- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

The local Boys and Girls Club had its recruiting pitch down to a science last year when I signed up Sean for T-ball. On registration night, the sign-up clipboard had a piece of paper next to it that read: "If you can help coach, please sign here."

I thought to myself, "Sure, I can help coach. I'd love to help coach." In fact, I wanted to help coach. I knew Sean was bound to be a bit nervous and reserved, and this was his first experience playing in an organized league, so I wanted to be there with him and for him as much as possible.

Plus, I told myself, the league certainly would be able to find its share of suckers and chumps to actually coach the little varmints, right? I mean, there must be a legion of qualified, experienced coaches who have taken all the training classes and watched all the "Joe Torre's 'Coaching T-ball the Easy Way'" videos, right?

Veteran children's league coaches probably are chuckling right now as they read of another parent falling for the old "help wanted" trap.

"Honey, look at this," they're saying to their spouses right now, I'll bet, over the Sunday breakfast table. "This Stewart guy fell for that word 'help' too, just like I did. I wonder if he got the rustproofing and undercoating package on the last car he bought, too."

Yes, you can fill in the blanks, too. Sucker, thy name is Mark Stewart, head coach of Team A in our local recreation council T-ball league. Or just call me Parent No. 4,336,839 over the past 20 years who apparently read way too much into the simple word "help," as in I'm quoting from Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, here "to make things easier or better for [a person]; aid, assist to do part of the work of, ease or share the labor of " (emphasis mine).

Yes, I had big plans for my weekends last summer, and all of them revolved around playing for The Washington Times softball team in the mornings and relaxing in the afternoons. None of them involved trying to train a group of 4- and 5-year-olds with the attention spans of butterflies to stand in a field and watch other little 4- and 5-year-olds try to hit a baseball off a tee. I had never coached little children before. I had had no desire to coach little children before.

And I didn't even drink like Walter Matthau did to get himself through the first "Bad News Bears" movie, although when I opened that first manila envelope from the league and saw my name listed as a head coach, I seriously considered taking it up.

By the time the season ended, though, I found myself enjoying the Saturday morning outings and my team. The parents were enthusiastic, the players enjoyed swinging and running the bases even the two girls on my roster. Sean had a blast, even though he seldom hit the ball more than 10 or 12 feet. I think he just enjoyed being part of a team and wearing the same shirt and hat as everyone else. Of course, it didn't hurt that Daddy was in charge.

I was pretty sure I wanted to coach again this year, as Sean wasn't quite old enough to move on to the next level, coach-pitch. That feeling was reaffirmed by various friends of mine approaching me at church, saying, "I heard you were going to coach T-ball this year. Is that true? Danny's never played before, and we'd really like to have someone familiar working with him." "Are you coaching T-ball this year? David wants to play, and we'd like him to play with Sean if possible." "Hey, I heard you're coaching T-ball this year "

So there I stood on Opening Day, an entire season under my belt, confident that this year, now that I knew what I was doing, I would be able to pass on some basic skills and techniques to my team, even if all I could do was get them to throw the ball to first base when someone hit it.

We had a somewhat older team than we had last year. Sean had actually played a year, so he knew what to expect, and we had a couple of players who seemed to have some genuine talent, especially Thomas, our man-child kindergartner who could be gracing a "SportsCenter" television screen near you in about 15 years.

We batted first, so I sent Nathan, our youngest player and one of the smallest, to bat first. The rest of the team sat in a row along the first-base line, chattering like jaybirds.

Nathan cocked his bat and swung mightily. The ball plopped off the tee and rolled about 10 feet. A couple of players on the other team raced in to field it, but they were beaten handily by about half of my team, which descended on the ball like vultures on a fallen wildebeest in a Discovery Channel documentary.

"No," I yelled, my face almost certainly turning a nice tomato red. "We're the batters. They're the fielders. Don't touch the ball."

I got my players back to the sidelines and seated again. Batter No. 2 went up to the plate, swung mightily and hit the ball about 15 feet. Two or three of my players still couldn't resist running onto the field to grab it. I slapped my forehead, picturing the Coach of the Year award sprouting wings and flying away.

We managed to get through the inning and took our places in the field. Here, I thought confidently, all my coaching and teaching during our practices would pay off. There would be no dogpiles or rugby scrums around every ground ball. We might not make any throws to first, or even close to first, but by golly, we would look better than we did last year.

The other team's leadoff hitter grounded to short. Quick as a flash, three of my players pounced on the ball. One of them began to hold it up, only to have it knocked out of his hand by a fourth player, who had just arrived. The ball squirted a few feet away, and two more players dove on it. Finally, one of them was able to stand up with it and fire it in the general direction of first base. The ball landed about 20 feet away from the bag, where another player picked it up and completed the throw. It rolled the last 10 feet to first base before our first baseman picked it up.

We just missed getting the runner out by, oh, 35 or 40 seconds.

The game, like most games in this particular league, lasted only two innings, and by the end, I swear we had our throws to first base down to 30 seconds. That actually was not bad, because several of the other team's batters and some of ours seemed to have trouble finding first base. Their runs to first base looked like some of those "Family Circus" cartoons that follow Billy on a zigzagging, meandering dotted line across the town or the neighborhood.

But nobody keeps score or stats in T-ball; we don't even keep track of outs not that I expect too many to be accomplished this season, anyway. And so what if I don't win Coach of the Year? Sean couldn't wait to get back on the field, and when we got there the next week for game two, one of my players ran up to me, threw his arms around my legs and said, "Coach You came back; you came back."

Of course. There's no place I would have rather been.

Mark Stewart, a free-lance writer, is the stay-at-home dad of two boys, Sean and Jeremy.


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