Ahead in the Count

We Are Lucky

While the economy is showing signs of recovering (or at the very at least stabilizing), non-profit organizations that rely almost entirely on donations are still struggling mightily.

Little Leagues, of course, fall into this category and today’s article on CNN reminded me of the notion that getting to play youth sports is a great privilege – and certainly not a right.

http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/06/09/little.league/index.html

I feel it is extremely important for youth coaches, teachers, and parents to consistently remind kids that their time on the field should not be taken for granted and the very real possibility of entire leagues folding due to lack of donations can act as a very worthwhile teaching tool.

The silver lining to the economic meltdown that this country has experienced might very well be that we as a society start to appreciate all the little things that we once took for granted. If we can teach our kids to do the same, the next generation might act more responsibly (at least financially speaking) than we have.

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June 9, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Manny…

How will this affect his Hall of Fame chances?

Will the Dodger’s make the playoffs?

Do you believe him that the substance he tested positive for was as a result of a legitmate medical issue?  Does it matter?

Does the fact the substance is often used to speed up recovery after a steroid cycle make him guilty of juicing?

Can we ever trust the offensive numbers from anyone over the last 10 years?

What do we now make of players like Albert Pujols, Jim Thome, and Griffey, Jr. (the only big time sluggers still playing who haven’t tested positive PEDs)?   Are they guilty by association? 

Discuss.

May 7, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Switch Pitching

Check out the latest Rick Reilly article.

http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?id=4145564

I found the article fascinating as a “switch pitcher” is just about the rarest thing in baseball.

The part I wanted to be surprised about (but sadly wasn’t) is that this 23 year-olds’ success as a switch pitcher is already leading baseball dads with kids as young as THREE to force their sons to start throwing with both hands in hopes of finding the lateset fast track to the big leagues. 

I’m not a father, so I don’t want to be completely judgmental, but I think something all of the bloggers here see regularly in youth sports is the issue of realistic expectations (or lack thereof).    There is nothing wrong with dreaming big – that’s something all kids should do, but that’s something they should do for themselves.   What’s greater than hearing a 7 year old say he wants to be an astronaut, or big leaguer, or President when he grows up?  But when these “dreams” are manufactured by mom and dad for their kids, it can cause problems. 

What happens when little Timmy turns 8 and doesn’t even like baseball?  What happens to the child who was “dreamed” to be a doctor turns 12 and has no interest in science but instead loves the theater and wants to be an actor?  Now the parent’s expectations don’t align with the child’s and this expectation gap can cause problems.

The point is we’ve got to let the kids do the dreaming.  Our job as parents and coaches should be to support those dreams. 

The other baseball coaches here may disagree and being a talent evaluator is definitely not what I do, but I don’t think it’s possible to project whether a kid will have a shot at making his high school team until he’s at least 12 or 13.  Then it’s at least 16 or 17 until we have a clear picture if college baseball is an option.  

How can we then, in good faith, begin putting pressure on our kids to acheive at a high level before they’ve even reached double-digits by asking them to switch pitch, etc?

May 6, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Let’s Take a Poll

What’s worse: that the Nationals fined Elijah Dukes $500 for showing up 5 minutes late for a game because he was supporting a local little league’s Opening Day or that Dukes charged the local little league $500 for his appearance?

http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/blog/big_league_stew/post/News-amp-Notes-Elijah-Dukes-gets-lift-from-Li?urn=mlb,157945

Discuss.

April 26, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Nice Guys Finish First…And Second.

As I sit here typing, Angel Cabrera and Kenny Perry are walking back to the 10th tee at Augusta for their second sudden-death playoff hole.

I’ve seen some tremendous acts of sportsmanship from these two men today that I believe are worth mentioning. Perry and Cabrera started the day as the leaders and are now the only two men remaining. On numerous occasions, Cabrera has given Perry a subtle “thumbs-up” after a nice recovery or a good putt. When Cabrera made a 6-footer on the 18th hole to force a playoff, it was Perry who stood on the side of the green applauding Angel’s remarkable par after hitting his drive into the woods and hitting a tree on his second shot. While these simple gestures of acknowledgement and encouragement are fairly common among amateur golfers, to see two professional golfers root for each other on the final day of the Masters was a refreshing sight.

I love watching Tiger. He is without a doubt the greatest golfer of all time and is as fierce a competitor as we will ever see. However, he is also well known for his cold demeanor on the course – he would call it laser focus – and often goes entire rounds without uttering a single word to his playing partner or even acknowledging his presence. I’ve also started to grow tired of the Tiger putter toss followed by that incredulous look he gets after missing a putt as if it was the green’s fault that the ball didn’t roll the way he wanted it to. This is to take absolutely nothing away from Tiger – he’s a great athlete, an amazing competitor, and I almost always find myself rooting for him down the stretch of any tournament he plays.

