On August 20, Major League Baseball conducted what might be one of its greatest innovations of the Manfred Era: The Little League Classic between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals. The game was a rousing success both on the field and in theory: so many of us formed an attachment to the game at an early age, by playing on dusty infields and uneven grass ourselves. It’s good to see the sport work to rekindle that spirit in another generation.
Today is a holiday for the Baseball Prospectus staff, but if you’re here for some light reading, we’d like to share some of our own experiences from Little League. Some of them are funny, some of them are tragic, but all of them helped make us the writers we are, and hopefully you’ll find something of your own love of baseball in them as well. We hope you enjoy.
The Hidden Game
I never understood why the coach benched me so often. I considered myself a valuable role player, an exemplar of hustle and focus and teamwork. In reality, I was just six inches and twenty pounds short of any other kid on the team, with a career batting average identical to my slugging percentage. So I wandered the field like a ronin, covering wherever some other kid was sick that day, playing the mandated three-innings-out-of-six, batting ninth.
One day in 1989, my final season, our coach was out helping his younger son’s team, and some random dad took his place. We warmed up lazily in the field, tossing sixty-foot lobs, chasing after the ones that rolled away, cursing and apologizing. Finally we were called over for the pregame speech. Allowing the crowd to thin, I checked the lineup card – my name wasn’t there. The bench – not there either. I felt an eleven-year-old temper rise within me. I tracked down the nameless substitute. “My name isn’t even on the card! What gives?”
“Sure it is,” he said, not even turning around.
I went and looked again. No, it wasn’t. Wait.
“Why… am I batting leadoff?” I asked.
“Because you get on base more than anyone on the team.”
I thought about it. I did tend to walk on four pitches a lot. I’d essentially given up even trying to hit. I just wanted to get a chance to steal bases, to hear the beautiful slap of the ball as it flew past the catcher and struck the wooden backstop, the starter pistol I loved so much. Suddenly, more than a decade ahead of Moneyball, it all clicked.
I played all six innings that day, and went 0-0 at the plate.
The Girl on the Other Team
I was nine years old, sitting in the left-field bleachers, waiting for the first pitch of my 13-year-old brother’s provincial championship qualifier. The parents who surrounded me were even more tense than usual. They observed the other team taking the field, ready to jump on any visible weaknesses.
It didn’t take long for them to find one. My dad, sharp-eyed, noticed first. He pointed at the player jogging out to right field. “Look,” he told the other parents with derisive glee. “That team has a girl.”
The parents chattered, but I wasn’t listening. I was focusing as hard as I could on the distant right fielder, trying to see if what my dad said was true. When the right fielder turned to receive a ball from the dugout, I could make out a long golden ponytail, glittering in the late afternoon sun.
I had never seen a girl on a baseball team before. I thought it wasn’t allowed.
Later I watched the girl on the other team as she fielded a line drive on a bounce and fired to second. The ball landed perfectly in the second baseman’s glove; the runner was out, and the inning was over. The other team won.
The girl ran in from the outfield, yelling and jumping around with her teammates in celebration – a baseball player on a baseball team going to Provincials. I thought about my softball team, where we didn’t even wear real baseball hats, only annoying visors that always fell off. I was nine years old, and I could throw as hard as my brother could. I wanted to be a pitcher like Roy Halladay.
My eyes filled with tears. I blinked them back angrily. Roy Halladay wouldn’t cry about something so stupid. But then again, Roy Halladay wasn’t a girl.
My Heads-Up Play
I was eight or nine. I’m pretty sure I was “playing” pitcher but merely as a defender; this was a level where either the coach or a machine was actually delivering the pitches. As a left-handed thrower, they didn’t put anywhere on the infield and I wasn’t good enough to play first base, where you had to catch on every play. Man, that was the hardest spot to play.
I recall a runner on second, and a ball hit… somewhere (the details are foggy to me). Maybe to me, maybe to the outfield. But one way or another, at some point the ball came to me. I remember someone saying “go to third,” which could have been me saying Matt, throw the ball to third base, but probably was the other coach telling the runner to go to third. The sentence could have used a subject. It’s also entirely possible nobody told me to do this, and I was just going for a superior play to throw everyone off. Baseball is misdirection.
I was probably ten feet from third when I threw it to the guy on third. The guy on third was the baserunner for the other team. The ball hit him in the face. He cried, and one of my teammates gave me a high five.
I think I mostly played outfield after that.
The Eephus: A Morality Tale
Baseball blowouts have a tendency to drag on and, in a time before Little League’s higher levels instituted the 10-run rule, the score was Evergreen Lumber 38, Midas Muffler 3. With a score like that, it was time to start mixing things up, and that is how at age 11, I, a Lumber, found myself on a pitcher’s mound for the first time in my life.
We were embarrassing, really. While there are plenty of feel-good stories every year about Little Leaguers modeling the perfection of our sportsmanship ideals, we were not that story. We were kids, many of us from very poor and underprivileged backgrounds, who through good fortune and some incredibly sad and small Little League backroom politics, allocated about 85% of our community’s athletic talent into a single team. We were unstoppable, and we knew it.
To honor our festive mood, I treated the opportunity of pitching as a jester would a merry court. I threw knuckleballs, attempted split-fingers, practiced my Luis Tiant-full hip turn, and then, at long last, I pushed it too far. I wound up, stopped halfway through my windup, and tossed the highest, fattest, most comical eephus you’ve ever seen in your life.
The ball didn’t actually float, of course. But there was a moment where it seemed to fully disengage from physics, and hover 15 feet or so above the earth. When gravity returned, it brought with it a loud string of curse words. The indignities of the afternoon had finally broken the other team’s manager, and he let me have it. I absorbed the verbal lashing, and quickly struck out the next two batters. I didn’t make it to the dugout before I started to cry.
Sports teach you lessons, one way or another.
26 August 2000
Our first trial as Lycoming College students lay in picking a freshman orientation service project. My choice: helping out the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program at the Little League World Series final.
To be sure, we didn’t have tickets to sit inside the stadium, but the field complex includes a broad, grassy hill above the outfield confines of Howard J. Lamade Stadium. That hill held us—a busload of college students and local elementary school children—and hundreds of other viewers while bright-shirted boys from Bellaire, Texas and Maracaibo, Venezuela faced each other for the title.
Another singularly tinted mannequin lingers in memory: Kevin Costner, wearing white, standing on the mound. From our distant perch, he was a stick of chalk in a late-summer snowglobe shaken with napkin scraps and fistfuls of grass. Photos I’ve stashed in a box somewhere capture it, the star of the then-new For Love of the Game throwing out the first pitch.
For Love of the Game is a film about sacrifice and choices, cliched in its baseball tropes and Costner-ness but smacking still of the stuff of adulthood. With ESPN cameras hovering around the pre-teens on the field, some of that weight must have hung in the air—or I was just an eighteen-year-old staring down nearly a decade more of school that I would take too seriously in every way except the one that mattered.
In the next moment, though, the most coveted items on the hill were not binoculars or cold sodas or official merchandise, but pieces of cardboard torn from empty twelve-packs to become swift sleds. With a little girl I’d just met, I slid down a day all dust and grass-stains, cheering just to cheer with the stadium crowd. Venezuela won.
It was my last season of Little League. I could see the writing on the wall.
Things had gotten worse in the last year or so. If I wasn’t striking out, I was providing remedial infield practice. I loved baseball, but it was a sign when I broke my left hand in two places just as the season got started. I waited out the season as an “assistant coach” (read: scorekeeper) during my team’s games. (At least I was good at that.) The season flew by and suddenly, I had my cast removed just in time for my final game.
The return game was special. I batted fifth–a spot where good hitters hit, higher than I’d ever batted before. I felt compelled to have one good hit. It might be my last. It might be my first.
First pitch, swing and miss. Overmatched by a fastball. (Again.) But I didn’t give up hope. This would be it. I had to do it. When the second pitch came, I geared up, gripped the bat tight, and swung with everything I had. There was an unfamiliar crack …
… I had re-broken one of the metatarsals in my left hand.
My hand throbbed, but I refused to abandon the at-bat. I held the bat up in one-and-a-half hands and squinted toward the mound, envisioning my success, prewriting the end of my story. The pitcher delivered. I swung, and the bat delivered its own interpretation of the tale as it waved weakly at strike three.
In my baseball salad days, I was a pitcher, third baseman, and occasional right fielderâ€•wherever the arm was highlighted, but the overall roundness and inability to run very fast was hidden, that was my spot on the field. (I also had solid power and good patience; think right-handed Shin-Soo Choo, maybe?) Because I was not destined for greatness, however, my throwing was not precisely Madduxesque; on the mound, I racked up strikeouts, but I was also no stranger to walks, HBPs, and wild pitches.
