A lousy youth baseball player finds himself as a cheerleading teeball coach
I have no business being a coach. I was never much of an athlete. I have no sporting skills to impart. And yet, I earned the title of Coach Ludwig by volunteering to lead a dozen kindergarteners onto the teeball field.
To make matters worse, baseball is my worst sport. I can’t even do that thing where the coach throws the ball up to himself/herself and hits it to various position players. I’m also a terrible judge of pop-ups, and I make a fool of myself in a batting cage.
Still, a gaggle of 5- and 6-year-old kids look to me for instruction on America’s pastime. I’m not totally incompetent. I know the basics of a force out, foul ball and whatnot. And my meager skills are still better than that of a kindergartener.
I hoped to hide my ineptitude by drafting players with dads willing to help coach. This strategy worked. I’ve yet to coach a game without at least two assistants. These guys make a world of difference, bringing the coach-to-kindergartener ratio to a manageable number.
I was also fortunate to get my favorite MLB team – The Chicago White Sox – as my team name. I held two practices before our first game. The White Sox Teeballers are now in the middle of our season. And to my surprise, we are pretty good.
Now, there are no outs in teeball and nobody keeps score. We play three innings. Every batter hits a home run in the last inning. So, there’s no way to judge a team based on wins, losses or batting average.
But some teams stand out as more organized than others. Every team has a few players who’d rather make dirt castles than pay attention. And most teams have one or two naturals who instinctively dig into the batter’s box before taking a textbook swing.
It’s getting those kids who are only mildly interested to pay attention that’s the key. And what I’ve learned is that connecting with these boys and girls has nothing to do with being able to hit a fastball or judge a pop-up. It has everything to do with attitude.
I’m really more of a cheerleader than a coach. Every time the ball is put into play I frantically call out instructions, while publicly and privately doling out praise. Here’s an example my coaching style from the infield:
“Be ready, White Sox!”
“Stand up, Bubba Ludwig. Baseball ready! Here we go.”
(The opposing player hits a slow grounder to the shortstop.)
“OK, Jack get the ball and throw it to Andi!”
(The ball rolls between Jack’s legs. He runs to fetch it and throws the ball to 1st base, missing the pitcher’s head by inches. Andi is standing at first base. She misses the ball and runs to fetch it.)
“OK, now step on 1st base, Andi and throw it to Danny.”
(Andi tags the base and throws the ball to the catcher. The ball rolls past him. He picks it up and places it on the tee for the next batter.)
“OK. Good fielding White Sox. Way to pay attention, Jack.”
(I then walk over to Andi, tap her on the head and tell her good job for stepping on 1st base before throwing the ball home. The runner was safe by a mile, and nobody even caught a ball. That really doesn’t matter.)
And that’s how it goes in some variation for all 12 opposing batters. When it’s our turn to hit, one of the assistants helps the player in the batter’s box. I’m the first base coach. My job is to cheerlead the runners around the bases.
Between innings of a recent game, one of those mildly interested kids came up to me and hugged my legs.
“I’m so happy you’re my coach,” she said.
Never thought I’d hear that. It felt great, like hitting a home run… not that I know what that feels like.
Howard Ludwig is a former business writer who traded his reporter’s notebook for a diaper bag, becoming a stay-at-home dad.