Take Me Out of the Ball Game
Randy Bechtel
Take Me Out of the Ball Game

In the Orson Wells film “Journey Into Fear,” an old man says he dislikes movement because it makes him conscious of passing time—time he is running out of. This probably explains why, since turning 60, I’ve become an even bigger baseball fan. Not only does baseball involve the least movement of any team sport, it is the only team sport played without a clock.

Be aware that I loved playing baseball as a youth, that I am a lifelong fan and that I rarely missed a game played by my grandson from T-ball to Little League.  Even so, I do not believe, as parents of Little Leaguers today seem to do, that every red-blooded American boy will love playing baseball if given the opportunity to learn the game.

Learning the game is a process that begins at age 5 or 6 with T-Ball and leads to Little League beginning at age 10 or 11. It coincides with the period when kids find most activities selected by their parents to be fun if they involve other kids. Beginning at 10, however, having fun becomes more and more like flying and parents more and more like gravity. Kids discover new activities that deliver fun and comradery better suited to their abilities and personalities. Most underachieving Little Leaguers, however, are unable to escape gravity. They play baseball not because they love to or even like to, but because their parents want them to.  “No one,” states the first law of gravity, “likes a quitter.”

Which means Little League spectators must watch a player like Owen while listening to a mom like Owen’s mom.

Owen stands in the batter’s box as far away from home plate as possible while holding his bat perpendicular with hands pressed against his chest. His mother is a typical late-thirties suburbanite down to the detail that her favorite adjective is “amazing.” Baseball has been a source of social contacts for mom, and she and all her baseball BFFs have received the memo listing four things they can yell to inspire a Little Leaguer’s “inner amazing.”

And so we are treated to:

  • The first pitch to Owen is letter-high but over the plate. Owen does not move. The umpire shouts, “Strike!”  Owen’s mom yells, “You can do this, Owen! You can do this!”

  • The second pitch is so far outside it flies untouched to the backstop and bounces out onto the infield. Owen does not move. The umpire shouts, “Ball!”  Owen’s mom yells, “Good eye, Owen!”

  • The third pitch is above the knees and over the inside black of the plate. Owen does not move. The umpire shouts, “Strike two!”  Owen’s mom yells, “Battle now, Owen! You need to battle!”

  • The fourth pitch hits the dirt in front of the plate, bounces off the catcher’s shin guard and hits the umpire in his mask. Owen does not move. The umpire shouts, “Ball!” Owen’s mom yells, “Good eye, Owen! You can do this! Battle now!”

  • The fifth pitch is waste high over the center of the plate. Owen does not move. The umpire shouts, “Strike three!”  Owen’s mom yells, “Good try, Owen! Good try!”

Both boon and bane of Owen’s existence is a pitcher like Jonah. Jonah is a boon because he gives Owen his best chance of walking. Jonah is a bane because he is a pitcher more likely to bean Owen with a pitch. Someone like Jonah is selected to pitch either because his dad is the coach or his dad knows the coach.

To be fair, Jonah does have one distinction. Every fifth pitch he throws is so high it is unhittable even for someone as tall as Shaquille O’Neal standing on a box. After the tenth sequence of seeing this pitch, I asked Jonah’s grandfather: “Why does he keep doing that?” With a straight face, gramps replied, “That’s Jonah’s curve ball.”

As a rule, Little Leaguers do not have the size, strength and dexterity to throw a curve ball.  What are called curve balls are changeups that arc downward solely because of gravity rather than break downward because of spin. However, if Jonah’s grandfather was to be believed, Jonah could do something no one else in baseball had ever done: throw a curve ball that breaks up. Excitedly I waited to track the flight of Jonah’s next fifth pitch. Sadly, baseball history was not made. To be fair, Jonah’s curve ball does break and, as it turns out, breaks sharply downward, but only after it hits the backstop.   

The most annoying parents of underachievers are fathers and even grandfathers who tell a Little Leaguer as he bats what he should or shouldn’t have done to the last pitch. Worst of all are kibitzers like Donald’s dad, who stands on the other side of the backstop behind home plate whenever Donald is in the box.

The time to coach batting is at batting practice, which for parents should involve pitching to your kid at a vacant field or watching him hit in a commercial batting cage. The time is not during a game when the kid is limited to three strikes while battling a pitcher and being watched by a crowd and players intent on the outcome. If kibitzers could coach, they would know that successful hitting at the Little League level requires focusing on the pitch to come, not thinking about the pitch that was. Even someone like Owen is focused on the present, if only to avoid being beaned.

Unlike 0wen, Donald occasionally swings at the ball, although his swing is really a swat. Usually the ball is past him when he swats, although two changeups glanced off his bat en route to the backstop. On both occasions Donald’s father yelled, “You need to straighten that out!” This observation was nonsense because the ball’s path was straight from pitcher to backstop except for a slight hiccup caused by it nicking Donald’s bat. To be accurate, Donald’s father should have yelled: “You need to hit the ball forward!”—although, of course, this would have been insensitive.

Needless to say, Donald’s batting average, like Owen’s, was zero. And yet, Donald did have a higher on-base percentage than Owen even though he was no better at drawing walks. Donald’s secret—although eventually no secret to his teammates—was that he incorporated his swat into a devious get-on-base strategy. Two strikes on Donald with less than three balls meant that he would swat at the next pitch regardless of how good or bad it was. In fact, the wilder the pitch the better. Donald’s strategy hinged on the ball getting by the catcher, something Donald helped induce by squawking like a macaw to disrupt the catcher’s concentration. Donald would swat, squawk and, without hesitation, race to first base. Often the catcher was unaware that Donald had swung at the pitch. Even when the catcher noticed, Donald often reached first base before the catcher could throw him out.  Donald’s teammates finally named his reaching base on a passed ball a “dingle.” He would have recorded the highest OBP in Little League had the only pitcher he faced been Jonah.

Substituting Owen for Donald in the outfield did not lead to a drop in the quality of play because every play involving Owen and Donald was a drop. Technically, I suppose, to be a drop, the ball must be touched before it hits the ground, something neither Owen nor Donald managed to do fielding fly balls. In chasing balls to the fence, Donald did run faster than Owen, but Owen deserves credit for once cutting off a ball by throwing his glove at it.

In the movie “Moneyball,” a young Billy Bean is told by a Mets scout: “We’re all told at some point in time, Billy, we can no longer play the children’s game. We just don’t know when that’s going to be.” Clearly the when for Owen and Donald should have been at birth. How could their parents, I wondered, not tell these boys: “Let’s find some other activity that will make you happy,”? Apparently they thought that admitting their child feared baseball meant he would go through life fearing hardball. But then I had the epiphany that there is a second law of gravity, one that did not exist when I was a boy. It states: “Anyone who quits Little League becomes a video-game-playing couch-potato loser.” Suddenly I realized something that the parents of Owen and Donald understood instinctively: Becoming couch potatoes wouldn’t be a big stretch for Owen and Donald.

Copyright © 2019 by Randy Bechtel

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Email Randy Bechtel at rbechtel@rkbechtel.com