Reflections on 10 years of Youth Baseball Rec League Part 1: Ages 2-8

It has been a very long time since my last post, because I’ve become busy heading up a youth baseball software startup. We have a prototype and now I’m raising money. I’m not prepared to discuss it publicly yet, but if you’re interested in finding out more, you can contact me privately.

My son just entered his tenth and final year of PONY baseball. So I thought it would be fun to do a 10-year retrospective on how those years went. Rather than make this into a really long story, I’ve written just enough about each year to get the feel of it. This post covers through age 8. I’ll do another post soon that covers ages 9-14.

For me, youth baseball is about the stories and the memories. Many of my memories are still very strong, even from nearly a decade ago.

Most of my posts require a great deal of research. Not this one, so it was easy to write.

Enjoy!

Prior to Age 5:

My son watched a brief video showing baseball at the age of 20 months. He wanted to play baseball constantly thereafter. This interest had little to do with me, as baseball had always been a minor part of my life before my son was born.

I taught him to bat right-handed on the assumption that he’d share the same handedness as his parents. However, after a month of him gradually improving his hitting, he tried to be funny one day batting left-handed. He was immediately a much better hitter. That’s when we learned he was a lefty, and he turned out to be left-handed not just with baseball, but with everything.

By the time he was 2 he could hit and throw (but not catch well). The first song he learned was “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” which he learned before “Happy Birthday.” We sang both of these songs on his second birthday.

Starting around the age of 2 1/2 he wanted to play baseball with me constantly and would cry if we needed to stop playing in order to go eat dinner. The first discipline issue we ever had with him throwing hard things in the house . . .

In preschool, he played catch every day with another 4-year-old baseball fanatic, using whatever throwable object they could find, and they hit using plastic bowling pins. That kid’s father’s name was Grady, who turned out to have college baseball experience. Grady ended up becoming a key part of our family’s baseball experience over the next decade and a good friend. He has proofed over half of my blog posts over the years, to make sure I don’t make any “baseball mistakes.”

My son was very small for his age so people would stop in amazement to watch a toddler hardly bigger than a baby hit, throw, pitch, and catch.

Soon after his 4th birthday he asked when he could start playing with a team. Our local league did not allow players on the field until age 5, so for many months he counted down the days until he could join a team and start playing.

Turns out that the first Sunday game would be on his birthday, so he thought of this as an awesome birthday present!

Several months before entering the league, he started mimicking the pitching motions of many major league pitchers. Satchel Page was the funniest as my son would sometimes fall over as he tilted his body way back.

But out of 20 or so pitchers he mimicked, Cliff Lee’s pitching motion gave him best results. So he adopted the Cliff Lee motion, and you can still see remnants of that pitching motion 10 years later.

The day of his 5th birthday approached, the day he had looked forward to for so many months, and . . .

Age 5:

I signed my son up for the “Shetland” division of our local PONY recreation league. PONY is the second largest recreational youth baseball organization in the country, after Little League, and it was the closest league to our house. Also, our local PONY league had a reputation for being a good place for more serious baseball players who preferred having a lot of practices and therefore achieving a higher level of play relative to other rec leagues.

However, the 5-6 year old Shetland division is not serious at all.

When the schedule came out, my son was disappointed to find out that our team, called “Team Blue,” had a bye week on the day of his birthday. He wasn’t just disappointed. He was devastated, so we reached out to see if there was any way he could play somehow.

When Team Green’s head coach heard this story, he kindly allowed him to play for his team on this one day. We were forever grateful and I’ve joked with this coach over the years that he is primarily responsible for the baseball player my son eventually became!

For the rest of the season, his regular Team Blue head coach was very patient, had a great sense of humor, and we had a fantastic season. It was full of the typical things you see in 5- and 6-years-olds—crying, picking grass and/or digging holes in the outfield, kids running or throwing the wrong way, etc. But it was still loads of fun for most kids and their parents, and very cute.

Score was not kept, and all kids were allowed to run the bases after an at bat from coach pitch (or with the batting tee if they took too long to make contact). Kids still tried to make outs on defense because most knew the rules of baseball and what you’re supposed to do in a “real game” of baseball, but even a player thrown out could still remain on first and run the bases.

Shetland players met only once/week, on Sundays. The first 45 minutes were used for practicing skills, and the remainder of the two hours was a pseudo game of baseball.

My son enjoyed it, but was already eager to play at the 7-8 year level. At this point in our league’s history, though, players were grouped strictly by age.

After the season was over, I organized summer play, which consisted of a few players from Team Blue and other teams showing up and just having fun. If we could play a game of sorts, we did. If we didn’t have enough players for a game, we did whatever the kids found fun, such as double play practice, hitting practice off coach pitch, etc. This was the first of two summers I informally organized for extra play.

Age 6:

This year, teams got names associated with a color, and my son’s team was called the “Blue Devils.” The assistant coach of last year’s Team Blue became head coach of this year’s team, and he did a fine job. He was also helped out by coach Grady, the father of my son’s pre-school friend, who was also on the team.

At this age, there is no draft—just random assignments. The team ended up loaded with talent. Might seem strange to talk about talent at the age of 6, but . . .

Very first hit of the season from an opposing team went to my son, who was playing third base. He fielded it cleanly and rifled the ball to the first baseman. The first baseman was so shocked to see the ball fielded cleanly and thrown so hard that he didn’t move his glove. The ball hit him just below his glove, in the stomach. He cried and then sat out for the next half hour.

The team quickly shaped up and made many amazing defensive plays. I simply could not believe how much better this particular group of 5-6 year olds were than the prior year’s group. There were even 2 traditional 6-4-3 double plays (SS to 2B to 1B), both of which my son was involved in. Of course, the base runners were very slow . . . but still, it takes a lot to coordinate a double play, even with slow runners.

As it turned out, many of the players on this team turned out to be future all-stars and obvious candidates for local high school teams. This was the last year of random player assignment to teams, as drafting players for balanced teams begins at age 7 in our PONY league.

Age 7:

Finally, Pinto division baseball! You get to keep score, (hopefully) draft balanced teams, try to win, and meet 4 times/week for practices and games. Yes, it’s coach pitch, and there are no leadoffs or steals, but you’re playing the game with the intent to win as a team.

If you’re going to hold a draft, you need a way to evaluate players. So in January, for the first time my son attended an evaluation.

He had practiced a ton from the age of 2 to 6, and was just a couple months shy of his 7th birthday. He fielded cleanly, threw hard relative to his peers, and hit every ball pitched to him, most making it to the outfield on the small diamond. It was a really good performance from the smallest guy on the field.

Like most leagues, our league allows a player who has a coach for a father to be “pre-empted” to help a head coach go into the season with a coaching staff. But this causes the coach pre-empt players to avoid the draft.

Furthermore, at this point in time our league had a drafting system that kept the 7-year-olds on the same team for the next year, for social cohesion. So the 8-year-old portion of the team each year is mostly already formed, with only a few additional 8-year-olds entering the league for the first time plus all the first year 7-year-olds.

This was not a very good system for drafting, as it tended to produce lopsided teams. It was scrapped 2 years later for a much better system.

The good news is that my son was picked to be on the Padres, headed by coach Grady. Not only did coach Grady know a ton about baseball and working with children, but my son got to be on a team with his baseball buddy from preschool.

The bad news is that he was picked to be on the Padres. The first practice we went to was stunning. To say this team was unimpressive was an understatement. It was not even close to the level of the 5-6 year olds he played with last year.

The Padres returning as 8-year olds had received poor instruction the prior year from a first time coach who was unable to quickly learn the job. In the prior year, Padres lost all games, crazy scores like 40-3 or 35-2.

Bottom Line: Despite having an awesome coach, two athletic 8-year-old players, and several promising 7-year old players, the team inherited several 8-year olds with really poor baseball skills and therefore on paper, the Padres were a really weak team.

And yes—we were a really weak team.

After a month of practices in February, we lost our first few games in March by lopsided scores. Coach Grady and his assistants were teaching the kids baseball skills at a good rate but it could only happen so fast. While the scores started out as lopsided as the prior year, the gap narrowed throughout the year as our team’s skill increased at a faster rate than other teams.

At one point, Grady requested that I start watching defensive plays so we could tell the players things they were doing well after the game.

I did that.

