Ahead in the Count

City Ball

I grew up in upper Manhattan – and was lucky to be exposed to baseball early in life despite the urban setting.  The West Side Little League was established in 1985.  I joined up the following April, at age 8.  The same year, I was fortunate that my parents sent me to what-was-then a brand new baseball camp during the summers where I was taught the game, albeit on the shaved infields of Central Park.  Had I been five years older than I am, I wouldn’t have had the chance to play baseball until High School (my junior high school had no baseball team).

I now live in downtown DC, a few blocks away from Banneker Public High School.  Washington DC’s Mayor Adrian Fenty (whose twin boys are both young baseball players themselves) has made restoration of parks and athletic fields in DC’s urban center a priority.  Banneker HS has been a flagship example on this initiative – and now sports ten beautiful tennis courts, a top notch quarter-mile track, and a college-quality baseball diamond at the center of it all (by far the nicest yard in the District save for Nats Park).

After work tonight, I went over to Banneker to run on the track – and a game between Coolidge and Cardozo (both public High Schools in DC) was just starting.  The players were enthusiastic, energetic, and ready to play.  Unfortunately, the baseball was not very good (at all).  There were good athletes all over the field – but a lack of know-how really impedes the players’ ability to enjoy and excel at the game.

The home team’s pitcher provided a great example of the need for earlier exposure to baseball in cities.  The pitcher, a righty, had a very low elbow, derived very little power from his back side, and stepped way too far toward the first base dugout in his delivery.  Despite these significant flaws, the ball still left the young man’s hand with some good velocity, probably 80 mph.   Sadly, the pitcher left the game in the third innings, despite having given up only two runs… holding his right elbow.  He was clearly dismayed at the pain, and was frustrated because he didn’t know why it was happening.  If I were him, I’d rather play another sport too.

Based on what I saw at Banneker’s Field today, there is no shortage of enthusiasm for baseball in downtown DC (and presumably other cities).  But without early exposure to baseball  and its fundamentals, it will continue to be an uphill battle to make that enthusiasm stick.  I hope DC’s new jewel at Banneker High School will help.

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May 18, 2009 Posted by | Overview / Background, Uncategorized, written by John Bramlette | , | 1 Comment

Peace Players: Belfast

All:

Check out this great piece from The Today Show on Peace Players International: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/29737385#29737385

Tal, I speak for all of us when I say how special and important your organization’s work is.   Keep up the great work, and we’re excited to have you back stateside very soon.

JB

March 18, 2009 Posted by | Sports Around the World, written by John Bramlette | Leave a comment

Spring. Finally.

It’s been a long winter.  With the arrival of spring training, decent weather here in DC (until Friday at least)March Madness, the World Baseball Classic, and collegiate baseball – we can finally leave behind a winter of news about contract disputes and performance-enhancing drugs.  During this time of year, most of us find ourselves looking forward to what’s on the horizon for the coming spring and summer.  To indulge my own exuberance at the beginning of the college baseball season, I decided to follow my Alma Mater down to Atlanta, Georgia, where the Haverford played the Emory University Eagles in their season opener.  Not only was I treated to one of the best college baseball games I’ve ever seen, I was not-so-subtly reminded of why we do what we do.

The weather was perfect; the grass was short; the facility at Emory was beautiful; and Emory beat Haverford 3-2… in sixteen innings.  This four-hour plus affair featured numerous close calls, tag plays at home plate and great defense (only two total errors by both teams) by two well-coached Division III teams getting after it.  Needless to say, all of the 100 or so folks in attendance left the field with a feeling that they had watched a great game and that both teams have reasons to feel good about the coming season.  For me, however, I was able to take a lot of pride in fact that nearly forty percent of the players in uniform had once attended Headfirst Honor Roll Camp.

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Headfirst Honor Roll Camp is a national baseball showcase for true “student-athletes.”  At Honor Roll Camp, we as a staff have one mission: providing a forum for highly motivated student-athletes and college coaches to interact and get to know one another as players and coaches.  To their credit, the coaches from Emory and Haverford (among many others) have been part of a nucleus that regularly attend Honor Roll Camp – a fact reflected by their rosters.  For me, it was exciting to see so many familiar faces living their dream of playing college ball at great schools. 

