This is part 2 (age 11, 5th grade) of an ongoing series following a young player’s baseball career from Little League to College Baseball. In order to get the most out of this series, be sure to start at the beginning.
Shortly after Leo turned 11 in October, the fall baseball season came to an end. It couldn’t happen soon enough for Leo, who had been ready for a break from baseball for months.
Leo took up basketball and played through the cold winter months. He excelled at basketball due to his quickness and overall athleticism. Though Leo never did develop a strong love for basketball, playing this and other sports over the years probably helped him at baseball. A multi-sport athlete physically develops in a more balanced way. This reduces the chances of injury and better prepares an athlete’s body for high school specialization.
After the winter break, Leo was ready to play baseball again. Leo was not just ready to play baseball. He was excited!
In January, Leo tried out for a local travel ball team.
Leo impressed the travel ball coaches with his usual good hitting, a 57 MPH fastball, plus a 200-foot throw from the outfield. The 200-foot throw was not supposed to be part of the tryout. It was just a ball that got by another kid and the coach happened to ask Leo to toss it back.
Despite his small stature, he made the team.
At this point he was 4′ 9″ tall, yet still weighed only 85 pounds. Again—close to median for his age, but short and light among his 11-year-old baseball-playing peers. At one point he weighed in as high as 89 pounds, but mostly his weight fluctuated around 85 pounds for many months.
I have personally observed many players of similar size and weight to Leo throw over 150 feet. However, I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone that size throw over 175 feet, let alone 200.
Wayne had previously entertained fleeting thoughts that Leo could play professionally. But for some reason, seeing him standing small next to the other travel ball players, Wayne got it into his head once and for all that playing pro was out of the question. Most pitchers who play professionally are over six feet tall. Leo was likely to end up below six feet tall, based on family genetics. On the other hand, high school seemed like a sure thing, and college a reasonable possibility . . .
Wayne’s goals at this point were to continue to support Leo’s love for the game of baseball, while developing the boy’s confidence, respect for others, and hopefully a motivation to get a college education, perhaps propelled by a desire to keep playing baseball (post 247).
Wayne realized and acknowledged his mistake in pushing Leo to play baseball when he needed a break. Wayne vowed to himself never to do that again, realizing that being pushed does not create passion.
Leo’s travel team started playing tournaments in March. For the first time, Leo was not a top player or even close, as the other players had all received terrific coaching for many years. Wayne wondered (post 245):
This travel ball team is made up of very good players. Every single kid on that team is as good or better than my boy. All of these kids have had a lifetime of “great coaching,” and they are fundamentally sound. I don’t know how many kids will be on the team, but I’ll guess 11 or 12. My boy might be the 10th best player on the team (right now). In short, my boy has a lot to learn, things that I either couldn’t teach him or he simply would not listen to me.
It will be interesting to see how he responds to his first challenge. Will he work hard to be the best? It’s always come so easy to him in the past so will he be willing to do what it takes to be the best? I honestly don’t know. I know he will go in the backyard and throw pitches and hit off the tee and stuff. But what will he do when the coach puts him in the outfield or maybe my boy doesn’t start a game for the first time in his life? How will he respond to that?
Of course I don’t know the answer. But being on a travel team is something he has dreamed of doing since he learned that there were travel teams. So, we’ll see…..
In other words, could Leo respond to the challenge?
He started as a center fielder and leadoff hitter, as is typical for a short, fast player who can hit. He soon began to prove his worth. In his first tournament he faced a bizarre umpire incident and handled the situation well, both as a teammate and a hitter. In Wayne’s words (post 275):
First let me say that umpires have a tough job, that’s why I never argue with them. If they make a bad call then they make a bad call and you move on…no big deal.
Well, during the championship game the home plate umpire made one of the worst calls I’ve ever heard of in any game, much less a championship game.
There was a runner on second, and the ball was hit to center field. My boy got the ball and threw it in, and the catcher tagged the boy out. Get this, the umpire ejected the 11-year-old catcher from the game in the second inning of a championship game. No warning, nothing….he just flat out ejected our catcher. The reason was he said he tagged the player too hard coming into home plate. Both the player who was tagged and the other coach said that the tag wasn’t too hard and the boy wasn’t even hurt.
Anyway, from the second inning on we were forced to play the championship game with only 8 players (we only have nine players on our team). Not only that, each time the ejected player was due to bat it was an automatic out. It was insane and crazy, but it was what it was.
The catcher of course was upset and cried all the way into the dugout. He and my boy are good friends, and this kid has spent the night with us several times.
In the dugout my boy put his arm around the catcher and told him not to cry. He said to the catcher, I’m going to hit a home run for you and we are going to win this championship for you.
God as my witness my boy got up to bat and hit a ball further than he has ever hit a ball in his life. He has never even hit a ball that far in practice. It was a home run straight over the center fielder’s head, and it was hit so far that the center fielder didn’t even try to catch it, he just stood and watched it go over the fence.
Over the course of the next couple months, Leo was given very little chance to pitch. It began to get frustrating after a while. The team won some and lost some. There were ups and downs. However, it became glaringly apparent that the team’s biggest weakness was the catcher position.
Leo was practicing at home just as hard as he did the previous year. Knowing the team’s need, he specifically started to practice the catcher position. He started bringing his catching gear to games, even though he was never called on to catch.
Finally the coach tried him in the catcher position. Virtually nothing got by him. He became the team’s starting catcher. A couple weeks later, he began to carefully study the “catchingcoach” Weaver DVD (catching instruction) that had been sent to Wayne by a forum member who wanted to help Leo.
Leo continued to have a very successful year, proving himself to be a big contributor to the travel team. His skills increased faster than other players’ did, to the point where he was a key player in some weekend tournaments.
In an early June tournament he hit .769 against decent competition. While he mostly played catcher at that tournament, in one game he played center field and made a spectacular catch of a ball hit way behind him to end the game.
What a great season! Surrounded by more skilled players, Leo did not only catch up to them. He surpassed many of them and even taught himself a new position. When someone sets his mind to something and works hard to achieve it, it’s easy to imagine they will go on to achieve great things.
Leo started working with a pitching coach in the summer, which resulted in improved mechanics and being able to locate his pitches more precisely. He enrolled in rec league fall ball soon after the travel ball team wound to an end.
In fall ball, thanks to the improved mechanics from the lessons, Leo pitched 60 MPH and issued very few walks. He had trouble hitting against some of the pitching, which was much slower pitching than he had gotten used to in travel ball. In general, he was somewhat frustrated at the low level of fall ball play.
Leo ended the year at 4′ 11″, and 90 lbs. I’ve seen big 11-year-olds who throw 60 MPH on many travel ball teams, and even on an occasional rec ball team. But Leo-sized 11-year olds? I can’t recall seeing a kid that size, weight, and age throw that hard. Mid- to high-fifties, yes, but not 60.
Wayne continued to be blown away by Leo’s success. Leo ended the season on fire. While Wayne understood by now that early success doesn’t necessarily mean later success, he would always cherish his memories of the time in Leo’s life when he was firing on all cylinders. In his own words (post 253):
I will say this . . . from the ages of 9-11 my boy was the best baseball player in our area for his age. No other kid really came close. He did great pitching and incredible hitting. Yeah, he may have peaked at 11 but I will always have those memories of my kid being the best if only for a short while in his life.
He would not necessarily cherish his memories of what came next: