Opening Day: After weeks of training, the Angels, full of hope, go into the second inning of a scoreless game with naive confidence in their pitching and silent prayers that their bats will boom. By the third inning, they're down 6-0.
Within the hour, the second relief pitcher is out of the game --he has caught a ball with his mouth. Finally the debacle ends, the Angels on the low end of a 12-3 score.
Two months later, a rematch: six Angels score before the first out. Six more cross home plate in the second inning. After three innings the score is 18-3, and when the game ends, the score is 28-4. The Angels have won their 12th straight to clinch the AA championship of the Central Springfield (Va.) Little League.
This miracle had taken just 67 days to complete, but it really began in 1965, the year the first of our three sons came home with his mother to find a baseball glove hanging off the corner post of his crib.
Over the years, our two older boys had gone through Little League without my ever having been able to manage a team. But I had watched, when I could. Our middle son had finished Little League with a diminishing interest in playing baseball, a victim of what I perceived as less-than-enlightened coaching. So when the youngest decided to sign up, I applied to be a manager, and was given the Angels: average age 9.1 years.
"I hope you won't be disappointed," said my wife, an astute observer of sports, kids, coaches and parents after years of transporting the boys to games and practice. "You can't make everybody happy."
Oh no? My philosophy was to (1) have fun, (2) learn, (3) win. The theory was that when kids are having fun they are eager learners, winning naturally ensues and everybody actually is happy. Aren't they?
I had it all worked out in my mind--positive reinforcement, no screaming, no yelling, praise improvement and success, build confidence, stress teamwork and sportsmanship. I would run well-organized practices and teach the kids to swing the bat hard, be daring on the bases.
In our first practice, two tenets are proven incompatible: (1) Every kid wants to pitch--give him a chance; (2) Throw strikes--you'll win. The most eager pitching candidate throws all around the plate, but never in the strike zone. His tears mean I must develop a comforting pat-on-the-head technique.
With the opener slightly more than a week away, every practice is crucial. The Angels are the youngest and least experienced team in this league of 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds. But I learn that baseball is not necessarily the focus of these kids' lives. A key infielder will miss the Friday and Saturday practices to attend his grandmother's birthday party. "Don't tell anyone," he warns. "It's a surprise."
We take our 12-3 drubbing from the Eagles, then go into our second game. The starting pitcher again gets hit in the mouth by a throw, and the Falcons do so much scoring, 13 runs to our 3, that it is dark before the requisite four innings are completed. The game will be replayed.
In two games, 25 runs have been scored against us. I attempt to boost morale with the Green Gremlin award, a trophy created by nailing an old baseball shoe to a block of wood and painting it the team color, bright green. The winner each game, to be decided by the coaches, will be the player who best exhibits team spirit and hustle. Kids like prizes, the old shoe is well received and in the third game we win 10-9. Things are looking up, except for the unlucky soul who gets hit in the mouth for the third time, this time by a bouncing grounder. His mother introduces herself to another parent as the woman whose son "likes to eat baseballs."
The Angels follow with another squeaker, 9-8, then a convincing 12-6 decision. The improvement is obvious. But one pitcher, who has done well in his first inning for the second straight game, seems to fall apart. I figure he has trouble with pressure when things are going well.
My wife, who sits behind the backstop, tells another story. The pitcher doesn't fall apart, she says, the umpire changes the rules. League policy calls for a slightly larger-than-normal strike zone to keep games from developing into an endless string of walks. But, she says, the ump was told by the base umpires after the first inning that although larger is fine, a strike zone the size of Cleveland is not fine. The shrinking target, not pressure, has been the pitcher's undoing.
We are 3-1 entering our makeup game with the unbeaten Falcons. Playing back- to-back games with them, we envision a sweep. A sweep it is: the Falcons win twice. Another win and another loss follow. Midway through the season the Angels have a mediocre .500 record, 4-4, three games behind the high-flying Falcons. Most of the lessons have been learned by me.
Most surprising is that the pressure to win comes from the kids themselves, not from their parents. Ultimately, of course, the great value placed on winning comes from all of us, but there's no mistaking the mood swings: these kids are up when they win, down when they lose. It seems we need to turn our attention to winning, period. Since five of our 12 players have never played baseball before, we go back to practicing basics--hitting, running and pitching.
We work on hitting by attacking the ball and swinging, swinging, swinging. No called strikes for the Angels. Base running is tougher because judgment is involved, but I urge them to be aggressive, take chances.
However, even the rules are a mystery to some of the players. When one slides into first base, I point out that first base can be overrun. Another player overruns second, makes no attempt to get back and is tagged out. I explain that only first base can be overrun. Another player overruns first, turns toward second and is tagged out. Later, when a ball is hit to the fence, a runner on second base goes to third and doesn't dare move another inch.
Pitching is the most important aspect of baseball at any level. I had not anticipated how difficult it would be to teach 9-year-olds to throw. Only my son has a sound throwing motion--he has been hitting and throwing with his brothers from the time he was 3 years old. The only other player who reasonably anticipates the ball's destination is the catcher.
The solution would be to have these two players handle all the pitching. But we need another catcher, not a favorite position. We convince a player he is our salvation, then reward him with the Green Gremlin when he steps into the void. He turns out to be darn good.
My relationships with a cast of characters, including parents and umpires, are demanding. And there is the special case of my son. We know each other too well. He is the last to realize that he has the necessary ability, and then some.
Fearing strain on his young arm, I had not wanted him, or anyone else, to pitch too much. But it becomes apparent that if he does not throw hard enough to break glass, he does not throw hard enough to hurt his arm, either. What he does do, however, is throw strike after strike after strike.
Unfortunately, as we settle into a two-man rotation, no one else gets to pitch. I worry: Is it an obligation to fulfill the wishes of every 9- or 10-year- old? No, I conclude, if that means losing.
