Saturday, September 29, 2007

Strike two

When I was a kid, I envisioned my life would be a certain way when I was in my 30s. Of course kids don't know squat, so I was wrong about just about everything.

I remember hanging out in neighborhood parks in the summer, watching buddies playing 16-inch softball, jammed fingers in one hand, beer in the other. Some big guy with a big belly would crank a deep fly ball that some wiry guy would race a mile to snag for the final out. There was lots of cheering, lots of good-natured yelling. Laughter. It looked so fun. "That's going to be me someday," I thought, envisioning a big social circle, games in the late afternoon, beers and barbecues afterwards.

Well, I was right about one thing. I'm involved in 16-inch softball. I coach my school's boys team. I was totally wrong about the fun part.

My players don't know the game. Don't know how to swing a bat. Don't know what to do on the base paths. Don't know where to throw the ball, or when to throw it, or how to. They argue. With each other. With me. They show up to practice whenever they feel like it. Some can't be bothered to make it to games.

There have been highlights this season. Like, I didn't know where to play one of the new guys. Our pitcher had shown up late to the game, so I told the new kid to pitch. He ended up making some unbelievable defensive plays, snagging one popup with one hand, then later falling backwards while fielding a groundball but still throwing out the runner from his back. Things like that. But before he made those plays, things were not so good.

At the start of the game, he was so nervous it almost broke my heart. I had to remind him to breathe. He'd make a pitch that fell miserably short of home plate, get the ball back from the catcher, make another bad pitch, and I would be like, Oh my God, he's not even breathing. I called timeout and headed to the mound.

I said, "Hey, kid, how you doing?"

"Not ... so ... good."

"You nervous?"

"I'm terrified," he said staring straight ahead. Total tunnel vision. I looked over at the other team. Big kids, most of them looked like they were 25, looked like they'd mug us right after they got through with killing us on the field.

"Oh, come on," I said. "It's just a stupid game. It's supposed to be fun. Just take a deep breath, release the ball, and see what happens. Try to let them hit it. You do have a defense behind you."

As soon as he started pitching better, our opponents started hitting. Their first six hits went straight at our players. And our players dropped every single ball. Four errors by our shortstop in the first inning, two in the outfield. They scored 11 before we even got to bat.

I don't mind giving up a lot of runs, I don't mind losing if we have to, but I do mind my team's reaction. They just pouted. The shortstop threw a little tantrum. He started blaming everything on everyone except himself, yelling at the catcher for the way the tossed the ball back to the pitcher, at me for the way I run practice, at God and all His creatures.

Eventually, I kicked him off the team. Just told him to hand in his uniform right then and there. He actually listened. He was actually the second starter I kicked off the team. The first guy was one of these kids who thinks he's hilarious, who doesn't listen to a word I say, who doesn't show up to a game and then lies to me about it, saying he had told me he wouldn't be able to make it.

"Hand in your uniform," I've said twice. I don't really have the luxury to do that, considering I only have 10 or 11 guys that have their paperwork in order, that are allowed to play. And twice the kids have handed in their uniforms. And then, twice they've come back to practice the next day, asking if they can be on the team.

Being the lousy coach that I am, both times I've said OK. I kick kids off the team. Then I let them back on. I wouldn't if I worked at a school where dozens of kids want to play. But I work at a school where we don't hold tryouts, we beg students we know to come out and play.

I was talking about our shortstop with my assistant coach. He thinks we should just bench the kid, or kick him off and keep him off. He can't stand the kid's cursing and negativity and poor skills.

"Yeah, but he's special ed," I said. "That's his disability. He loses his temper."

"Whatever," he said, "There are no IEPs in sports."

We laughed about it. An IEP is an individual education plan for special education students. The plan lets teachers know what the student's disability is and sets benchmarks for performance. So, it might say that a kid will be able to get an 80% on a vocabulary quiz. If the kid does, then he deserves an A. But there are no IEPs in sports.

"Maybe if there was one for him," I said, "it would say that he'll only say 'motherfucker' three times per inning."

"Or stomp off the field once per game."

It's not funny, I know, but sometimes you have no choice but to laugh.

When the shortstop did return to practice, I ended up having a 30-minute conversation with him, during which time he never apologized because he couldn't imagine what he had done so wrong as to get kicked off the team.

"There are no IEPs in softball," I said, "but I want to make one thing clear: If you ever lose your temper again, in practice or in a game, that's it. There will be no more coming back."

I'm not sure if he paid attention. Probably not. I think he'll never learn because, well, because he reminds me of me. I too am a sore loser. And I don't learn from my mistakes either. I say "never again," but then I do the very thing I know will make me miserable.

You'd think that after two weeks of coaching softball, I'd be done. But here's my strike two: A couple of days ago, I was asked if I wanted to coach the bowling team. Take a wild guess what I said.

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