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Kent Conwell: Play Ball!


Last updated 3/21/2012 at Noon

If you’ll look around, you’ll spy a surprising number of vehicles parked around local baseball diamonds that a couple weeks back were sitting dark and empty.

Now they’re filled with the crack of a bat, the cry of the crowd, the laughter of youngsters.

It’s baseball time. Maybe I should say, it’s little league time. Of course, the big stuff isn’t far behind, but all around the area, little gals and guys are flailing to hit the ball, and if they do, and if the coach catches them in time, they race for first base instead of third.

Both the grandsons are in their second year of play. Mikey was in the Dodgers last year and the Astros this year in the Groves T-Ball League. Keegan played with the Port Neches Astros last year and with the Rookie League Rays this year.

I hope I’ve got the leagues right. They are several to accommodate the number of youngsters of whom there is a surprising number. At opening ceremonies in Port Neches, I counted at least twenty teams.

T-Ball is a fun game not only for the youngsters, but for the crowd. Those little squirts are like a flock of chickens after a grasshopper when a ball hits in the middle of them. By the time one little feller or gal comes up with it, the runner could have circled the bases.

The T-Ball coaches are to be thanked (some say deified, but I do think that might be a tad strong) for their patience and time, both of which are taxed well beyond the average person’s tolerance. Herding cats comes as close to a fair analogy of T-Ball coaching as I can get.

The philosophy behind T-Ball is to not only help the kids enjoy the game, but also impart a basic knowledge of the rudiments of the sport, like there are three bases or the purpose of the man at bat is to hit the ball or you are supposed to catch the ball instead of searching for doodlebugs in the sand.

When I first started watching the coaches last year, I wondered how they kept from pulling out their hair. Then I saw they never grew angry. Instead they laughed at mistakes, explained the error, encouraged the little eager kid, and sent him back into the fray. They were serious about not taking things seriously. In other words, keep it fun.

T-Ball doesn’t keep score. Each team bats around once and then swaps places, and so on. Three swaps is the game. Truth is, if they did keep score, they games would end up about 30-30. Not exactly a pitchers’ duel, huh?

Mikey is much improved this year. Like the others, he hits off the T, but the little guy is tall and solid, and can really put a hurt on that ball when he makes contact with it. His father, Big Mike, is a big part of the boy’s success.

And Mikey is no slouch at stopping the ball for that is one of the skills coaches stress. You see, many of the youngsters prefer watching a bird fly over or standing on his head. Catching the ball runs a poor third for many of the little ones.

The next step from T-Ball is the Rookie League. Keegan stepped up this year.

What a difference.

I don’t know how long his coaches have been working with little league, but they do a skillful job focusing on the basics of baseball.

Now, don’t misunderstand. I’m no expert. My experience is limited to sandlot ball in the cow pasture with dried patties for bases and a futile effort at third base when I was a sophomore in high school. The high school fling ended mercifully. I hate to say it, but I think everyone involved was relieved, especially the coach, when I decided I’d never be another Mickey Mantle. (for the younger readers, he was a star for the New York Yankees)

When Keegan and I played catch, he’d throw the ball like a rocket–no, not the speed, but the trajectory. Up, up, and then down. I didn’t know how to teach him to throw it straight, but between his father, Jason, and the coaches, he’s much, much better. They showed him how to stand, how to extend his arms, and how to flex his wrist at the right time.

Each of the ten youngsters receives the same detailed coaching, from batting to base running to relaying the ball. And even a dummy like me could see the difference in the fellers after a couple practices.

In the Rookie League, there’s no T. A coach pitches up to five balls to each batter. And yes, the little ones can strike out. That’s another difference between the two leagues. The rookies are now learning there are also consequences.

Last year, Keegan had trouble hitting pitches. Usually, he ended up hitting off the T, but this year, he’s hitting the pitched ball steadily.(I don’t want to brag, so I won’t mention how many hits he got at the first game) I wish I could say it was from the times I’d pitch to him out at the side of the house, but I can’t. The coaches spent time working with the boys on batting, using a weird looking bat with a bunch of holes in it. An onlooker next to me called it a Wiffle Bat, but you can’t prove it by me. Whatever kind of bat it was, it helped.

But it isn’t just the coaches that make it a success. There’s a heap of folks in the background who provide the support and details most of us never think about.

These Groves and Port Neches leagues and those who support them are perfect examples of how much good can be achieved when folks work together toward a common goal. I haven’t seen any hidden agendas among any of those involved in the local leagues. All the parents want to see their child do well. Many of them volunteer to provide after-game snacks as well as other incidentals needed by the team.

One thing I noticed last year as well as this is any displays of parental anger toward the coaches. Maybe that comes later in the upper leagues. I hope not.

The games are fun times for both the players and the onlookers. Heck, even if you didn’t have anyone in the game, it’s a fun-filled hour where you can forget your cares and root for a favorite team.

Just like when you were a kid. Remember?


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