My relationship with the parents has been fine. I don't know whether this is admiration or antipathy. I have had a minor confrontation with one father who yelled to his son on third to run home on a passed ball; it was too late, and the runner was tagged out. I ask the father to leave the coaching to the coaches. He says I overreacted, but as the season develops so does a mutual respect.
With umpires, the relationship is more complex. It is difficult to g 12-6 dfind fault with inexperienced umpires who give their time to a thankless task, but not too difficult. For instance, the infield fly rule. Leading off an inning, our batter hits a pop-up and reaches first base. The next batter singles to left, putting runners on first and second. Right? Wrong.
The first batter is in the dugout, declared out on a delayed infield-fly call. Since runners must be on base for the infield fly rule to be called, we protest. The runner is placed back on first in an equally unorthodox ruling and the second hitter bats again.
One team, the Hawks, present an interesting contrast to our skills. On their roster are five girls, most of whom are older, bigger and faster than my players, and they put tremendous pressure on our defense when they run the bases. And run they do, giving us an 11-4 thumping.
With our record, we must beat the Broncos to have a chance of reaching the playoffs. We build a 19-5 advantage going into the bottom of the last inning, then everything falls apart. Fortunately, we can absorb the Broncos' 10-run rally.
We get one of our runs when a boy on third, thinking the bases are full, trots home on a walk. I want to scream "run back," but keep my mouth shut and watch. He passes within two feet of the catcher, who has the ball, and the umpire admits later he was so stunned that he almost told the catcher to tag the runner.
Our objective is now 10 victories, at least a .500 record for the 20-game season. We get No. 6 with a 20-5 victory over the Mustangs. We win two more with ease and confidence builds. When one Angel rips a ball to right field, rolls around first, slides into second and is out by inches, he springs up and comes off the field in a get-'em-next-time trot. Before now, he would have come off crying, holding an arm or leg in apparent pain.
Now 8-4, we meet the dreaded Falcons again. In other games with them we had felt victimized by the umpires. Now it's their turn. We score five runs in the first inning, then hang on to win 6-5. The umpire has declared the fourth inning the final inning, antici- pating the game will take more time than it does. Tough break, Falcons.
My middle son, who is helping coach the team, dares to suggest that we can finish first. Ridiculous. We are two games behind with only eight to go. But a romp over the Eagles follows; then we edge the Hawks for our 11th victory, ensuring a winning season and a playoff berth. Meanwhile, the Falcons have lost another game, and I begin to dream my son's dream. Looming immediately are the Falcons again. At practice the day before the big game, my alternate catcher tells me his church's altar boys are going to Kings Dominion the next day--he's an altar boy, he adds.
So I pressure my own son to step in: "You must catch for the good of the team." He works out reluctantly during practice, considers the offer that night and, over a dish of fresh strawberries and cream just before the game, accepts. He will catch the first three innings, then trade positions with the starting pitcher.
We're ready, or so I think. We score a run in the top of the first; they score six in the bottom, without making an out, off our No. 2 pitcher. He walks the first three batters in the second, wild-pitches a run home and I swear he closes his eyes when he throws. I replace him with the boy who catches balls in his mouth. The first pitch comes right back at him, but this time he picks it up, stares the Falcons' runner back to third and fires to first for an out. The throw comes back to the plate to get the runner who has delayed leaving third and, to top it off, the runner on second has passed the runner on third before retreating and is out. Triple play.
The Angels are still alive, but losing 10-1 in the third inning. The kids know we have our ace coming on in the fourth, just as the opposing manager is lifting his No. 1 pitcher. In the fourth we score six runs, and in the sixth, we score 12 for a 19-13 victory, our eio g 12-6 dghth straight. We are tied for first place. The players begin to ask what the championship trophies look like.
Our next game is against the last-place Mustangs, and we go scoreless in the top of the first. They score six runs in the bot- tom half as my pitcher falls apart again. This time I tell him he's in there to stay. He pulls himself together and allows only one more run during his three innings. For the first time, after 16 games, the entire team exudes confidence. We turn a six-run deficit into a 15- 11 victory.
A 20-8 victory over the Broncos makes it 10 straight. The highlight of the game is a personal triumph for our alternate left fielder. Because he rarely lifted his bat, he had either walked, struck out or been hit by a pitch every time at bat all season.
Trying to break his slump, we had devoted 15 minutes of batting practice that week to him: he was told to swing at every pitch. He hits a single his first time up and gets a standing ovation from teammates and the parents. During the post-game talk, I say, "and the Green Gremlin award goes . . ." The players start chanting his name in unison. Our first winner by acclamation.
The next day, the Mustangs upset the Falcons, 15-14, putting us in first place. With two games left, the Angels ask a lot about trophies.
They confidently crush the Hawks, 19-6, and have only the Eagles to beat. I am nervous, despite the Eagles' poor record, but the players see it as a formality. They're right: we hit the six-run limit in each of the first four innings. The Angels are the champions. Trophies all around.
The tide goes out a week later in the first round of the playoff championships. Drained of emotion after the long struggle, the Angels lose to the Broncos, 9-6, then root the Broncos to a 9-8 victory over the Falcons for the secondary title.
The boys have improved their skills and are much more confident. I regret somewhat that the crucial status of each game has made it difficult to use some players as much as others. On the other hand, they have all shared in what for some of them will be the only championship they ever win.
I have made it through the season without once shouting, though not easily. I also derived great satisfaction from that long-awaited hit by my hitless wonder. But, I must admit, No. 1 is being No. 1. During the season I often picked the brains of a college buddy, Bill Livesey, now the New York Yankees' director of player development. He said, "If winning isn't important, how come every ball field in America has a scoreboard?"