Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Boys of Summer

The boys of summer and the game they play will soon fade into the history books like Ray Kisella's Shoeless Joe into an Iowa corn field.

In October baseball is about more than the oversized ego of Boston’s Manny Ramirez. It's about love, passion and the pursuit of perfection in a championship known as the World Series.
Even in its simplest form baseball is about hope and giving it your all. Baseball is about life’s lessons those learned and those yet to be learned and the greatest lesson of all is that anyone can over come the odds and be a winner.

And so it was a few years ago that I agreed to coach a little league baseball team. Sponsored by a local bank and named the Cubs this group of 10-12 year olds were the most pathetic looking bunch of baseball players I've ever seen.

Because the Cub’s coaches were not "in the loop" we simply got the leftovers when the season began. Star players in little league and long time coaches use a number of tricks to keep the good players together. Claims of "needs to car pool with Jimmy" who lives on the other side of town and "please be sure Addison is on the same team with Benjamin because they are twins separated at birth", are the norm, anything to keep the best players together.

The Cubs came to the Field of Dreams that first day of the season, but it soon became the Nightmare on Elm Street. You have your work cut out for you as a coach when the team's first game looks more like a blow out football game with a score of 48 to 3.

The second game wasn't any better, errors and a power hitter from the other team gave the Cub's another ugly score board.

And so the season went, loss after loss. There were signs of hope. All the players showed up and most fully dressed, except one boy who kept showing up in basketball shoes. It finally dawned on me that this was “Shoeless” Joe. I bought shoeless a pair of Nike baseball cleats and his Mom thanked me every game after that. But we kept losing.

The nice thing about little league is after about the tenth loss, the word gets out and the other coaches start to feel bad for you. Since there is no front office, you don't get a call saying pack your bags. It's worse, the other coaches start offering advice.

"Maybe you should start that number 6, he's pretty good" says one coach. "I can't he hates baseball" I explain.

"Your infield is too deep" They are not playing deep they are watching the cars go by.
"Don't any of your kids know how to slide?" They can slide they just don't want to get dirty, I offer.

About mid season, it hit me; the team I was coaching was a bunch of spastic idiots. They were all on some sort of sugar high, simply hyper driven cartoon characters trying to play baseball.

One kid couldn't run between the bases without falling down. Another was fascinated with airplanes, always looking skyward. We had a few Momma's boys, would leave the dugout to sit on mom's lap, criers and whiners and those who always wanted to be on the disabled list. What a mess.

At 0-12 I called a team meeting and jokingly asked if any of the parents had ever considered using Ritalin? Much to my shock every one of my 14 players were on some form of ADHD med.
What was happening was the team would go to school during the week and while on the drug they were fine as the day wore on the drug wore off. Practice was early in the afternoon was always pretty good, but games were either late in the evening or on Saturday after the drug had worn off.

This revelation came too late to do any good. The Cubs closed out the season 0-14. That's right we lost every game. Sure there were some high points our little third baseman Zack the smallest of our team tagged a big kid from behind while he was trying to steal home plate. He slamed him so hard he hit the dirt with a thud and bloodied his nose. The result was a bench clearing that made this coach proud.

The hidden ball trick worked a few times as well. But every game was the same the opposing team would pound ball after ball, runners would score because my Cub's couldn't catch a ball. Each game by the fifth inning we would finally get our act together but it was always too little and too late and the season ended in total defeat.

The post season would just be a formality one game and baseball would thankfully be over. I might have upset more than a few parents by calling a practice two hours before what I figured was to be our last game, but I wanted to make the most of the last game and take in the joy of baseball one last time.

The grass was cool and the sky clear as the Cub's took to the field for practice, before long they were playing like a team. The sounds of baseball filled the air and by the time the other team showed up the Cub's looked like pros.

From the first pitch and the yell of "Play Ball" the Cub's played a new kind of game and they did the unthinkable. They WON!


Fluke of the game?

Nope they were focused.

Without the Ritalin it took them about 40 mins of playing baseball to think baseball and not the cartoon network. About 40 mins to pry them away from Mom and Dad and siblings and to focus on playing like a team.

Met with a few complaints and excuses, I called another practice before the next game. 2 hours before. The parents were not happy. But game two the Cub's won 6-0.

To the surprise of everyone the Cub's extended their season by six games. As other teams lost they were eliminated. The last game, the one for the championship had the worst season record 0-14 Cubs playing the undefeated 14-0 plus six playoff wins Yankees. It wasn't going to be pretty even if the Cub's were on a winning streak because the other team was made up of the best players in the league. The Yankees were hand picked by coaches and parents to be the best and win it all.

I swear I saw some of the Yankee kids put car keys in their pockets as they walked to the field. From the crowded bleachers you couldn't help but notice that on average their players were six inches taller than ours. Their biggest kid was nearly twice the size of Zack our 3rd base tree stump.

The Yankees batted first and put 2 runs on the board. We were down with 2 outs when our weakest hitter smacked a line drive at their best pitcher hitting his arm and taking him out of the game. The little Cubs player hit the ball so hard that as it hit the pitcher's arm it left the clear makings of baseball stitching in wonderful black and blue colors. Without their star pitcher the Yankees faltered. The final game of the season was over before I could enjoy any of the 8 runs that the Cub's put on the score board.


I've never been so surprised and shocked before or since. During the field side victory celebration I looked down to see "Shoeless" who once again had no shoes. He was holding them, and as he said thank you he tried to hand them to me. I smiled, thanked him back, but assured him that those smelly shoes were his to keep.


All that's left now is the distant memory of the boys of summer, a most surprising season and the knowledge that in baseball as in life anything is possible.

"Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person.

They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.

The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray.

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.

But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come. "

Terence Mann as played by James Earl Jones - Field of Dreams (1989)

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