Ahead in the Count

Update on “Opening Day” Post… and a Coach’s Greatest Pleasure

Ten days ago I wrote a post that addressed a dilemma I was facing with my little league team here in Downtown Manhattan.

I ended that post with the following summary of my concern:

Here are the series of conflicting issues in my head:

– League rules make for boring games.

– These kids need to have fun.

– Our team needs to get better.

– Baseball practice isn’t always fun — especially with limited field space.

So where do we go from here?

After reading a couple good comments on that post and doing some thinking I determined that the solution is short (1 hour) optional practices using very limited field space during which we work on basic baseball fundamentals mixed in with a little competition and lots of positive energy. Attendance at these workouts has been better than expected (and attended by different players than expected) and I’ve witnessed significant improvement in a matter of a couple weeks.

On Sunday we won our second game by 11 runs and the mercy rule. We got 12 hits and our best pitcher — and the leagues’s best player — dominated on the mound.

But our biggest challenge was still ahead of us. After two more optional (and fun) practices on Monday and Tuesday we had a game last night in which four of our better players (and our three top pitchers) were on a school camping trip. I admit that going into the game my hopes weren’t very high. We had to take two players from the “minors” to field a team but my primary concern was that I didn’t think we had enough kids who could throw consistent strikes.

Despite my fear of a “death-by-base-on-balls,” I was treated to one of the greatest pleasures a coach of young ballplayers will ever experience. Two inexperienced pitchers STEPPED UP with outstanding efforts on the mound and a display of mental toughness that was even more impressive than their physical performances. We made most of the basic plays in the field and had some clutch hitting that resulted in a 7-6 win in the bottom of the last inning.

It was fun to win but even better to see a bunch of multi-talented “super-kids” from downtown Manhattan begin to understand how rewarding baseball can be when you practice hard and execute when the game’s on the line.

But we still have a lot of work to do… so stay tuned for further updates.

(Lastly, an “Only in TriBeCa” sidenote: As I walked to the field yesterday from my apartment, bucket of balls in hand, I spent most of the 10 minute stroll next to Mike Myers of SNL, Wayne’s World, Austin Powers and Shrek fame.)

April 30, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, written by Ted Sullivan | 1 Comment

Sugar

 

Go see this movie.

Go see this movie.

I highly recommend checking out the movie, Sugar. It’s a wonderful story of Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a Dominican pitcher struggling to get to the big leagues and pull himself and his family out of poverty. I’m usually (but not always) entertained by baseball-themed movies. Bull Durham is a favorite and Major League with Charlie Sheen & Co. is always good for a few laughs, but I think Sugar may be the best yet.

 

The tragic flaws of most sports movies are that they are horribly unrealistic and usually quite predictable.

Sugar is neither. 

I’ve spent time in both the DR and in the minor leagues and this movie stunningly brought me back in time to those experiences. The minor league scenes in particular were eerily familiar — yet they gave me even more of an appreciation for the Latin American players who were dropped into small town America and expected to overcome the physical, emotional and cultural challenges both on and off the field. 

I won’t explain why it’s unpredictable. Go see the movie and find out.

April 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Little League Opening Day… now what?

Yesterday was opening day for my 11 and 12 year olds in New York City’s Downtown Little League. The game was a tough one to swallow. Usually these games are forgotten by the time I walk off the field but I’ll admit yesterday’s hung with me for a bit — but not only because we lost a game we should have won. 

 

I had a few thoughts throughout most of the day — all of which seemed to conflict with each other. I’d love the help of any readers and my fellow bloggers as I try to sort them out. 

 

First, yesterday’s game was pretty ugly from a baseball perspective. There were a handful of great plays but in general, the game was determined by walks and strikeouts. I’m having my fellow coach calculate the following stat: of the total number of plate appearances in the game, how many ended in either a walk or a strikeout. Two league rules — strict pitch count limits and required batting through the lineup of all 13 players–  inevitably leads to this result too often: a young inexperienced pitcher throwing to a young, inexperienced hitter. The result is a strikeout or walk over 50% of the time. Now I’m not concerned with the fact that I have to watch this, or whether this is an advantage or disadvantage for my team.  My concern here is that games like that take the fun out of baseball — and most of our kids are at the critical time in their baseball lives where they need to fall in love with the game if they are going to keep playing after this season. This isn’t made any easier by the immediate gratification of video games and 1000 other potential ways they can spend their time. The bar is set pretty high. 

 

Ok, hold that thought. 

 

The other thing that kept going through my head after yesterday’s game is: we need to get better. After 20+ years as a player and coach my instant reaction after a game like that is practice, practice, practice.  When can we find field time? How can I work with our pitchers? How can we get in a cage? etc, etc. However unfortunately the type of practice this team needs — and more importantly, the type of practice downtown NYC field space provides — is not particularly fun for young players. We don’t have access to a full field other than our 1 practice per week (maybe) and our games on Sundays. We need pitching drill work. We need fielding drills, we need to break down our swings and build them back up.

 

But my fear is that I’m not sure whether the majority of the kids on this team really want to spend their time this way. This is rec league baseball in downtown Manhattan. These kids are going to be successful writers, bankers, musicians and movie producers. It’s not that they aren’t great kids and of course they want to succeed. But if given the choice I’m not sure they will want to put in an extra 20+ hours of practice time this season for the marginal improvement they might see. 

 

Here are the series of conflicting issues in my head: 

– League rules make for boring games.

– These kids need to have fun. 

– Our team needs to get better.

– Baseball practice isn’t always fun — especially with limited field space. 

 

So where do we go from here?

April 20, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, written by Ted Sullivan | 4 Comments

Great profile of Brendan on MLB.com

posted by Ted Sullivan

Brendan at an Honor Roll Camp

Brendan at an Honor Roll Camp

Lisa Winston wrote a glowing profile of Brendan and Headfirst on MLB.com. It’s a good read for any baseball fan, entrepreneur or parent with a ballplayer who is putting off law school while insisting on riding buses and living off meal money just to play the game the game that he loves.

It also references the Headfirst Honor Roll Camps… unquestionably the top college baseball showcase camps in the country (I’m admittedly biased, but it’s true). In 2009 The Honor Roll Camp is coming to Dallas, Sacramento, Richmond and Jupiter, Fl.

March 4, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by Ted Sullivan | Leave a comment

Put. The gun. Down.

posted by Ted Sullivan

Now back away from the gun.

I hate radar guns. Not because I like driving fast, but because I have always pitched slowly.

I recently attended a January “pre-draft” tryout for players aged 8 to 12 years old in New York City. My guess is that 90% of the players hadn’t picked up a baseball since August. Every player had to go through each of three stations — fielding, hitting and pitching. At the pitching station, each kid, one at a time, was asked to stand on a plastic mound and throw about 10 pitches to a catcher 40 feet away without any warmups, stretching or coaching. Behind the mound was a volunteer in a folding chair holding a radar gun to clock the speed of each pitch. The results were inevitable and summarized as follows: very few strikes, horrible mechanics, consistent questions to the gun holder to inquire “how fast was that?” and many, young players walking away from the pitching station massaging their shoulders and elbows. I hate radar guns.

Vote for gun control.

Vote for gun control.

I admit that I’m biased. I’ve never thrown a baseball 90 miles per hour and never will. During my pitching career in the ACC and the low minor leagues, I would occasionally (and stupidly) glance behind the backstop and would see a scout (or several) with a JUGS radar gun pointed directly at me. I would have preferred to be in the crosshairs of a real gun. Despite disciplined thinking and self-talking, I would inevitably put a little more “umph” on my next pitch, almost always resulting in less than my best velocity, no movement, poor location and sometimes a little twinge in my elbow or shoulder.

Radar guns are a necessary tool for evaluating and scouting pitchers with college and professional aspirations. They should never be near a little league field because they lead to bad habits and injuries.

All hail the changeup.

February 25, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, written by Ted Sullivan | 3 Comments

Another Blog Worth Reading

posted by Ted Sullivan

Since starting this blog just a few months ago I’ve spent some time searching the net for others who are writing on the same general topic of youth sports / coaching / etc. Mark Hyman’s blog, Youth Sports Parents is one worth checking out. Mark wrote Confessions of a Baseball Purist about Jon Miller, former Baltimore Orioles radio announcer (and now ESPN bigwig) whose voice will forever represent the sound of baseball for me. Mark is also working on a new book about youth sports to be published this spring. Looking forward to checking that out.

Mark’s blog has also encouraged me to create a list on this page of other blogs and columnists worth reading. Let me know if you have any to add to the list.

