as conditioning. By the end of the “active warm up”, a 45 minute “ warm up”, we had accomplished what most Major League teams do for post practice conditioning..  One of the Japanese league favorites is to have their pitchers jog with a car tire attached to a rope, that is placed around your waist, and pull it along the out skirts of the sand infields.  You can imagine how heavy those were as they began to fill with sand.  Then consider this was taking place after being on the field for 7 hours already.  Good times.  Needless to say, I would end up in bed at the end of each day with ice packs on both shins, my right shoulder and elbow.  Off the field, the work ethic is evident in that there is no tipping.  Cab drivers, waitresses, and door men do their required service without allowing you to tip them. Imagine that, doing a job to the best of your ability because you have pride in yourself, not because you think you will get extra compensation. It was an experience for sure.

 

As eye opening as the conditioning, was the respectful nature of the people. The Japanese consider it an honor and a privilege to be able to play the game of baseball.  They demonstrate this in many ways.  In the dugouts there is no spitting of seeds or tobacco on the floor or ground. They use a cup and dispose of it. When leaving the field of play the players stop, turn to the field, remove their cap and bow.  It is a way of saying thanks for letting us participate. With age comes respect in Japan.  Being 36 at the time, I was considered a veteran ( senpai), even though I had never played in Japan.  This stature gave you special treatment from the trainers, translators, coaches and players.  You were placed first in line for dinner, at the training table for ice, and when boarding a plane, or train, when with the team.  In their business world that is how you climbed the corporate ladder, by age.  When an “older” business man, within your company, asks you to go to dinner, it is considered a privilege, but also mandatory, regardless of what ever else is going on around you.  In other words if your sons birthday falls on the same day that a senior business man requests your presence at dinner, the dinner takes precedent. 

 

As much as I was impressed with areas of the Japanese culture, I think I was most taken back by the fact that their culture is unique to them.  In the US, we are a sort of melting pot of cultures.   In Japan so many aspects of their culture is unique to them.  When entering a home from the outside world, the Japanese remove their shoes. They do not want to bring any uncleanliness into the home, which is considered sacred,  similar to the dugout.  The cuisine in Japan is unique to say the least.  First, nothing is wasted. Everything you see grown above the ground is suitable to be consumed, as well as the root system holding it in the ground.  When an animal is killed, there are no wasted parts here either.  I tried to take in the whole experience of being in Japan. I can say that I tried parts of a cow, ( tongue, throat, rib cartilage, ear, to name a few) that I had no idea could be used for dietary purposes.

 

When I left Japan, and returned to the states, I had a new sense of appreciation for people and the cultures that they come from.  I am fortunate and grateful for the opportunity they afforded me to play, and live in Japan.  It is another example of how relationships and experiences you encounter shape your future.  My pitching line from Japan lacked something to be desired, but my line on life lessons and traits of successful people took a turn for the better.

December 29, 2008 Posted by | On the Field, Sports Around the World, written by Matt Whiteside | Leave a comment

2008 to the Good Guys

written by Brendan Sullivan

Over the years, I’ve come to realize one of the inherent challenges in youth coaching: we are trying to teach boys and girls whose behavior is constantly influenced by professional heroes and role models who often times don’t act as if they realize the responsibility they shoulder.

From the perspective of those of us on the front lines of the sports world, – chalk up 2008 for the good guys.

Giants Cowboys Football

The sporting year began with a Super Bowl upset by classy Eli Manning and his New York Football Giants over an arrogant and allegedly unethical Patriots squad who, despite their golden boy, supermodel-bowling quarterback, can’t escape the image of their grumpy, disheveled win-at-all-costs genius coach and a recently-spoiled swarm of semi-tolerable chowderhead fans.

Major League Baseball and the NBA followed suit. The scrappy Phillies, led by uber-gamers Chase Utley and Shane Victorino, along with 45-year old southpaw Jamie Moyer, once again outpaced the overpaid Mets and their fuel-on-fire bullpen down the stretch in the National League East to make the playoffs and then made a post-season run that began with a dismantling of the Manny-come-lately Dodgers and their towel-waving, front-running, come-to-be-seen LA chump fans who don’t know the difference between a sac fly and a screenplay. Even the young Devil Rays and Joe Maddon (who helps combat the dead-on stereotype of the brain-dead baseball “lifer”) couldn’t slow the Phillies roll. The best part: A-Rod and the boys watched all of October from home – though only one of them from Madonna’s lair.

I’d rather watch elephants mate than an NBA regular season game. The average effort displayed by NBA players during a Tuesday evening tilt in January is an absolute joke, considering what superior athletes they are and how much they’re paid to play H.O.R.S.E. to periodic arena blasts of hip-hop music every few nights. When I released my categorical denial of the existence of NBA in June, it was great to see a Finals matchup of the league’s oldest and best rivaly: the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Of particular interest to those of us on this blog and others fighting the tides of win-at-all costs coaching at the youth level in this country, was the fact that the series featured two head coaches, Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers, who are adamant supporters and spokesman of the Positive Coaching Alliance. They combined to write this editorial in the San Jose Mercury News on the eve of Game One.

If I could remember who was last man standing in the NHL without resorting to Google, I’m sure I could research further to name a couple classy and hard-working toothless Canadians who hoisted the Stanley Cup at the end of an interminable playoff season sometime in May/June. What a year!

For me, the best story from the year in sports came from an unlikely place – unless you are a Pacific Northwest Division II softball junkie like I am. In a late season matchup with Central Washington University that had postseason implications, Western Oregon’s Sara Tucholsky is injured rounding the bases after a homerun. Central Washingon’s players set a standard for sportsmanship that will forever be hard to match.

A couple additional notes to close 2008:

For My Money the Biggest Buffoon in Professional Sports (and also most popular athlete in DC – see point above about clueless role models):

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Gilbert Arenas, sidelined Washington Wizards star, engaged to Laura Govan, mom of his two kids:

“You want your money in a ring, or you want your money in the wedding? Woman’s gonna choose a ring.”

“I’ve done kicked her out of my house almost every weekend, yet she’s still here and she still believes in me”

Read more garbage on Gil’s blog.

And the First Annual Just When You Thought You Had Already Hit Bottom Award

(From this point forward the “Mitch-Slap of the Year Award”). See it here.

New Year’s Resolution #87: Blog once per week.

Happy New Year

December 28, 2008 Posted by | written by Brendan Sullivan | Leave a comment

Competition & Confidence: Balance in the Middle

written by John Bramlette

Among the conversations I have most frequently with parents is the one where they express a desire to find the “right” level of competition for their aspiring athlete.  Concerns run the full gamut; from “I don’t want Sam to be in over his head” to “will Julie really get better if she is a stronger player than all of her teammates?” 

In my experience, young athletes are best served by accumulating experience at all competition levels relative to themselves.  Being the “star” can do wonders for a young athlete’s confidence, whereas competing with and against better players can help a player improve and provide the motivation to do so.   Most of all, playing in “the middle” can teach players a lot about how to stay even-minded and be a good teammate.  Having experience with third such scenario is, in my mind, the most important. 

Very few experiences from my playing “career” (apologies to my co-authors who played professionally and might thus object to my using this word) stick out as “bad.”  One, in particular, does.  When I was a freshmen in college, I struggled.  While I can site a multitude of reasons why I didn’t play up to my capability, I know that the biggest reason was because I was not prepared for my role on the team. 

My High School team was bad.  Okay… terrible.  We didn’t have a baseball field, which made it difficult to build a program.  Other sports that had exhibited consistent success were the athletic department’s priority in terms of coaching and resources.  Unfortunately, baseball was left to fend for itself.  As a freshmen, I was told that I had enough ability to play Varsity but that the JV needed some good players.  The following year, I started at shortstop, and batted third – positions I would occupy until I graduated.  I knew that college would be different; and I tried my best to find more competitive baseball in the summer.  Unfortunately, I was without much guidance on the topic, and my summer team experiences weren’t significantly different than High School.   So, despite the fact that I was not a particularly strong player, I had never known how to be anything other than one of the “stars” of a team.  While it might have been fun while it lasted, it was not the ideal preparation to play at a higher level. 

My play during my first season of college baseball made it painfully obvious that my confidence on the field stemmed from having been a “star.”  I didn’t have diverse experiences from which to draw confidence and trust in my skill and preparation.  Looking back now, I know that it would have been good to have rode the bench sometimes, been a role player others, and a star perhaps occasionally.  Confidence in one’s own abilities doesn’t have to come from great stats or results; it can also come from a good at-bat against a superior pitcher, or learning a new skill by watching a better player from the bench. 

My advice to young players: don’t avoid situations where you’ll be the weakest player, nor those where you might be the strongest.  But most of all – get comfortable being somewhere in the middle.  If you play long enough, you’ll end up there at some point.

December 27, 2008 Posted by | written by John Bramlette | 1 Comment

5th Inning….Get a “W”

written by Matt Whiteside

For starting pitchers, even those with the lead going into the 5th inning, it is a difficult one for them to get out of while maintaining that lead.  I look at this point in my career as a cross roads.  I was now recently married, and in a new organization again, the San Diego Padres.  I had worked diligently in the Venezuelan winter league on my mechanics, and psyche, and was ready to get it going again.  I had a very good spring training, but still was sent to Triple A.  This presented a challenge again, but for new reasons.  Triple A for the Padres at that time was in Las Vegas !  The next two years were without a doubt life changing for me.  I went into Vegas weighing 210 lbs and married, and left two years later 185lbs and divorced.  I would not suggest any newly weds  move to Vegas, especially if you play a sport there.  We, as a couple, were struggling when we arrived, and decisions by both left us with unmendable fences when we left two years later.( I am not advocating divorce here, nor am I proud of it for the record).  While this may look like a game where I might get a no decision at best, or quite possibly a Loss, I actually came out of it with a W, although a hard earned one.  

 

A constant theme throughout here for me, are the people who come into your life, the relationships your form with them, and how they influence you.  I had told myself that no matter what situation I was put in for the rest of my career, I would enjoy the experience, appreciate the opportunity, and be a good influence/teammate in the locker room.  While I enjoyed some time in the Big Leagues with the Padres, and was around quite possibly the greatest closer and teammate of all time in Trevor Hoffman, my time in the clubhouse with my teammates in Vegas was what I cherish the most.  Here is where I began to enjoy being a leader, being a resource of information and “paying forward” some of the things veterans before me had provided myself. I started to feel the satisfaction and gratification of having that ability to help and teach.   In doing so I formed friendships that will last a life time, and relationships that have, what seems like never ending tentacles, that continue reaching out to this day. At the center of these relationships was Brendan Sullivan, a member of the blog team here, and the reason I have the good fortune of knowing the rest of the group assembled here.  We seemed to hit it off from day one. It started out as workout partners, throwing partners and bullpen mates. It evolved into best friends for life.  I tried to provide support and information where I could. Wise beyond his years, Brendan helped me through a tough time in my personal life by being a friend and counselor.  I am glad I did not have an ego that would prevent me from appreciating the influence someone younger could make on me.   Seeing, and experiencing first hand, the great work Brendans personal business, Headfirst, was doing when I would make trips to Washington DC in the offseason, gave me a glimpse into the future of what I would like to do post baseball.  Regardless of where you see yourself in life, young, old, successful, struggling or accomplished, if you remain open to and conscious of those around you, you will continue to be influenced and learn. Having the ability to learn from others can, and will, enrich and enhance your life.  I am certainly appreciative of what it has done for me.

 

 

December 17, 2008 Posted by | On the Field, written by Matt Whiteside | Leave a comment

The Longest 200 Feet in Youth Sports

posted by Ted Sullivan

This post is part of my on-going efforts to solve one of the great mysteries in youth sports.

No, I’m not talking about the invention of coach’s Bike shorts. And for those who read the title, no, I’m not talking about the distance from home plate to a little league home run fence (couldn’t care less). I’m talking about the physical, mental and psychological transformation that occurs within young baseball players when they take those few steps from the batting cage to the batter’s box.

This should be a familiar experience for many youth coaches: one minute a twelve year old in the batting cage is crowding the plate, taking aggressive hacks and ripping the ball off the nets, making me consider if I should be wearing a helmet while I pitch. The next minute he’s in the game and facing a pitcher 2 feet shorter and several MPH slower than I, yet he’s barely in the batters box, he’s stepping in the bucket and taking weak, flailing swings — if he swings at all. 

Is this merely a fear of the ball? I know I’ve asked Brendan about this a few times and he’s responded that if he had a cure for ball fear he’d be a millionaire. I’m looking for insight here — either from readers or from my fellow bloggers… specifically Mr. Sean Christopher Flikke who I believe is the best youth hitting coach around, but who has far fewer blog posts than he has left handed jacks to deep right. (Yes, Flik. I’m calling you out.)

December 16, 2008 Posted by | On the Field, written by Ted Sullivan | 2 Comments

A Valuable Investment: Continuity

posted by John Bramlette

As coaches, we often encourage young athletes to emulate certain professional players or teams.  Perhaps it is time for the professional ranks to embrace one of the simple fundamental truths of youth sports.  

As a lifelong fan of a particular baseball team that has been known for spending recklessly on free agents rather than exhibiting patience with its young players, I was pleased last winter when patience prevailed and the New York Yankees seemingly committed to player development and building from within the organization.   As any baseball fan knows by now, that plan was scrapped this past week (after a mere single year) when the Yankees spent approximately two hundred million and forty dollars on two free agent pitchers. 

Now, I’m not disappointed in these decisions for the same reasons as most other fans.  I’m less bothered by the fact that one of these pitchers has a history of injury and a penchant for performing his best only in his contract year (the season preceding his opportunity to be a free agent).  I’m less bothered by the fact that the other pitcher has logged a staggering number of innings over the past several years and has pitching mechanics that suggest arm trouble is imminent.  What bothers me about this change of course is something much more simple: the notions that continuity matters, that teams play best when they play for each other, and that it is difficult (even for professionals) to build an identity as a team when there are new superstars in the mix each spring. 

While lamenting this dramatic change of course by the Yankees, I started thinking about what I’ve observed while coaching youth baseball the last several years.  Exhibit A – Summer 2004: co-blogger Tal Alter and I are coaching the 16U Gamers down in Myrtle Beach, SC.  Predictably, many of the southern teams have a bit more talent than us.  But the Gamers played hard and hung together – and with a little luck, we found ourselves in the finals of a fairly sizable tournament.  Ironically, our opponent was not a southern team.  Rather, it was a team from Staten Island, the same team that we’d played, and lost to handily, earlier in the tournament.

This team was very impressive.  Size, athleticism and intelligence at every position.  In the middle of the final game, after having seen this team play for about 13 innings over two games, Tal and I concluded that not one of our players would be a starter on the other team.  Nevertheless, our guys persevered.  The result for the Gamers:  an inspired 4-3 loss in 11 innings.  Watching the other team dog pile at home plate after scoring the winning run, tears flowed in our dugout.  But these not result-oriented tears, these were the tears of players who cared about each other, whose season of playing together was over, and who cared not only about winning for themselves – but for each other.  Needless to say, the Gamers (or any team for that matter) could not have accomplished so much had they not cared so deeply for one another. 

I’m well aware that the analogy between professional and youth sports can go only so far.  In professional sports, changes from year to year are inevitable.  Nevertheless, this basic lesson from youth sports still rings true at the professional level.  Every year, the Minnesota Twins, a team almost entirely composed of players who have grown up together through the minor leagues, demonstrates to the rest of the American League that they are more than the sum of their parts.  Meanwhile, the Yankees continue to be less than the sum of theirs. 

Perhaps the Yankees would be well-served to give take a page from the Twins and let their young players grow up together… it might lead to something special like it did for the Gamers.

December 14, 2008 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by John Bramlette | Leave a comment

Manny…

posted by Dan Spring

 

Hearing the Yankees offer a pitcher who will, at most, play every fifth day $160 million dollars got me thinking about the absurdity of the free agent market which inevitably got me thinking about Manny…

 

Manny Ramirez joined the Dodgers last summer and, for the first time since 1989, Los Angeles became a baseball town again (and no, I don’t consider the Los Angeles Angels of Disneyland an LA team).   I saw enthusiasm this past summer at Dodgers Stadium that I had never seen before.  Casual fans were showing up early for batting practice, instead of arriving fashionably late in the 4th inning, and they were actually staying through the end of the 9th inning, instead of leaving fashionably early before the start of the 7th inning.  Here’s a brief outline of what attending a Dodgers used to be like for those of you living in other parts of the country. 

 

5pm: Get in the car

5pm – 8pm: Sit in traffic

8pm – 9pm: Watch Jason Schmidt not pitch and Jeff Kent play truly uninspired baseball

9pm – 11pm: Sit in traffic

11:30: Get home and promise yourself that you will NEVER do that again, even if you get free tickets.

 

But Manny changed all that (except the traffic).  He electrified the city.  Tickets started selling out (along with every piece of merchandise with “Ramirez 99” on it within a 100 mile radius) and as a result of his presence, the spirit inside the stadium was unlike anything I’d seen at Dodger Stadium in my 5 years living in L.A.  The lone exception to this was when I was fortunate enough to witness Steve Finely’s walk-off grand slam to beat Barry Bonds and the Giants and win the NL West a few years back.  For the record, when Finely actually hit the homerun in the bottom of the 9th to cap a SEVEN run inning, about half the seats were already empty. 

 

If you’ve ever been to a game in Yankee Stadium, Fenway or Wrigley, you know that when a starting pitcher gets to 2 strikes against the lead-off hitter, every fan is on their feet cheering for the strikout – even in the first week of June – three months before they know if their team will even make it to the playoffs.  Well, that is a brand of fan enthusiasm that rarely makes it inside Chavez Ravine, yet it actually happened in Dodger Stadium, in July¸ and in the FIRST INNING – a part of the game that, prior to Manny’s arrival, most Dodgers fans heard on AM radio in their cars as they sat in traffic on the 405.   When I closed my eyes during the first game I saw Manny play in L.A. , I just as easily could have been in New York , or Boston , or Chicago , or St. Louis .  It was awesome.

 

So what does this have to do with youth sports?

 

Well, as we all know, the only reason Manny ended up in L.A. was because he quit on his teammates by faking injuries so he didn’t have to hit against the “tough” pitchers, physically assaulted a Red Sox secretary in the clubhouse, and bad-mouthed his boss and the town of Boston in the media.  In other words, it was too much trouble for him to show up to “work” everyday in Boston and earn his $20+ million dollar salary.   And his reward for giving up on his teammates and disrespecting the game?   A trade to the city of his choice and another new multi-brazillion dollar contract waiting for him in the off-season.

 

As a coach who stresses the importance of attitude, commitment to teammates, and respect for the game above all else, I definitely felt conflicted about Manny’s arrival. 

 

On one hand, I loved seeing how excited our summer campers were after he arrived (it certainly didn’t hurt his stock that the second he got off the plane at LAX he immediately started hitting absolutely everything thrown at him).   Kids were showing up to camp every morning in Manny shirts and Manny do-rags reciting box scores and statistics.  As a lover of the game, there is little that fires me up more than seeing our campers excited about baseball.

 

Personally, I loved getting to watch him hit up and close and personal.  Like watching Greg Maddox pitch, watching Manny hit is a thing of beauty.   Those two guys are once-in-a-generation talents and to have them both within a few miles of my front door was a gift from the baseball gods.

 

On the other hand, it was difficult to stoke the camper’s enthusiasm about the Dodgers knowing that the only reason Manny was in L.A. was because he did absolutely everything in his power to get himself expelled from the Red Sox.  He was a horrible teammate, a terrible employee, and from all published reports, a total cancer in the clubhouse. 

