Ten years is a long time to be playing recreation league youth baseball. This is the conclusion to the two part series, which began with:
Enjoy the end of the story!
Players aged 9-10 are part of the Mustang Division in the PONY system. Mustang feels a lot more like real baseball because kid pitch begins and steals are permitted (though no leads). Fielding, though not great, is much improved, and no longer the key variable in determining game outcomes.
Pitching determines game outcomes. More specifically: Walks. The team that issues the least walks wins around 80% to 90% of games. Most players are new to pitching, after all.
My son could throw. He had developed a pitching motion years earlier, had done some summer and fall play where he got to pitch some, and had done a few bullpens in recent months. So he came in at an advantage compared to many 9-year-olds. Of course, many returning 10-year-olds had pitched the year before. But anyone who could throw strikes at this age was going to pitch. My son did not have anywhere near as much velocity as kids who were much bigger and/or more physically developed, but he threw strikes, rarely walking batters.
Not only that, but he had developed a new pitch in the off season that he called, “the crosser.” It was thrown like a football, but with his fingers crossed, and it had nasty tailing action despite the low velocity. He tried throwing it a couple times in scrimmages and early season games but could not throw it for strikes. After throwing the pitch one time for a ball in an early season game, one player on our team yelled out, “No, no not the crosser!”
By the end of the season, though, that same player was yelling, “Throw the crosser!” because he was finally able to throw it for strikes, and nobody could hit it.
Hitting is also a new big deal in Mustang, because facing kid pitch is completely different than coach pitch. In prior years, coaches wanted to make it as easy as possible for you to hit. In Mustang, kid pitchers are trying to get you out. Most pitchers have poor control, so fear of getting hit by a pitch is very real, causing some players to step out on every pitch, or in some cases jump all the way out of the batter’s box. Most players get used to kid pitch by the end of their first season, but not all.
The first year my son entered Mustang was also my first season as head coach. I leaned hard on my assistant coaches as well as a parent who was taking a year off from coaching. I also learned from coaching books. I am super grateful for all those who helped me out that year to learn how to coach baseball.
The teams were much more even this year as our league had instituted a parity draft system. The parity draft was an immediate success in creating balanced teams. The only deficiency is that it didn’t do anything about the situation of the top 3 pitchers all ending up on the same team through coach pre-empts. Roughly speaking, that happened (top 2 pitchers, and then 2 more pitchers who were among the top 10), and the team with those top pitchers had the best record. We got wiped out by this team in our regular season games with 0-1 hits per game, but throughout the season we improved every aspect of our game. When we faced this team in the playoffs, we barely lost and put up a very good fight.
Our team was the Cubs. We won about the same number of games as we lost. We had decent pitching and very good fielding but were hampered by below-average hitting. Our hitting was so bad, that my son had the best batting average on the team, and it wasn’t all that high . . . I think it was the only season he ever led his team in batting average. Some of these hits were slow rollers down the 3rd base line, which are very difficult to field for an out. A couple times he purposely bunted to that very same location, which he easily beat out for a hit.
The thing our team became most known for was come-back from behind victories, which I think happened 4 times. We were also known for having a lot of fun, so much so that having fun in youth baseball became one of my early blog posts.
A very interesting dynamic in this season was how pitchers improved throughout the season. Early games were determined by pitchers attempting to throw strikes, and often failing. Then they got better with both strikes %, and then with velocity. By the end of the season a number were throwing changeups which completely changed the equation. It was a really fun evolution, so the pitcher/hitter arms race became another one of my early blog posts.
I remember that season better than any other on account of it being my first year as head coach, which was hard due to the learning curve. Coaching was much easier in subsequent years.
I decided to be an assistant coach this year instead of head coach. Our team was called the Angels. Theoretically, we were a stacked team, with 3 very good pitchers, a bunch of good hitters, and reasonable fielding as well. However, we had some team chemistry issues due to a couple players who sometimes got intensely frustrated after making mistakes.
We also had one of our most athletic players hit in the face with a pitch. He was uncomfortable in the box thereafter and quit baseball after the season ended. Getting hit in the face with a baseball is terrifying, and the only 2 cases I’ve heard of it caused the player to quit baseball altogether.