But I also developed a thorough system for tracking what caused an error, the beginning of what was to be a multi-year obsession with tracking anything and everything to improve players and teams.

Grady used the data I was cataloging to adjust what we were working on and it rapidly translated into a higher rate of fielding success. We went from being far below average at fielding to becoming approximately average, and were losings by just 1-3 runs for the last 3 games of the season. We still did lose every game of the regular season.

We entered playoffs as part of the tougher of two 4-team pools, and we finally won our first game! We also lost 2 games by close scores to the 2 teams that eventually faced each other for the championship game.

One of the 2 teams was undefeated for the whole season coming into that championship game, because they had the best fielding by far. Their first and only loss that season was the championship game, as they developed a case of nerves. I got the sense in our age group that parents and some coaches had big expectations at these younger ages and sometimes got very wound up about playoff games, and that sometimes got their own players nervous. Not sure if that was the case in this championship game, but I definitely saw a lot of tension in some of the playoff games during this year and the next year of the 7-8 year-old years.

So how did our family feel about this season? We loved it! It was one of our favorite seasons, because we got to see our players improve by leaps and bounds in all areas of the game, especially fielding. It is amazing to watch a team getting totally blown out every game early season, yet develop into a team that was just as good as most of the others a few months later.

My son said a few times over the years that “It’s better that we lost every game than if we had won every game because I learned a lot about losing.”

Age 8:

My son got to play another year with Coach Grady and the Padres. It was the last year of our league’s system of having 7-year olds return for a 2nd year together. And this time, coach Grady was not inheriting players from some other coach. He picked these players last year when they were 7.

It was also a year where some kids began to grow very fast. Some players who were beginners or not very good the prior year became much better, partly because of size benefitting their hitting. My son was not one of the ones who grew, and he had been steadily decreasing his practice time over the past year. Therefore, many players passed him up in terms of actual in-game performance. His fielding was good, but he couldn’t hit the ball nearly as hard as many of the bigger players on the field.

From this point on, my son was always the shortest or second shortest player on every team. According to CDC figures, he was 25th percentile on both height and weight for his first 9 years playing rec ball. Given his size, and his tendency to “step out,” he was never the player on the team who hit the ball hardest. But he also didn’t strike out much, so he could at least be relied upon to hit the ball in play, and typically got many singles and “reach on errors.”

The Padres were much more competitive this year but lost many games by close scores and ended up in 7th place out of 8 teams. The Padre’s defense was good, but hitting was lackluster at first, as the team did not have many big players compared with other teams. However, hitting improved with just a couple weeks left in the season, and the Padres entered the playoffs as one of the hotter teams.

The playoffs were divided into 2 pools of 4 teams each again. The Padres came in 2nd place in their pool, which was enough to advance to the semi-finals. The team we played next had the biggest players and the best regular season hitting, but their defense trailed behind the Padres. They were shocked to lose to us. They thought that with their league-leading hitting, nothing would stop them en route to a championship.

Defense is generally terrible at the ages of 7-8. So whichever team has the best defense is the best team, on average. One way I like to measure defensive effectiveness at this level is by how many runs the team gives up, on average.

This year, out of 8 teams, the 5th place team gave up the fewest runs, and the 7th place team (our team, the Padres) gave up the 2nd fewest runs. Both teams had caught up offensively by the end of the season, because most kids eventually get the hang of hitting off coach pitch. So the two best defensive teams faced off in the championship.

The team with the best defense won the championship game. Our team, with only the 2nd best defense, came in second place.

My 8-year-old son fielding a routine grounder during a game . . . defense matters!

This was also the first year where being selected for an all-star team become a possibility. We had a very large number of good players so we had enough for two teams of all-stars. By this time, my son had been passed up by so many bigger players hitting so much better that he ended up with the weaker of the two all-star teams.

He ended up making some form of all-star team every year for the rest of his years at ECYB, but some years elected not to play with them. This is the last I’ll say about all-stars because if I start writing about that experience in detail, this already lengthy two-part post would more than double in length.

Overall, another really fantastic year.

My volunteer jobs for 3 years in a row was the team business manager, and it was my last year of doing that job, because the next year I decided to become a head coach.

To read the rest of the story, click on to:

Part 2, Ages 9-14

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *