Street Hoops with Children

There is a friend I would visit from time to time. I am sorry to say we don’t see each other as much as we used to. There was a time we would be at each other’s house often and sometimes I would watch his kids. Sometimes I would visit and my friend and I would play pick-up basket ball with one of the children. We’ll call this person “Wilt”. There would be another person there. Four of us. We would play two-on-two.

“Wilt” had a unique style of playing basketball. It was a fairly simple style, really. Wilt would get the ball from me. He would dribble. He would run here. Run there. He would go to the other side of the street. I would be under the hoop. Wide open. “Wilt!” I would yell. “Wilt! I’m open!” Wilt would continue to run around the block. He would run inside the house, still dribbling. Come outside with his bus pass, leave his street and take the bus to his school. He would run back to his house. His defender has backed away from him and now I am being double-teamed. Does Wilt shoot? Of course not! There are three guys under the hoop. Two of them are on me. One of my defenders leaves me and goes back to Wilt, who is heading to the neighboring town in hopes of getting a better shot.

I’m starting to understand why there’s a shot-clock.

I tell Wilt it’s going to be dark soon. I tell him Christmas is coming. Maybe Santa can get him an assist for Christmas. He shoots. He misses. The other team gets the ball. The ball goes out of bounds. Our ball. I’m taking it out.

I’m at the top of the key. I yell to Wilt and tell him to go to the hoop. “Wilt!” I yell. “Hoop!” Wilt just stands there off to the side of the hoop. He’s not moving. He just stands there and stares at me.

“Hoop!” I yell again but to no avail. Wilt Chamberlain is just standing there. He doesn’t have the ball. Why should he move anywhere on the court?

“Hoop!” I yell again. He doesn’t move. I heave up a shot. I’m hoping the ball in the air will get Wilt to move. He just stands there with his defender. My defender jumps up and tries to block the ball. He can’t. The ball gets by him. The ball sails in a majestic arc and barely misses the rim. It bounces out of bounds. Their ball.

“Augh!” Wilt yells. He grabs his hair. He stomps his feet. He is incensed. His eyeballs are about to pop out of his face. He is furious.

“What are you doing?!” Wilt demands.

“Naismith,” I say to him. “How many times did I say, ‘hoop’?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks.

“I wanted you to go to the hoop,” I explain to him.

“Then you should have said, ‘Under the hoop!'”

He stomps off, furious at my painfully obvious lack of basketball and communication skills. I look at my friend, his father, who just puts his hands up and says, “Don’t look at me. I deal with this everyday.”

Marvin the Foreman

Sometimes you see kids and you just know what they’re going to do when they grow up. Coaching youth sports gives me insight to plenty of kids. I watch some and I just think to myself what this one could do with a little molding. I see others, like the subject of this entry and think to myself, “Good luck, World.”

I have one player on my team this year who happens to be one of the kids in my neighborhood. So, I already have a feel for his personality and what he will bring to that proverbial “table”. I am also friends with his parents and I love relaying the nuggets this child utters to them from time to time. His dad tells me he’s going to be a foreman when he grows up. I can’t say I doubt that.

I’m going to call this child “Marvin” (Google “Marvin Miller” and you’ll understand why.) Marvin is a kid who makes sure you don’t forget about him. Even after you tell him where he’s playing or when he’s going to bat, He will ask you if it’s his turn yet, or why he can’t play over there. I’ll tell him it’s because there’s already someone over there. He throws his hands in the air and rolls his eyes. “Oh my God!” he exclaims. “Why can’t I just be over there?!” He mutters a few more things that I can’t quite understand because he is walking away and because I have other crises on the infield that require my attention.

Ready for work. A game? Not so much.

Marvin doesn’t miss much, especially when it comes to a break from the action. Immediately after it’s time to take the field, Marvin needs water. I remind Marvin he just had water and he should have had his water while he was on the bench, which, technically, he did have. He thinks for a second and says, “I have to go to the bathroom!'” I get his father’s attention and Marvin and Dad make their way to the bathroom (second time this evening.) Marvin returns and is unhappy to see his coveted position (whichever one he can’t get) has already been claimed by another player. Hands go up. Eye roll. The injustice. The humanity. Why? Why?!

Alex Cora never had it so hard.

Heart, Soul, and Slugger

I’m going to call this kid “Slugger”. Slugger is a boy who is excited to be at the field every time. He’s not necessarily interested in playing baseball but there is an infield full of dirt. We’ll get to that later.

The t-ball season, like other volunteering opportunities, has offered an abundant supply of memories and life-lessons. Every year, there is always one player in particular that will stand out in your mind forever. It’s not the clumsy swing. It’s not the lackadaisical “trot” to first base. It’s more the overall behavior and personality about that one kid who, through fate and chance, just happened to end up on your team.

I love baseball. I love telling stories. This year gave me both.

I’m going to call this kid “Slugger”. Slugger is a boy who is excited to be at the field every time. He’s not necessarily interested in playing baseball but there is an infield full of dirt. We’ll get to that later.

Slugger gets to the field and he is ready to talk. He likes to tell me where he’s going to go on vacation, where his family wanted to go originally before Corona palooza, and how his family came to that conclusion. I listen as intently as I can. There are other children coming up to me wanting to know the batting order. One of the players (The Union Guy) wants to know how long this is going to be. He needs to eat dinner and doesn’t really want to be at the field too long, or at all for that matter. I’ll tell you about him later.

Slugger is always asking me when he’s going to hit. “Is it my turn now? Is it my turn now? How about now?” I tell him not yet.

Slugger will finally get his chance to bat. I show him where to stand, where to put his feet. He’s standing next to me. I point to the line I drew for him. He looks at me. I remind him it’s his turn to hit. He steps up to the plate. God bless him. He hits a weak ground ball that makes it to the pitchers mound. He runs halfway down the line before he finally hears me say “The bat!” He flips the bat behind him. I dodge the missile. It’s a small bat. He’s a small kid but I don’t want to take any chances.

Slugger takes the field. I’m on the field with my players. I position them according to the hitter. There’s no set rules for where the players need to be. There is always three or four players wanting to play first base. The “pitcher” and shortstop draw their own bases so they can have one too. I’m constantly calling Slugger’s name. His attention is on his father, standing on the other side of the fence, a bird flying overhead, grass growing. Anything but the game at hand.

Slugger’s favorite activity is tracing in the dirt. He likes to practice writing his name. He’ll draw pictures. I’ve had to deflect a couple of ground balls that would have bruised his ankles. His latest feat was showing me how he could bury himself up to his ankles in the dirt. That’s great, Slugger. Here comes another ground ball.

When Slugger does get a ball, sometimes he’ll throw it. Sometimes he’ll roll it to the first baseman. Sometimes he’ll just run it over. He’s into Cardio… And it gives him a chance to talk to one of the teammates. There’s not enough of that on the bench.

Slugger likes to show me his facemask. He likes to tell me about the close calls he has before the game. Like the time he thought he lost his hat but then he remembered it was by his door with the rest of his stuff because he didn’t want to be late to the game. He was reminding himself about the game all day. Sometimes it’s his glove. Sometimes it’s his uniform. You never know will Slugger but he’ll fill you in.

He’s a gamer. He’s a kid who doesn’t quit. If you had nine Sluggers on your team, you wouldn’t have to worry about hustle or attitude.

Heading for the Homestretch

Another day of forced fun.

Our T-ball season draws to a close. I am proud of the improvements my team made over this brief and unique season. If anything, I hope these troopers will take at least one thing they learned this year and apply it to their game as they grow as people and baseball players.

There were plenty of teachable moments and growing pains this year. I needed to remind players that if they were on one side of the field, there is no need to run to the other side and chase the ball. This was especially important for the first baseman, who somehow thought they could catch and throw at the same time.

Speaking of first base, that position taught my team the importance of sharing. Everyone wanted to play first base and there were usually two or three people congregating and explaining why they needed to play first for that inning. The future union rep was always in the middle of the discussion and explained why everyone else was wrong.

Everyone got out and got some exercise, including me. I got my share of aerobics in by dodging wayward bats and balls coming in without warning. I was also running after the pack of children who needed to tackle each other so someone could throw the ball. Ah, yes. Throwing. How could I forget my little shotput thrower. Every ball hit to them was a chance to show off his arm. It was a good arm, I have to admit. I was constantly reminding Kid Kannon that the object was to throw the ball to first base and not see how many trees they could clear.

The Boy was on my team this year. He has joined The Oppressed in giving up hitting for life. He has no use for it. Hates it and would like to see baseball banned from the world forever.

Yes, it certainly has been a fun-filled year. No more chats with individual players about what they’re having for dinner that evening. No more rundowns of how their parents are at another field to watch a sibling play. No more close calls about how they couldn’t find their glove at home but they remembered they had it in their room and they ran to get it and still made it to the field. No more knowing glances from the other coaches. No more being reminded by my players of who and where there players are. I go back to dealing with five children and continue to show some semblance of organization and balance.

T-Ball Basics

Like you, Corona screwed a lot of things up with my family. Loyal readers of my heartfelt stories know the challenges faced when it came to homeschooling the Miracles of Christ. You may also recall the fun times when I coached not one, but two baseball teams last spring. Due to Coronapalooza, our season got pushed back to the first week of August and like most T-ball teams, this crop of kiddos comes with their challenges as we tackle the fundamentals.

Given where we are with this whole pandemic, I’m guessing we’re lucky to be doing this at all. We’re slowly easing back into group settings and six kids on a baseball diamond seems manageable. Even when they are in their extended dugout, the tikes are able to keep a safe distance. When our team is up at the plate, my attention is divided between the dugout, the batter, and the baserunners. I’m making sure the batters hands are in the right position. I’m making sure the batter has a level swing. I’m making sure everyone is keeping a safe distance in the dugout.

I also have to make sure the runner on first doesn’t run after the ball. That’s happened. The runner chases the ball, picks it up and will try to throw it. I tell them to not pick it up. They then look around for a fielder to hand it too. If these kids don’t make it in baseball, they certainly have a solid grip on etiquette and manners.

We wear masks on the field. Again, I need to multitask. One fielder is chewing on their mask. Another is making a pretty sand mound… And then there is our future Major Leaguer. This kid doesn’t have an agent but they are able to make sure they have ample water breaks in the middle of the inning. It gets hot out there and they need a drink maybe every other batter. And what happens when you drink? You got it. Said future union dues-payer likes to make sure they are able to use the bathroom as often as they can. Sometimes, I will remind this player they just got a water break and how can they need another one already. That’s when Marvin Miller remembers he hasn’t used the bathroom yet.

Yes. It’s been a rewarding season. I’m still reminding kids to use the gloves they are already wearing instead of trying to catch the ball with their bare hands. Although catching with their bare hands is a small improvement. Some still run away hiding their faces when the ball comes to them.