My son had his best hitting season to date, because he got a little bigger, got a little better, and began using an Origin Axe Bat that he really liked. But this was a good hitting team, so several players hit even better. He played a variety of positions. But pitching continued to be his specialty, despite the umpires banning the use of his “crosser” pitch a few games into the season. The umpires felt that the crosser was too much like a curveball, which in our league is not permitted until age 13.
The Angels won some, lost some, and had some emotionally uncomfortable moments. We made it out of pool play to the semi-finals in the playoffs, where we proceeded to get blown out. For my son, it was another fun season of rec baseball.
My son’s age cohort happened to have an unusually large number of skilled players, and as their bodies were maturing, this became ever more apparent each year. And in some ways, this was a breakout year for this age group. While my son was still doing great as a pitcher, many kids who were 2-3 years ahead developmentally (and in some cases 6-12 inches taller and 50-100 pounds heavier) shot way ahead of him in terms of in-game performance in every way not related to pitching.
This age cohort was so good that a few months later, our 10u select (all-star) team had its best summer performance in a decade for our PONY league, advancing to the super-regional level in the annual summer PONY World Series competition. My son was part of this AAA caliber team. I mention this only to point out that the caliber of play in this particular year was quite high for a rec league.
I became head coach again. Despite having some experience coming in, this was by far my toughest season as a coach. By this age, some players develop “attitude” and our team was no exception. We had a big issue with “hustle.” Lack of effort drives me crazy and I simply can’t accept it.
I lectured, I drilled, and I lectured some more, but the hustle issues did not go away. Finally, I tried some completely different approaches, taking advantage of our team name, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to inspire hustle based on Jackie Robinson’s example. I chronicled how I managed to turn this team around in Can You Teach Hustle?
For the first time since he started playing organized baseball, my son had a sluggish start to the preseason. His pitching was off, and his strike percentage was the lowest ever— so low that he did not meet the 50% threshold in the preseason scrimmages I required from pitchers who were going to get most of the work. So at first, my son did not pitch much.
Turned out to be just a sluggish start, as he ended up rapidly improving and after the first third of the season was over, he got a lot more work as pitcher. This happened with several other pitchers on the team as well. Our team therefore started the season with a lot of losses due to the hustle issues and pitching woes, but once both turned around, we started winning many games. Against the top team in the league, we lost our first game 26-4, lost our second game 9-6, and then in our final game against them, won 4-2.
One fun thing that happened was we had 3 left-handed pitchers on the same team. My son had a really good deceptive pickoff move that he taught to the other two lefties, so we started getting 1-2 pickoffs per game, which dried up after a few games as opposing teams stopped trying to steal or even take a sizable lead against any of our 3 lefties.
We even became known as a team who hustled by the end of the year. Many bloopers were hit between infielders and outfielders, and we had drilled that so many times that our players were almost always catching those.
We were on fire going into the playoffs and easily won our first game of pool play. However, for game 2, one of our normally very reliable pitchers was nearly run over by a car earlier that day, which I only learned after the game was over. His pitching was off, he was very emotional, and it affected the whole team. When the smoke cleared, we were losing 9-0 after the 3rd inning. We then proceeded to play the most spectacular 4 innings of baseball we had played all season. We scored 7 runs, while giving up none, but it wasn’t enough. We therefore lost 9-7 and did not make it past pool play.
Though this was a very tough team for me to handle early in the season, in the end it was gratifying that my (not inconsiderable) effort to teach hustle actually worked. Plus, I just really liked the Brooklyn Dodgers name and stylized “B” on the hat.
Occasionally, two head coaches decide to join forces and co-manage a team together. Grady (ages 6-8) and I had become good friends and had developed some differences in coaching style that we thought might be complimentary. We decided to experiment with co-managing a team, and he liked the name Brooklyn Dodgers so I got to keep that team name for another year.
This year was interesting due to the very wide variety of player styles, which required that we individualize our instruction more than usual. For example:
We had some hitters who were afraid to swing the bat, while others were insanely aggressive. It’s pretty normal to have timid batters, and it’s pretty normal to give lectures (followed by drill) about swinging at every pitch thrown for a strike, swinging at “anything close” when you have 2 strikes against you, etc. But this was the wrong advice for two players, one of whom was my son. With these two guys, it was liking adding gasoline to a fire and their batting results got even worse after this team lecture.