So, naturally, once, when I was about 11, I plunked a kid right in the middle of his back. He hit the deck and writhed in pain for a long time, almost an absurd amount of time. I was concerned for approximately as long as it took to be clear the batter was hurt but not injured. After that, my main feelings were annoyance at having to pitch out of the stretch and an unfortunate amount of pride that my fastball was potent enough to be feared. I was an overly analytical child, but this pride had nothing to do with future success on the mound, keeping hitters uncomfortable, that whole notion. This was deeper, older, baser.
I'd like to say I've excised that pride in my adulthood.
The Learning Experience
When I was eight Dad helmed my baseball team, a catastrophe of dopes unable to do… well, anything, let alone play baseball. It was the lone year he head coached, always preferring assistant, where his tactical acumen, Emansky-esque drills, and encouragement could flourish. But a coaching shortage called, so after work he babysat 21 bat-wielding eight-year-olds.
Twenty-one. Ten play at a time, so do the math. By nature, kids with lesser talent around the league self-selected themselves off the roster, making room for the five-tool studs to play all game. Logically, psychopathic coaches distributing playing time to expedite the process.
Not our coach. He made clear we’d all play equally. Wins? Superfluous. He’d do his best, and it would be theoretically fun, or at least not make us all hate baseball. And so it was.
We were awful. We never won. We didn’t care.
Not a single one of our 21 goofs quit. Even the broken-arm kid stuck around as bench coach, while our opponents finished with nine to twelve mashers. Dad actually coached, stopping games to help with a swing, recruiting help to provide more focused attention, psyching us up before each pounding. After our final drubbing I distinctly remember parents from the other team telling Dad they wished their kid, trophy in hand, had been on our team.
My dad worked on the farm as a kid—all summer, every summer. He never had a baseball team or coach (I’ve never figured out how he learned the game). But what really amazes me 30 years later is that he didn’t just give his son an experience he never had himself, he also gave it to 20 other kids. How lucky were we to have that coach? How lucky am I to still have him?
The Turning Point
In the version of this story that I tell people now, there’s always a small rock or a twig sitting on the path of the baseball that caused it to roll non-threateningly through the infield grass and then suddenly careen upward to that perilous region just below my midsection.
When the ball hit me, I forgot about the play. I have faint memory of attempting at least to fling it to second baseman, but not so much in an effort to get a runner out: It was really an act of distancing the weaponized baseball from myself and hopefully diverting the attention of the small crowd of the neighborhood moms who were rising out of their seats in mild concern.
But there was no rock or even a bit of a twig to blame it on. The grass on my Little League field in Gladwin, Michigan was pristine. I was just a bad shortstop.
I didn’t know it then, but this would mark the gradual end of my baseball career. I didn’t finish that game, and I was moved to the outfield by the end of the season. I had been thrilled to earn the prestige of playing middle infield early that spring, and until this play, I had done a decent job of it. But after, every ground ball was only a harbinger of coming harm, and I’d stand out of my fielder’s stance too early and let the ball scoot through my legs. When this continued even after my demotion to right field, I was slowly sentenced to only watching and writing about baseball.
I joke sometimes with people that breaking pitches did me in, but I couldn’t hit the fastballs coming from my fellow 12-year-olds. Once I’d caught the ground ball yips, it was over.
The Bad News Yanks
As a “boisterous” child, my parents (skeptically) let me play only one season of Little League baseball, but oh, what a season. With the hubris only an 11 year old can muster, I tried out for the "majors”, thinking gumption and 3 weeks in the batting cages would let me compete with the privately-coached.
Instead, I ended up on the "minors" Yankees, a group "ragtag" puts too lightly. An obligatory short kid. The coach's son. My buddy John used his bulk to emulate Babe Ruth, swinging like he'd stepped off a newsreel. Our star pitcher's parents were Japanese, which was why he was our Hideo Nomo, tornado wind-up and all. A British kid, Alex, had never played baseball and was frankly befuddled by the bulky glove. And there I was, a hothead Mike Schmidt wannabe who kept overthrowing first base.
Pulled from a “Bad News Bears” remake, we certainly needed some practice. Who knew Ruthian swings don't play well when you think everything's a strike? Somehow, without so much as a montage, we battled into the top third halfway through.
A surprise win over our hated rivals put us into the playoffs. And there, it all clicked. John sent long balls towards the snack bar. Mini-Nomo spun strike after strike. Alex became a damn good corner outfielder. I started hitting oppo. I don't quite remember who we beat for the championship, but I do remember running to the mound deliriously happy. That abandon, that bliss is the feeling I reach for every time I think about baseball. My plastic trophy sits in my mother's house, but my real trophy stays with me:
Thank you, Coach Teti. Thank you, 1998 Yankees. Thank you, baseball.