However, it was great to see two genuinely nice guys root for each other for 18 holes and end up as the last two men standing. They clearly both love and respect the game and are both obviously ultra-competitive athletes with a tremendous will to win.

Today, Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera exemplified beautifully how wanting to win and treating the game and your opponents with respect are in no way mutually exclusive.

April 12, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Advice For Tryouts

Advice for Tryouts

I think that everyone who contributes to this blog would agree that youth sports have become too hyper-focused on winning, and that what the scoreboard says is actually one of the least important measures of success on the field for young athletes. One of the most unfortunate byproducts of the win-at-all costs attitude permeating our culture is the unnecessary pressure that many young players feel during practices and games. Competition is healthy and there is nothing wrong with wanting to win ballgames, but often when the desire to win becomes too great, it overwhelms other measures of success such as teamwork, effort, attitude, and hustle. As a result, many young ball players feel pressure to be perfect on the field and not only can they not reach their full potential under these circumstances, but the game becomes much less enjoyable for them.

Most years, there is no more pressure-packed day than little league tryouts. Not only is it most player’s first day on the diamond each year, but they must field ground balls, catch fly balls, pitch, and hit while being evaluated by dozens of coaches, a grandstand full of parents, and all of their peers. There is no doubt that all ballplayers, young and old, perform better and have more fun on the field when they are relaxed, confident, and comfortable. So what can we do to help create an environment that allows our kids to get maximum joy out of the game while simultaneously developing as a ballplayer and a human?

First, as parents and coaches we must remind our players that we love and support them regardless of their performance on the field. This will give them the confidence to play the game free from worrying that our support of them is dependant on results. All kids want to make their parents and coaches proud, but we cross into dangerous territory when they begin to think that our relationship with them is conditional on performance. By redefining success on the field to include honoring the game, acting like a good sport, giving maximum effort at all times, and supporting teammates, even on days when they go 0-4 and make 3 errors in the field, there is still a sense of accomplishment to be proud of. Baseball is a game of statistical failures (name one other sport where “succeeding” 3 out of 10 times guarantees you a spot in the Hall of Fame), so if we only define success in terms of winning and losing, hits and outs, strikeouts and walks, most little leaguers will leave the field each day dejected. By creating a culture that rewards the concepts listed above in addition to wins, losses, and stats, players will be more relaxed on the field, and more often than not, they will begin to perform better as well.

Second, we need to remind our players that game is supposed to be fun. Every time I return from the Dominican I am struck by how much joy the kids down there play the game with. They are constantly laughing, smiling, and joking with each other and no matter how they are performing as individuals or as a team, they thoroughly enjoy and value every single minute they are on the field. We need to encourage our players to play with the same attitude. Our goal as coaches and parents should be to create an atmosphere on the field that kids can look back fondly on years from now.

Finally, we should make our little leaguers aware that at no other time in their life will physical size and strength be such an advantage or disadvantage (depending on whether or not they’ve hit their growth spurt). Ted wrote an excellent blog on radar guns a few weeks back and it got me thinking about the correlation between size and success in little league. Is the kid who throws the ball the hardest the most talented player on the field? Usually not – he just happens to have grown up a little faster than his peers and his size and strength is often misinterpreted as talent. Is the kid who can hit the ball the furthest the best hitter in the league? Usually not, he just happens to be stronger than everyone else. This is not to take anything away from “big” little leaguers. The point is that, by nature, kids compare themselves to their peers and especially in little league; this can be unfair to the pre-growth spurt group.

Commonly, I get questions from my students and parents like, “Why can’t my son hit it to the fence like so-and-so” or “Why can’t my son throw as hard as so-and-so.” More often than not the answer to the question is simply a matter of size and strength – a variable that is completely out of our control – not a result of effort or ability.

Once ballplayers reach 13 or 14 and everyone has started to turn into young men, the playing field levels again, but until then, the little leaguers who grow earlier will always have the advantage.

Instead of solely focusing on results at tryouts (M.P.H., number of homeruns, running speed, etc), I’d love to see our little leagues emphasize hustle, attitude, and desire as well. When the physical aspects of the game begin to even out in around age 13 or 14, it will be the players who learned the correct fundamentals while simultaneously learning how to support their teammates, respect the game, hustle, and have an undying desire to improve who will come out ahead in the end.

March 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Heading to Texas

I’m flying to Austin tomorrow morning for my buddy Jordan Tata’s wedding.   Jordan and I were teammates and roommates with the Tigers and while our careers went in very different directions (he made his Major League debut in 2006 while I was already coaching full-time by then), we’ve remained very close friends. 

 

My wife and I got married in October and packing tonight to get ready to attend Jordan’s wedding got me thinking about my own wedding a few months ago (I promise this is about baseball and not floral centerpieces or seating charts).

 

As Marissa and I put together our invite list, I realized that just about every one of my close friends became a friend through baseball.   God knows how many baseball games I played between the ages of 5 and 23, but I can tell you with confidence that I only remember the specific details of a handful. 

 

(For those of you who care, my top 3 on the field memories are, in no particular order: 1) Little league teammate Shooter Starr throwing a perfect game in our 12 year-old All-Star tournament 2) High school teammate Brendan Sullivan hitting a walk-off grand slam against league rival Georgetown Prep trailing by 3 runs with 2 outs in the bottom of the last inning 3) Tata throwing an 8-inning no-hitter in our pennant-clinching game in Oneonta only to be pulled before going back out for the 9th inning because he had reached his pitch count – our closer successfully complete the no-no.) 

 

Besides a few standout performances and a couple of high school league championships, what I remember most about my playing days are my teammates.  I remember the great teammates who always worked as hard to make me better as I worked to make myself better (and hopefully they felt the same way about me).  I remember the horrible teammates who were selfish and arrogant.  I remember the teammates who would come home to play at my house after little league practice and the teammates who I’d have a beer with after games in college and pro ball.  I was fortunate to have the great teammates in my career far outnumber the lousy ones and baseball has given me my best friends in the world.

 

I never felt more thankful or aware of this then when I looked around at my wedding and saw I was surrounded by former teammates and coaches.  Co-blogger Brendan Sullivan was there.  The aforementioned grand slam Brendan Sullivan was there (different family, same name, both standout right handed pitchers at St. Albans – there are some great stories there).   One of my first coaches and mentors John McCarthy was there.  Tata was there.  And former coach, current Spring Training summer camp co-director, guitar muse/band mate, and life-long fellow Pearl Jam junkie Sean Flikke officiated over our ceremony as a special 24 hour legal deputy justice of the peace.  There were about a half-dozen other former teammates in attendance there as well.

 

While the kids we coach will have baseball careers of varying length and success, we would be remiss not to encourage them to value their teammates not only as athletic peers, but also as friends.  Whether they grow up to be in each other’s weddings or only hang out during practices and games for one season, I promise that most young athletes will remember their teammates (good and bad) for the rest of their lives and I think that everyone on this blog would agree that our friendships formed on the diamond are among the strongest bonds we have outside of family.

 

-Spring

January 21, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

One of the Good Guys

On New Year’s Day, millions of Americans participated in the decades old tradition of nursing their hangovers from the night before while watching the Rose Bowl on TV.   The Rose Bowl is always a big deal to Southern Californians, but this year’s game certainly drew extra attention in our area as USC trounced legendary coach Joe Paterno’s Penn State.   As you know, Los Angeles doesn’t have an NFL team so for football enthusiasts in our area, USC is where it’s at (apologies to my UCLA friends).

 

To be honest, I’m not even a moderate fan of football.   I never watch football on TV (that includes the Super Bowl), and probably couldn’t name a dozen active NFL players, except for the guys who end up on CNN for shooting themselves in the leg at a nightclub.   Earlier this season, my wife and I were lucky enough to receive tickets as a gift – excellent seats to this season’s USC/Berkeley game. While we thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere at the Coliseum, the experience did not turn me into a football fan.   I am, however, now a huge fan of USC Head Coach Pete Carroll.  And here’s why.

 

What most people know is that Carroll is one of the premier coaches in the NCAA (and possibly in all of football) with a list of accolades that include numerous Pac10 titles, two National Championships, etc, etc.   What most people don’t know is that his biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, has come off the field through the work he does in the extremely dangerous neighborhoods of South LA.

 

Pete drives into some of our country’s most violent areas a few times a month to meet with both local activists and gang leaders in the hopes that his presence will encourage those in the gang community to find worthwhile alternatives to violence.

 

You can read a more in depth article about what he does here: http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/20/sports/sp-streeter20

 

After browsing around Pete’s website (www.abetterla.com), I stumbled across another article telling the story of the U13 championship football game in rapper Snoop Dogg’s Pop Warner league. 

