One of the great divisions in sport, and in life, is between those who play hardball and the rest of us.
The path forks early on, and the name of the game is confidence. Whether a kid learns first to face, and then to master, the ball that hurts, depends largely upon his (and lately, her) first coach.
I never learned to play baseball because I started out clumsy and afraid, and then an Arlington Little League coach made me ashamed. It was 20 years before I willingly tried sports again.
But my son's mother played fierce hardball until people started making her be a girl, and he has inherited her passion for the game. She bought him a glove when he was five, a Brooks Robinson model, and in her heart I know she sees him someday handling the hot corner for the new Washington Senators.
This spring, when he had just turned eight, she signed him up for First American Bank's "B" team, against my better judgment. He's too young, I daid, the ball is very hard. What I wanted to say was don't put our son in the hands of men who try to recapture youth by stealing it from children.
She didn't. She put him in the hands of John Kresse, John Law, Steve Polasky, Dick Sandifer and Bob Staiger, young men who coach under the auspices of the Arlington County Recreation Department. The league, which is open to all boys and girls in the county from grade school through high school, was founded some years ago when the competitiveness of Little League, Inc., got out of hand.
I don't know where First America's coaches come from or what they do in "real life," but they teach baseball the way it spozed to be.
The "B" team really should bave been a "C" team, but First American had only 13 players left over from the "A" team. Most of our guys had never played a lick before, and they averaged perhaps a year younger and a head shorter than the opposing teams. On the whole they couldn't trouw, or catch, or hit, nor did they more than dimly understand the purpose of trying to do such things. But they could some kind of duck and dodge, every man Jack of them, because the one thing they all did know was that a baseball is as hard as a rock.
But from Game One the boys never made a mistake. Or so it would have sounded to a blind observer. Whatever went wrong, the coaches found something right to praise.
Did a boy strike out? "Way to swing, Eric, that's my man."
Did the catcher mishandle the ball? "Way to hustle, Chris. Tough chance."
Did an outfielder wake up too late on an easy fly? "Way to keep the ball in front of you, Mark."
Did an indielder forget to back up a throw? "Way to run it down, Mike."
Told again and again that they were playing well, they began to do so from thime to time, and then pretty regularly.
Only two things seemed capable of drawing reproof from the infinitely patient coaches: arguing with the umpires, who were teenage novices and made frequent bad call, or razzing opposing players, who were always razzing them.
"Hey, the ump's learning too," the outraged player would be told quietly. "He's doing the best he can." "Don't get on the other guys, cheer your own team."
Cynics may be saying, big deal: so these nice young men are teaching the kids to be good losers. Well, let the record show that First American B went 10 and 4 for the season, beating some powers of the league whose rosters were deep in giant 10-year-olds with uniforms that fit and real spikes. Our lad wore T-shirts and sneakers and sometimes had to share caps.
Two of the losses could have been avoided by pulling pitchers sooner or by not putting in some of the weaker players until the last moment (league rules require that every boy who shows up must play). "The only way he's going to learn to pitch is to stay in there and pitch," Kresse said during one horrendous inning in which walks and wild pitches brought in half a dozen unearned runs. He calmly continued filling in the scorecard and praising the odd good pitch.
Several times the assigned umpire did not appear, and a First American coach would fill in. "Aw, c 'mon, Coach," our star pitcher once complained after Polasky had impassively intoned "Ball four, take your base" to the second batter in a row.
"I'm not your coach now, Todd," Polasky said. "I'm the umpire.
One team showed up a man short of the minimum required number. The umpire played for them, with our coaches' approval, and they beat us. Then we shared our after-game soft drinks with them.
First American's coaches were not miracle men. There was the big boy who talked big but dropped out when he discovered that just being the biggest kid around is not enough, you have to play the fame and face the ball.
And there was our best player, who could do it all: pitch, hit, pull off an unassisted double play, stretch a single into a home run. But he tended to come all unglued, wildly and obscenely, whenever something didn't go his way, and if gentle, patient firmness couldn't calm him down, out he came and never mind the score. He missed the middle of the season but came back, only slightly subdued, at the end. Before and after he got his trophy at the team picnic he threw several more fits.
"Where do you find the patience to deal with a kid like that?" I asked one of the coaches.
"He needs it," was all the young man said.