 

So here we were at camp: Load your hands like Manny, but don’t jog to first like Manny when you hit a potential doubleplay ball.  Hit down on the ball and drive it to the opposite field like Manny, but don’t treat your teammates like Manny does.  Work your buts off in the cage like Manny, but remember, the left fielder is NEVER the cut-off from centerfield (my favorite baseball blooper ever, by the way).

 

Barry Bonds was justly vilified by his teammates and the media while simultaneously achieving incredible things on the field (we’ll have the steroid debate in another blog).  But how many kids ran around little league fields wearing “Bonds 45” their back?

Outside of the Bay Area, I’m guessing very few.   Barry was so easy to hate.  Not so much with Manny.  The paradox about Manny is that he can be both the clubhouse cancer and play (when he chooses to) with a youthful enthusiasm and joy for the game that is so appealing.

 

So what’s an educator supposed to do with a split personality like Manny who is the perfect personification of both the good and the bad?

 

I told the kids how hard Manny works in the batting cage, how he trains his eyes with vision exercises so difficult that his teammates won’t even attempt them, and how many hours he puts in the clubhouse studying film of opposing pitchers in the hopes that the campers take his preparation and dedication to hitting to heart.

 

And then I reminded them that one of the greatest right-handed hitters of our generation has also never won an MVP award, with the hope that they understand that being a truly great player requires far more than just performance on the field, it requires character off the field and in the clubhouse.  

 

For any further inquires about the marriage of on-the-field performance and off-the-field character, please see below.

 

 

– Spring

December 12, 2008 Posted by | written by Dan Spring | 1 Comment

Flaws in “Collected Wisdom”

posted by Ted Sullivan

I’m a big fan of author Michael Lewis and really enjoyed his best-seller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

moneyballsbn4As quoted from wikipedia.com, “The central premise of Moneyball is that the collected wisdom of baseball insiders (including players, managers, coaches, scouts and the front office) over the past century is subjective and often flawed. Statistics such as stolen basesruns batted in, and batting average, typically used to gauge players, are relics of a 19th-century view of the game and the statistics that were available at the time.”

The story of Billy Beane and the small-market Oakland A’s is really entertaining. But in my opinion the book is a classic because it makes me consider how I might be blinded by “collected wisdom” or preconceived notions. 

I think there is flawed “collected wisdom” within youth sports, namely: a huge majority of parents and coaches believe that individual performance, wins and losses, batting average, ERA, etc. are the best way to measure the success of a youth team or player.

There are a few organizations such as Headfirst and the Positive Coaching Alliance who, like Billy Beane, are doing their best to create a whole new paradigm for measuring athletes. 

At every Headfirst Gamers baseball game, the traditional scorebook is kept by a volunteer parent, measuring hits, runs, strikeouts, RBIs, etc. However a separate “game chart” is kept by an assistant coach or a player. The chart is one page, with the Headfirst logo, the dates and the words: “Opponent: Doesn’t Matter” typed at the top. The roster of names is written down the left hand side and then there are a columns of boxes next to each name, one column for each inning. The bottom third of the page contains a numbered list of twenty-six “effort-based” metrics that are kept for each player and each inning. 

A few examples: 

“Sprint to 1B on a groundball”

“Picking up an opponent (after tough play)

Middle IF communication” 

“Down and ready every pitch”

“Thanking the umpire after the game”

and so on…

The Gamers are measured on these and many other effort based metrics throughout the season. It’s no surprise that these kids finish each season as better ballplayers, better teammates and better people. I’ve seen countless youth games in which an effort-based game chart was needed desperately around the bench or the dugout. I hope that as other teams play against the Gamers, coaches and parents will inquire as to why the kids are so disciplined and they will begin using their own effort-based metrics for measuring and motivating their teams. 

December 11, 2008 Posted by | Media Commentary, On the Field, written by Ted Sullivan | Leave a comment