So we had to take aside the two aggressive batters and explain something different. Don’t swing at pitches a foot outside the zone. Don’t swing at pitches half a foot above your shoulders. It’s okay to get a walk. Really. These two batters got virtually no walks the first half of the season and many low quality hits from balls chased way outside the strike zone. After the lecture/instruction on dialing back the aggression to wait for better pitches combined with supportive drills, both hitters improved dramatically.
My son ended up having his best stretch of hitting in his career in the second half of the season (perhaps partly due to using an MB50, his favorite Axe Bat ever). The other player did even better, hitting the ball to the 230′ fence with every other at bat, it seemed. In the last game of the playoffs that player hit so well that he got intentionally walked to load the bases when the game was on the line.
We had to individualize other aspects of the game as well—base running, fielding, pitching—the kids and their issues were all over the map. While this is true to an extent every season, it was more true this year than any other, and it helped to have coaches with different styles to address the different types of players.
The end result was again a team that improved by the end of the season and got somewhat hot entering the playoffs.
We got to a playoff game that if we won, would advance us to the championship game. The opposing team had the best regular season record, so we were the underdogs. My son got the start and did well at first but got tired in the middle of the game. They scored a few runs during that inning and when the smoke cleared the game was tied 6-6. The other team picked up 3 more runs so by the top of the last inning of the game, we were losing 9-6. Somehow, from out of nowhere, our team exploded to score 16 runs (one of which was from an intentional walk of the batter who had hit the ball to the fence all his prior at bats. He was very upset to get walked but as first base coach I promised he would score, and he did!). With a 22-9 lead, it seemed like a sure thing we’d win. They picked up 3 runs in the bottom of the inning and then we closed it out. But then . . .
The opposing head coach approached and informed us that he noticed we did an improper player rotation. Rules in our league for that infraction: Game forfeit. And yes – we had made the mistake. Unbelievable.
9 months later my son had a writing assignment in school to write about something really important to you that happened and was packed with emotion. Some kids wrote about the day they got a new pet or the day a pet died. Others wrote about moving from a foreign country to the U.S. My son? You guessed it! He wrote about this game. He described the whole game in all its exciting glory, only to be crestfallen with the forfeit outcome.
The team we forfeited to was stunned after we scored all those runs and went on to lose the championship game the following day.
Though the season ended in this disappointing fashion, the kids still felt like winners. We had, after all, just put up 16 runs in a single inning, and by one way of looking at it, we ended up winning our last playoff game of the season, which is typically only something that happens if you’re the champion. And the kids got way better at baseball throughout the season too.
This is by far the toughest year for me to describe. Partly it’s that the year is too fresh in my memory. Having perspective is easier with the passage of time, as you remember what’s important and forget the details. But I am confident that ten years from now, I will still feel that this season was more complicated, tense, and outright strange than any of our other rec league spring seasons.
Age 13 can be a tough age to coach, as some players become more willful, put forth less effort, and at the same time ratchet up expectations for baseball coaching expertise. Add to that a few circumstances unique to my son’s first year on “the big field,” and all the ingredients were in place for a volatile year. The circumstances:
- 8 out of the 11 players on this team had played together on a 12u summer team the previous year. Their comradery was strong . . . sometimes in a way that led to goofing off and disrespectful behavior.
- These 8 players (combined with a few other players) were skilled enough in the prior summer to beat most AA travel teams, so had developed some of the confidence and “attitude” that you might expect from such success.
- The coach they had the prior summer was by all accounts a fantastic coach who not only had very extensive baseball knowledge, experience, and coaching skill, but also a gift for relating to kids just turning into teenagers. This fantastic coach was going to be a very tough act to follow, no matter who came next.
- There were only 3 head coaches available for 4 teams. An ex-coach whose player had aged out of our league a few years earlier volunteered to come in and be head coach with the help of parent coaches, and that turned out to be our team. In our league, this was the first time in the last decade that a head coach was not related to a player on the team.
- One of our parent assistant coaches drafted the team. He did a great job, as the team ended up with good pitching depth, reasonable fielding, and “good enough” hitting. Our top 3 pitchers compared very favorably with the top 3 from any of the other teams.
In the view of some, “the big field”—the 60/90 field—is where real baseball finally begins. The throws are far, you need to swing hard to hit the ball out of the infield, and the distance of 90 feet from home to first takes a long, long time to run compared to the smaller fields of earlier years. Most of the players on this team were 13u, and therefore getting used to the big field for the first time.