After the game, I had the opportunity to catch up with some former Headfirst Gamers and spoke briefly with the coaches from both teams.  After congratulating everyone on a great game, I told coaches from both staffs that we were looking forward to seeing them in June at this year’s first Honor Roll Camp in Dallas, Texas.  Walking off the field, I knew that spring was finally here – with summer and Honor Roll Camps soon to follow, where I hope to see each of this blog’s co-authors at one of the 2009 Honor Roll Camps (Springer?  Flikke?).  More than anything else about the coming summer, I look forward to being back on the field with hundreds of players who are intent on making the most of the vast opportunities in front of them. 

March 11, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, written by John Bramlette | 1 Comment

Larry Legend

NFL receivers catch a lot of flack, most of it rightfully so.  They demand the ball notwithstanding whether it is part of their team’s game plan.  They are sulky and divisive when they don’t get their touches.  They celebrate touchdowns (or even just first downs) with contrived, self-centered dances or gimmicks (although I must admit enjoying some of the more harmless, creative efforts on this front – not that a celebration’s humor makes it any less self-centered).  So while most NFL receivers don’t deserve the attention they so desperately seek, Larry Fitzgerald deserves the attention of all aspiring young athletes. 

For a couple of seasons, I’ve admired Larry Fitzgerald and how he plays the game.  Most receivers celebrate routine catches.  Larry does the opposite: he reacts to making incredible circus catches on a weekly basis with humility and indifference.  Do your job – and act like you’ve been there.  Fitzgerald’s touchdown celebration?  Flip the ball to the ref and either (1) run straight to the sideline (particularly if his team is still losing after the score) or (2) congratulate his teammates. 

Fitzgerald burst on the national scene last week when he scored 3 TDs in the first half of the NFC championship game.   That said, I thought that Larry’s best moments came in the fourth quarter, on two plays in particular where he never touched the ball.  With about four minutes to go and the Cardinals down by two, the Cardinals got a huge first down inside the Eagles twenty yard line.  Larry Fitzgerald was on the field, but they ball did not go his way.  Understanding the significance of the first down, Fitzgerald leaped in the air in a way usually reserved for eight-year-olds who win little league games.  His celebration was even more demonstrative a few plays later when teammate Tim Hightower scored the winning touchdown.  Despite the fact that he did not score, Larry exploded frantically into the air over and over again, jumping up and down with unadulterated excitement at the notion that his team was Super Bowl bound. 

That sort of legitimate, spontaneous excitement on the field was great to see, particularly from a superstar wide receiver.  Simply put, Larry Fitzgerald is a breath of fresh air in professional football.  His talent is now widely celebrated.  His attitude should be as well.

January 25, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by John Bramlette | 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

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

“I’ll get you another one.”

posted by John Bramlette

My friend, boss, and co-blog contributor, Brendan Sullivan told me that one of our younger Headfirst teams was developing into something special.  “Good players – very good culture” was the report I received.  So when this team was in the middle of a game as I was finishing a private lesson, I figured I’d watch an inning or two. 

It was immediately evident that our pitcher was cruising.  Like most successful pitchers, he was working quickly and throwing strikes.  With one out and a runner on first, the pitcher induced a routine ground ball right at the second baseman… who allowed the ball through his legs and into right field.  The game most have been close (I didn’t, and still don’t, know what the score was at the time) because the opposing team was energized, perhaps sensing their moment to finally get to the pitcher. 

As the other team’s voices rose, my eyes gravitated toward the pitcher to gauge his reaction.  Anyone who coaches youth sports braces for the worst when a player reacts to a teammate’s mistake: slumped shoulders, a hat or glove throw, a look at a coach to seeking validation that it “wasn’t my fault,” an F-Bomb, a verbal assault on a teammate.  What happened next in this particular case is the impetus for this post.

The pitcher, a youngster of twelve years old, calmly turned back to his second baseman, and said, “All good, bud.  I’ll get you another one.”  At no time in the six years I’ve been coaching have I been more impressed with the selflessness and maturity of a young athlete – or a team’s overall culture.  That moment epitomized all the reasons we coach and themes we try to instill: by caring about your teammates more than yourselves, you allow everyone to maximize both their enjoyment of team success and their own contributions to that end. 

Before the young man threw another pitch, I turned around to walk to my car, feeling good about how sports can build the character of young men and women.  As for this team, I had seen everything I needed to see.

November 17, 2008 Posted by | On the Field, written by John Bramlette | 1 Comment