Finding your level

Each year as we turn the calendar into March and I see Dad’s with their sons taking a little batting practice out on the wet baseball fields, getting ready for Little League tryouts, I’m reminded of a childhood memory that stuck with me.

My father was a really enthusiastic sports fan and coach.  He loved sports of all kinds, but I think he liked baseball the most due to its strategic nature.  Unless you’ve ever tried to coach at the more senior levels ( kids above 10 or 11 ), you may not appreciate how much strategy there is in baseball.  A lot of people think it’s a really boring game that moves too slowly.  But Dad was really into strategy, so baseball floated his boat more than other sports and he loved a good 1-0 shutout as much as  anything.  Dad also played high school baseball for a small, private high school in Eugene, Oregon.  He did well enough that in his own mind, he thought he had an outside chance of playing baseball his freshman year at Oregon, so he tried out.  He didn’t quite make it, but I was always impressed that, realist that he was, he thought he had an outside chance.  He must not have been any slouch on the field.

I have 3 older sisters, so when I came along, the good news for Dad was, he had a son.  The bad news was, his son wasn’t much of an athlete!  I was “okay” at sports and thanks to some extra tutoring by Dad in baseball at a young age, I even excelled a little in the minor divisions of Little League.  I think he was secretly hoping he could groom me into a catcher that could play at the High School level or beyond, but that was just never in the cards.  I did catch through age 10, but by then I’d had enough of trying to live someone else’s dream.  I wanted to pitch!

For those familiar with how Little League works, every Spring they have a tryout for their “majors” division, which is kids age 10-12.  Majors is when Little League starts to get serious.  The first thing to know is that it’s a “keeper” league, which means you stay on the team you’re drafted through your 12 year old season.  Little League fields have 60′ bases (full size field has 90′ bases) and the pitcher’s mound is set at 46″ (full size is 60′ 6″).   The problem with majors is that some of the 12 year olds have had their growth spurt and are approaching 6 ft tall, so it’s a bit like facing Randy Johnson for batters.  The best 12 year olds can throw 60 mph+ easily, and are schooled enough to throw a little junk at you, just to keep you guessing.  Most 10 year olds aren’t quite ready for that.

I’d had a really fun season as a 9 year old.  My team lost one game the entire season and I got to play a whole bunch of positions and the coaches were great about rotating players in and giving all the kids playing time.  Fresh off of this experience I was eager for the Spring tryout to see if I could get drafted onto a majors team.  I don’t recall how well I did defensively at the tryout, but I remember my turn at the plate and the coaches throwing medium-fast fastballs at me, right down the middle, and making some pretty good contact.  Apparently I made an impression because a week later I was drafted onto a majors team.  Yahoo!  There weren’t very many 10 year olds that got drafted into the majors that year and I was one of them.  Yay for me.

Then came reality.  Practices started and the team already had a 12 year old catcher.  I was dubbed “The Catcher of the Future”, which is not uncommon in majors — to draft a 10 year old and sort of groom him for his 11 and 12 year old seasons.   So my lot for the year as far as playing time was concerned was to play 2 innings in the outfield at games, but to do a lot of catching in practice… for next year.   That part was sort of okay with me anyway because it’s not like I wanted to catch the games anyway.  The fundamental problem was that 90% of the kids were older, bigger, and better than I was and it felt that way every single day.  The 2 innings of playing time usually translated into one at bat per game.  Not a lot of action out there to hold my interest.

I’m convinced keeper leagues are a bad idea.  10 year olds do not possess the ability to think long-term and do not care about next year.  Catcher of the future wasn’t a carrot for me because frankly, I wasn’t even sure I was going to sign up next year if this is how much fun it is.  About half way through the season I wanted to quit.  Dad had a pretty strict “no quitting’ rule.  Once you start something, you finish it.  So I had to tough it out.

I was on the second best team in the majors that year, Mosee Brothers.  Our arch rival team, Wards, had amassed an amazing group of pitchers led by Mike Childs and Tim Pflaum.  Both 12 year olds.  Both threw heat like you wouldn’t believe.  To make matters more interesting, Tim Pflaum was my neighbor and a really good guy and I used to hang out with Tim and his brothers playing sports in the neighborhood, so I knew him pretty well.  Tim was one of the 12 year olds who had experienced his growth spurt early, so he was a towering figure to me on the mound.

We played Wards 3 times that season.  I knew it had to happen eventually, I had to go to bat against Tim Pflaum.  God help me.  I was shaking in the on-deck circle trying to think of a last-minute winning strategy as I watch him fan the guy in front of me with 60 mph fastballs.  “Batter-up!”, here we go.  I had decided that my strategy would be to not swing and hope that Tim would walk me.  Tim probably walked about 4 batters all season, but I didn’t know or care, I wanted a walk.  “Strike One” said the ump as the first fastball went by, right down the middle of the plate.  I don’t remember seeing it go by.  No time to change strategies now, I’m still hoping for a ball.  “Strike Two” said the ump on the next pitch.  Same location, same result.  Damnit, I better change my strategy.  Okay, I’m swinging on the next pitch.  That way I won’t get yelled at for not getting the bat off the shoulders.  So I got ready, looked old Tim in the eye and waited for the next fastball and even though I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to see it, I might get lucky and make contact.  Tim loaded up the pitch in his mitt, reached back and here it came.  I swung the bat with all my might and I’m sure I may have even grunted a bit.  A little later, the pitch, commonly referred to as a “hanging curveball”, looked as if it was coming straight for me, then cut downward across the plate and into the catcher’s mitt.  I was out in front of the pitch by a full 2 seconds.  “Steeeee-rike Three!”

Holding back the tears, I put on a happy face and jogged on back into the dugout.

Wards had remained undefeated during that season, but late in the second half, they lost to a team called United Homes which was a shocker.  That wasn’t supposed to happen.  So Mosee Brothers and Wards ended up tied in the second half with one loss each, forcing a playoff.  Great, a second game!  That’s the last thing I wanted.

They playoff game was a packed house at Meadowland Little League.  The stands were completely full and there was tension in the air.  I was penciled in for 2 innings in left field.  By this time, my goal was to just get through the game without incident.  Please, no balls hit to me.  Please.   As my luck would have it, with a runner on third, there was a short kid at the plate and I just had this awful feeling he was going to hit one to me.  I don’t know how I knew it, I just did.  I thought that maybe if I moved in and played shallow left, he’d have a better chance of hitting it over my head and then I wouldn’t get blamed for not catching it.  I was nervous as hell that a ball would come to me and I’d drop it.  So I moved in.  The coaches noticed and waved me back to play deeper, so I did.  Sure enough, the batter lined one to left field, right at me.  I mis-played it by coming in for it instead of going back a little and it went over my head.  The coaches were mad and I was embarrassed in front of a huge crowd.  Wards took the lead and won the game.  My dad said the runner on third would have scored even if I had caught it, so I felt a little better about not being solely responsible for the loss.  But yeah, the coaching at that level was pretty good in the sense that these guys knew baseball.  Some had played at the college level and beyond.  They knew the game and you can sure tell coaches who know the game vs. not when watching little league just by watching the kids.

Fast forward a few years to the Spring of my 8th grade year when I turned 14.  I decided to go out for baseball again just to see what I could do.  The Sr. League was 13-15 year olds with 90′ bases, same as Major League Baseball.  I remember trying to throw runners out at second base from behind the plate and it seeming like it was all I could do just to get the ball down there let alone beat the runner.

The powers that be in Little League had decided to take a novel approach in structuring the league.  They decided to separate division out into two levels – Sr. Majors and Sr. Minors, sort of like they do today with other sports where they’ll have a “competitive” group and a “recreational” group.   I tried out and since I’d been out of the game for a while and hadn’t played — and I was no specimen as far as athletes go, still pretty short and slow, I was drafted onto a Sr. Minors team.  I was a little surprised and disappointed at first, but as the season went on, I couldn’t have been happier about it.

I remember being tapped on the shoulder to pitch and play shortstop quite a bit.  And I remember hitting well.  I was on base all the time (even stole a few bases which I’m sure shocked my old man). And I got to play shortstop and loved every minute of it.  I wasn’t that bad at it, actually.  I threw a lot of guys out and I was decent with the glove.  On the mound, I found my groove that year.  I had developed a little bit of junk to throw.  Just enough to keep the batters off-balance a bit and I had quite a few strikeouts that year.  Compared to the other pitchers in Sr. Minors, I was probably one of the harder throwers.  That was a FUN season and a great experience for me.  Once again I loved baseball and had enjoyed a lot of success “out there”.

My 15 year old season, I tried out again and this time was shocked that I was left down in Sr. Minors.  I thought this was an incredible injustice of some sort, but whatever.  They had a rule back then that 15 year olds could not pitch in Sr. Minors.  That just added insult to injury.  But just a couple of games into the season I got a “call up” to the bigs.  A Sr. Majors team lost a player and I got the call.  Yeah, I can pitch again!  Woo-hoo!  Obviously these guys wanted me for my pitching prowess, right?  They’d heard about all those strikeouts I had in Sr. Minors, I’m just sure of it!

So I suit up for my first game and I get to the field to find out I’m scheduled for 2 innings in right field.  What?  Is this going to be like my 10 year old season again?  What is this?  Oh man, send me back, send me back!

Like Yogi Berra once said, it’s like Deja Vu all over again because in the very first game, a batter hit a fly ball to me in right field and I when I say “right to me”, I mean “right to me”.  I dropped it.

That long jog back to the dugout was too much for me to handle, I think.  What else is there to do this summer?  Swim?  Ride my bike?  Get a paper route again?  Take guitar lessons?  Go golfing?  Anything?  Anything but play 2 innings in the outfield for these guys,

Finding your right level makes all the difference.  I personally believe it’s better to be star of the show in the minors vs. riding the pines in the bigs.  That’s just my view from personal experience.  I have a close friend who has a son who was a highly recruited high school football player at Tualatin.  Really nice kid and dad.  He could have gone to Linfield and started for 4 years.  Instead, he went for big time college football at Oregon St. and worked his way up through the scout team.  But at Division I college football, if you want to be a starting lineman, you have to be 260# or more and the competition is fierce.

To his credit, he got put in during a home game when the Beavers were far enough ahead for a series or two if I have the story right.  But that was it as far as glory.  It’s a lot better than I could have ever hoped to do, but I wonder now if he wouldn’t have had a better overall experience going to the smaller school and getting more playing time.

I think the same thing can be applied to life in other areas such as work as well.  I’ve worked at places where I felt like the dumbest engineer in the building and I’ve also worked at places where they treated me like some sort of rock star.  I have to say I like rock star better.

Footnote[1]:  The coaches from Wards drafted the All-Star team and about 1/2 the players came from their own team.  I think the entire infield was from Wards plus two of the pitchers.  They did well.  They won the district tournament and State, advanced to the regionals in San Bernardino California and eventually lost there.  But I think they were just one tournament away from going to the really big show, The Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA.   In some ways this makes me feel a little better.  The league was pretty stacked with talent that year so I was playing against some top quality kids.

Footnote[2]: I’m also grateful for the “no quitting” rule from my father.  That’s a good rule for parents to have.  Finish what you start.  Life isn’t always about success.  Tough experiences can be our teacher too.

Footnote[3]: During Dad’s junior baseball season at St. Mary’s High School in Eugene… The team only played 3 games that year, and two of them were a part of a double-header.  Week after week of rainouts.  He recalled sitting in class, watching outside as the rain poured and then hearing the announcement about the cancelled game.  Such is the problem with trying to have a baseball season in the Pacific Northwest when the season starts in March.

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