February 23, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by Ted Sullivan | 1 Comment

“Some Magical Ability to Win”

posted by Ted Sullivan

Shane Battier, the "No-Stats All-Star"

Shane Battier, the "No-Stats All-Star"

A few weeks back I wrote a post titled “Flaws in Collected Wisdom” about Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and it’s application within youth sports.  I’ve been fascinated by the “moneyball” philosophy — not because I’m a stat-rat or even a die hard sports fan really (ok, with one exception), but because I love its broader relevance of using data to dispel conventional wisdom and create business opportunities. Lewis wrote a terrific piece for the NY Times last weekend which detailed how the Houston Rockets are taking these “moneyball” concepts to the NBA. He profiled Shane Battier, the “No-Stats All-Star.” It’s absolutely worth a read — even if you aren’t a Duke basketball fan (my aforementioned exception) who thinks that Shane Battier is one of the great athletic role models of the last decade. I know everyone loves to hate Duke hoops but if you’re looking for a super-intelligent-team-before-me-leave-it-all-on-the-floor pro athlete to root for, look no further than Shane Battier.

Needless to say, my writing skills are over-matched by Lewis’ so instead of summarizing, I’ll post a few lines from the article about Battier (I can’t help myself), several of which are quotes from Rockets GM Daryl Morey:

First, from Basketball writer Dan Wetzel: “I’d covered high-school basketball for eight years and talked to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds

Battier and Coach K

Battier and Coach K

of kids — really every single prominent high-school basketball player in the country,” Wetzel says. “There’s this public perception that they’re all thugs. But they aren’t. A lot of them are really good guys, and some of them are very, very bright. Kobe’s very bright. LeBron’s very bright. But there’s absolutely never been anything like Shane Battier.”

“This year,” Morey says, “we have been a championship team with him and a bubble playoff team without him.” Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.

Morey says, “When he’s on the court, all the pieces start to fit together. And everything that leads to winning that you can get to through intellect instead of innate ability, Shane excels in. I’ll bet he’s in the hundredth percentile of every category.”

Last season when the Rockets played the San Antonio Spurs, Battier was assigned to guard their most dangerous scorer, Manu Ginóbili. Ginóbili comes off the bench, however, and his minutes are not in sync with the minutes of a starter like Battier. Battier privately went to Coach Rick Adelman and told him to bench him and bring him in when Ginóbili entered the game. “No one in the N.B.A. does that,” Morey says. “No one says put me on the bench so I can guard their best scorer all the time.”



February 19, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by Ted Sullivan | Leave a comment

Thoughts from DC on January 20, 2009

 

ncb_ap_unc_obama_3001

Obama takes it to the Tar Heels

I’m writing from a Starbucks in Washington DC’s Tenlytown, about an hour or so before heading downtown to catch some of the inauguration festivities. This isn’t a political blog and I have no expertise in that area however as a former athlete I know that a little momentum, enthusiasm and confidence can go a long way. The energy here in DC is pretty remarkable — it’s like the entire city is hopped-up on performance enhancing drugs. Exciting times. I hope everyone enjoys this historic day.

January 20, 2009 Posted by | written by Ted Sullivan | 1 Comment

The Impact of Recession

Most of the writers on this blog make their living through the business of youth and high school sports. While the “business” side isn’t the primary motivator for any of us, it does put food on the table so we are very aware of the economic environment and it’s impact on our respective companies.


For several months now we have been swamped with news of the [insert your oft cliché here] global financial crisis. It isn’t pretty. I don’t work in finance but I’ve had a unique perspective since I live in Lower Manhattan and could hit a fungo to Wall Street from the roof of my apartment building. If you hang out in my neighborhood at around 6pm on a weekday you’ll see bankers and traders headed to the subway looking like they just got sent to the showers after giving up seven runs on twelve hits in one and a third innings. I wish I could say I don’t know how that feels.

 

 

President Herbert Hoover, throwing out the first pitch for a Senators-Athletics game in 1931, was often showered with boos.

President Herbert Hoover, throwing out the first pitch for a Senators-Athletics game in 1931, was often showered with boos.