So could this outside coach handle a bunch of close-knit 13- and 14-year-olds on the big field, despite comradery that sometimes bordered on unruly behavior?
At first, it seemed as though the answer was “yes.” His own son was a strong high school player, and his thought was to try to do “high school lite” at the practices. He was not as experienced as high school coaches, though, so he didn’t always know how to do everything. Nonetheless, parents appreciated having someone willing to step up as head coach, and even more so a coach willing to try to get the kids ready for high school.
The team was called the Diamondbacks, and they started out winning most of their early season games. However, the rapport between the coach and his team did not start out great during the preseason practices, and seemed to gradually worsen during the season. As discord between the head coach and his team increased, team performance decreased.
My son loves to pitch more than anything else in baseball. But, it seemed to my son that the head coach did not believe in him as a pitcher. Therefore, he felt he had to be close to perfect in every pitching outing, or he might never again get a chance to pitch this season.
The end result? My son rose to the occasion . . . by the time the season was nearly over, my son had pitched 9 innings and had had given up zero runs, earned or otherwise. He was having his best season ever as a pitcher in every statistical category except for work load . . . 9 innings and 147 pitches over the course of a rain-shortened season, with only 2 games remaining.
The light pitching load was, in one important way, a blessing. It reduced his chance for developing arm soreness leading to injury. In our league, many players between the ages of 11 and 14 developed soreness with their throwing shoulders or elbows, and quite a few ended up injured enough to require extended rest from throwing, sometimes combined with physical therapy.
So far, my son had managed to avoid significant arm issues. At the same time my son’s pitch count total was far below his usual 500-600 pitches per season, three pitchers on his team with heavier workloads routinely pitched with fatigue, sometimes leading to soreness.
With just one game left to go, the head coach said he was needed for his son’s high school baseball games, so the team was turned over to the same coach who had drafted the team. Though this was his first time as head coach, he had been the main assistant coach on several teams and had the full confidence of the families and the players.
The team was now 6-5, with playoffs starting just days after the last game of the season. The new head coach was well known and well liked, and had a way of talking to players that brought them together as a team. The new coach’s gift for gab even worked with this borderline-unruly group of 13- and 14-year-olds.
The Diamondbacks won the last game of the season. They won the first playoff game. They won the 2nd playoff game.
We were playing really well—our best baseball of the season.
Then we found out the playoff games only mattered for home field advantage, so for the third game, the coaching staff decided to save the top pitchers for the championship weekend coming up in a couple days. Players who hardly ever pitched got some action, and we ended up losing this last, meaningless playoff game.
We won the semi-final game on Saturday and made it to the championship game on Sunday only to find out that our main catcher had suffered an accident with his hand on Saturday night. He was a scratch for the championship game. This caused a domino effect of players moving out of their best positions. Unsurprisingly, our defense stumbled and we lost the championship game.
We can’t help but wonder what we might have been able to accomplish in that championship game if our catcher had not injured his hand.
It will be interesting to see if we view this as “just another season” a few years from now, or whether it truly was more complicated, tense, and outright strange than his other spring seasons.
I keep thinking over and over: 10 years. Hard to believe it’s been that long. I went to a four-year college, I’ve worked for a few years in a row at the same organization. But this local league is the only organization I’ve ever been heavily involved in for 10 years in a row. Wow.
Now a new season is beginning. We are thrilled that Grady is once again head coach. February is typically a time in our league for getting in about 12 out of 16 scheduled practices, as we typically lose 4 practices to rainouts.
This year, the rain is endless. It is raining as I write, and we have had a total of 3 practices on grass so far this year, and another couple on cement. Based on current weather predictions, it looks like we may not have another practice before our first game in March. With so little practice, I expect we’ll look rusty . . .
Maybe I’ll update this age 14 slot a few months from now. Maybe not.
But what I can say is this:
We have been incredibly fortunate to be part of a local PONY league that has been very well organized, provided a great environment for kids to learn and grow, and got a whole bunch of kids ready for high school baseball.
Today, our son submitted his schedule request for his first year in high school. He told us that he was going to write the following in the comment area:
Please do not schedule a last period class for spring semester. I’m going to be on the school baseball team. Practice starts early.