 

You can read that article at: http://www.abetterla.org/Newsletter/Detail.asp?ArticleID=29

 

What struck me most about the article was not that, before the game started, one of the California Cowboys’ coaches said that the season was a great success; many coaches say that before a championship game.   This particular coach declared the season a success because he “didn’t have to bury a single one of them [his players].”

 

Not only should youth sports act as a platform to teach important life lessons, but it should also serve as an escape for kids who might be struggling through a less than ideal home life.   I had a pretty easy childhood growing up in Washington, D.C., but I still appreciated my time on the diamond, on the basketball court, and on the soccer field as an opportunity to forget about whatever was going on at home or in the classroom and just enjoy the competition of the game and being around my teammates. 

 

I can’t fathom going through an entire season wondering which of my teammates might die, or worrying that I might get caught in gunfire walking home from practice.  It’s a shame that in a neighborhood where there are so many dangerous, illegal, and violent temptations for kids to fall prey to, even the kids who are making a good decision by participating in an enriching experience like a youth sports league can get caught in the middle and end up a victim of random violence.   That said, it really fires me up to know that Pete Carroll, who has absolutely nothing to gain personally from his visits to South L.A., is using his fame to try to make our town a safer place for kids.

 

So, while the only football program you’ll see me rooting for is still the Brown Bears (2 Ivy League championships in the last few years!), I’ll happily add Pete Carroll to my list of sports “good guys.”

 

Now if we could only get the football analysts on ESPN to dedicate 1/100th of the time they spend talking about how good USC’s run defense is to talk about the real good coming out of the USC football program, then we’d really be on to something.

Happy New Year!

– Spring

January 8, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 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

The D.R.

written by Dan Spring

I just returned to Los Angeles late Monday night from my 5th trip to the Dominican Republic and thought I’d share a little story.

 

Quick background: the reason for the yearly trips to the DR that many coaches on this blog have participated in is John “Coach Mac” McCarthy’s Beisbol y Libros program.  Located in Consuelo, a small town about 30 minutes outside of San Pedro de Marcoris, the ByL program has been running in one form or another since 1999 as a way to use baseball as motivation for students to get after it in the classroom.  Needless to say, most families in Consuelo are extremely poor and in addition to lacking basic needs such as three meals a day and health care, the baseball-crazy kids there are without gloves, balls, bats, and helmets; they play baseball in the street with sticks as bats, rocks as balls, and milk cartons as gloves.  Coach Mac’s program provides any child in Consuelo the opportunity to participate in daily practices on well-maintained fields with equipment and trained coaches, as long as they keep up with their studies in the classroom.

 

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Every week during lunch at our Spring Training Summer Baseball Camp, Coach Flikke or I tell the story of the Dominican little leaguers and how different their lives are from those of our campers.  We talk about how little money they have, how many of the kids in Consuelo go to bed hungry every night, and how all any of them really want is a baseball glove to call their own – something I certainly took for granted growing up and I’m sure many of our campers do as well.   We also relay to our campers how much we admire the Dominican’s love for the game and how it is reflected in the joy they exude whenever they are on the diamond, despite the difficulties they face in their daily lives.  The point of telling the story is not to make our campers feel guilty for the luxuries they have, but rather to make them feel thankful for the little things that are often taken for granted.

 

We wrap up the story by encouraging the boys and girls to bring in any of their old baseball equipment to donate to the kids in Consuelo, and every week I drive away from the field with dozens of gloves, hats, batting gloves, balls, and cleats to bring with me on my trips to the D.R.  I’m extremely proud of how generous all our campers have been with their equipment over the years; but one story of selflessness last summer really stands out.

 

Graham, one of our long-time campers, was planning his 12th birthday party and decided that he wanted to do something special for the kids in Consuelo.   So, in lieu of asking for presents for himself, he asked all his friends to bring a brand new glove to his party so that he could then, in turn, give the gloves to the ByL program.  When all was said and done, the program in the Dominican had 25 new gloves to use at its practices.   Graham decided that the joy the Dominicans would get out of receiving new baseball gloves would far outweigh the joy he would get from another year of presents for himself, and he acted upon that notion.  

 

The simple act of putting other’s needs ahead of your own is an impressive thing to see; to witness that level of self-awareness and selflessness from a 12 year was just awesome.  We often talk about the virtues of being a “giver” and not a “taker.”  Graham exemplified what being a giver is all about.

 

As coaches, winning games is fun and watching our players succeed on the field both as individuals and as a team is definitely rewarding. 

 

But stories like Graham’s…that’s really why we coach.

December 3, 2008 Posted by | Sports Around the World, written by Dan Spring | 1 Comment