The media coverage has been comprehensive to say the least. The perspective of every industry has been taken — housing, auto, finance, education, retail, etc. — and the numbers are staggering. The NY Times recently ran a piece by Ken Belson about baseball in the depression era . It’s worth reading, especially for the sports history buffs out there. Both the optimistic and the pessimistic viewpoints are taken — the former highlighted by the Yankees free agent singings (“CC” is apparently short for cha-ching) and the latter by the now familiar saying of “we haven’t seen anything quite like this.” The impact on pro sports has been covered in that piece and others. But what about youth and high school sports?

 

My initial reaction is that youth sports – and really any spending around kids and their development is relatively recession proof. (By relatively I mean that I expect that these expenses will be cut last).  In addition I feel like recessions encourage a re-concentration on family values. Lastly, I think that youth sports instruction has some expensive competitors – namely, video games and vacations – that may get cut from the budget before a parent decides not to have their child take an after-school hitting lesson or go to an additional week of summer camp.

 

These are all hunches so I decided to reach out to my fellow bloggers to see what’s happening in the business of youth and high school coaching. A few noteworthy replies from three coaches in three very different parts of the world:

Tal Alter wrote from South Africa regarding the impact on non-profits:

In the short term, it’s not helping us. We have had to cut our budget for the remainder of the fiscal year by 25%, which means that we are essentially cutting the size of our program in half – reaching half the number of kids we were planning on reaching.

Much of the sports-based youth development world (non-profits, specifically) relied heavily on the US financial firms for funding. Their downfall has meant that pledges are going unmet and funds that were budgeted for prior to the fiscal year will not be coming in, as people on Wall Street have either retreated inside their shells until things improve or actually don’t have the money that they would have contributed otherwise.

In the long-term, the bright side is that it forces the organization to look at local sustainability more closely so that each of our sites is more responsible for raising the money to fund their specific program with primarily logistical support from the U.S.

 

Dan Spring coaches on the opposite side of the world (literally and figuratively) in Orange County, California. His response:

“Knock on wood, I’ve seen no signs of Spring Training slowing down due to the economy.  I had a waitlist at winter break camp last weekend and already have more lesson requests than I can handle. I should qualify that statement by reminding you that my fields are in once of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country.

 

My predictions: 1) the first product that parents will cut back on is lessons. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m definitely prepared in case it happens.  2) Summer camp attendance will be UP.  Instead of spending $10k for a week in Hawaii, families out here will stay home and send their kids to camp for a few hundred bucks.  For families that still have disposable income in June ’09, $300 bucks for 30 hours of camp seems like a pretty good deal (I’m fairly certain you can’t get a high school kid to babysit your kids for less than that).

 

My concern for families not in the top 1% of the tax bracket is that video game play, etc will actually rise.  Compared with quality afterschool programs, private lessons, tutors, piano lessons, etc that run in the neighborhood of $40-$100 an hour, one $60 copy of Guitar Hero has the ability to keep their kids occupied for weeks and months on end (until they get sick of the game in which case another $60 bucks buys another few months of “babysitting).

 

Interesting stuff. I also got some comments from Matt Whiteside regarding the impact on his All-Star Performance business in St. Louis, MO:

 

I have seen a slight downturn in cage rentals in the months of November and December.  However, January is getting packed.  If two pitching instructors( yours truly is one) doing 90 -100, 20 minute lessons over a 5 day span a week, with waiting lists for both, and hitting instructors rather full as well, is any indication, lessons have remained steady.  I have had this conversation with a few people, and the comment is always the same.  Your kids betterment/interests are the last thing people cut back on. 

 

I have reached out lately to youth organizations/leagues lately, and am doing a series of free coaching clinics on pitching, hitting, fielding, and how to run a team practice, to get people in the door.  Then we hand them a coupon with discounts on cage rentals to get them back in.  It could be that this is the indoor time of year,or maybe this actually is helping, but we have had several new clients recently…..

 

In regards to our Gamers (travel team) program, 160 families, our final installment for the year was due January 15th, we extended an offer to pay the last $500 on February 15th to try to help out…..currently we are close to having 100% paid in full….we have 10 players on full scholarship that we raise/generate funds to cover their costs.  These families were targeted for this prior to the tryouts in August though…..

 

This isn’t the whole story but it’s a broad perspective – and a global one at that. The market may be struggling on Wall Street, but pitchers and catchers are still reporting in Florida and Arizona next month. Mom and Dad: if you do go on vacation, take your kids to catch some Grapefruit or Cactus League action. 

January 20, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by Ted Sullivan | 1 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