The Death Knell
Recently, Jack Regenye stunned the internet by making a sparkling, tumbling-over-the-fence catch at the Little League World Series. I couldn’t help but think of the (possibly) worst play of my admittedly inauspicious Little League career.
At age eight, I didn’t expect the ball to reach me all the way out in left field; most kids in our league didn’t have that sort of power. I felt like I was a million miles away from home plate. I was paying attention, though. I watched the ball the big kid hit in my direction. I could see it would be over my head, way over my head. Some time before this play, I had seen a major leaguer on TV recognize a long home run and just turn and watch. It seemed so adult, so cool.
It didn’t look nearly as cool when I did it. Particularly when the ball hit the metal 7-Up sign on the fence, with a loud clang that alerted everyone in the complex to my failure. Now I had to chug after the ball like an idiot, while (whether real or imagined, I don’t know) coaches, teammates, and my parents hollered at me to pay attention. Which I was!
I don’t remember the details of the play, if the batter circled the bases or not, only the ringing of steel. I do remember the lessons learned from that play, though: Always hustle, and if you’re not worried about looking cool on the field, you might actually do something cool. Just like Jack Regenye. That’s what Little League is for, right?
A Brief Education
During my final season of middle school baseball, I was the starting catcher for the team. One afternoon, we were up big against one of our rival schools, so the coach decided to make a pitching change in the final inning, and get one of our little-used relievers some work. I remained behind the plate to help him through his rare inning of work.
He must have had some nerves because the first batter walked on four pitches, none particularly close to the plate. As I crouched down for the next better, I notice my pitcher is about to pitch from the windup. Quickly, I called time and yelled out to him to pitch from the stretch.
It took all my acting skills to prevent myself from laughing when he interpreted my instructions and started to stretch out on the mound. Mind you, this kid said he pitched before in other town leagues. So I went out the mound and, in full catching gear, demonstrate how to set up to pitch from the stretch. He threw one pitch like that and it went to the backstop. I went back out and told him to go back to the windup.
That Darn Visor
It’s that darn visor, I often told myself. Without it, I would be a world-class athlete, or at least not a total failure.
The truth is, I was not—am not—a particularly gifted athlete, lacking hand-eye coordination and boasting an abysmal reaction time. In tee-ball, even amongst a plethora of lost, absentminded creatures, I stood out as the most inept. And so my baseball aspirations came to a screeching halt before they even began.
The years came and went, displaying more grace in their passing than I ever did on the diamond. I turned five, six, seven, eight, nine, and replaced baseball with the sport of avoiding playing it at all costs. But then my friend’s father became a softball coach and they needed people to fill out the roster, and I once again stood face-to-face with my nemesis, who, unbeknownst to me, had become infinitely crueler.
From the moment I put on the uniform for the first time, I knew no joy would come from this experience. The whole of it was far too large; the shirt drowned me in polyester, and the thick elastic waistband of the pants simultaneously dug into my skin and far too easily gave way to gravity. And then there was the visor. The velcro tangled in my hair and clawed at my scalp, and it routinely slipped down my forehead, resting atop my large, round glasses, obscuring my already poor vision.
My lack of athleticism, compounded by that visor, was quickly detected, and my playing time dwindled accordingly. I spent most games sitting on the bench, kicking dirt with my sneaker and pushing my glasses back up the bridge of my nose. I have no strong memories of at-bats or putouts or steals, all of which have long been obscured by that. darn. visor.
And Then They Were Hung Up
I had read Moneyball. Walks are good, I kept repeating myself. My coach ordered me to bunt and use my speed. But I knew better. I was going to walk and become the on-base king of my baseball league. No matter what, I wouldn’t swing if I could help it. Mauer rarely swung and he walked a lot. I was going to be like Mauer.
But even when that strategy failed, even when the pitches came straight down the middle. I could never swing. I got too much into my head. Swinging was bad. The bat never left my shoulder – unless it was during batting practice.
I never swung again.
Over the drive home, I began to analyze what had happened to me. It wasn’t a failure at the plate or being afraid of the ball. Success and failure are natural within the diamond. What happened to me was that I failed mentally. My mind refused to quiet when standing with the bat over my shoulder. Walks are good, I kept saying – so good that you should never, ever swing.
I realized that I had misread the book that inspired me to get more into stats, and in turn secured my doom as a player. I had acquired paralysis by analysis.
I got home and hung up my cleats, trading the field for the sideline. The choice wasn’t really a choice at all. I started digging through stats and analyzing the sport, ensuring my introduction to writing about baseball.