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Play Ball


Robert Schackner

Author's Note: This column is dedicated to all of the men and women who
give their valuable time so our boys and girls can play the two greatest
games of all time: baseball and softball. You are my heroes.

Let's get one thing straight - I knew what I was doing. If anyone were to come up to me years from now and ask, "Hey - did you know what you were doing?" I would answer with a resounding, "Abso-positively." My wife, on the other hand would more than likely not be so affirmative. She'd probably shove a sharp stick in the interrogator's eye.

Back in January of this year, my wife looked over the top of her glasses and asked the fateful question, "You're going to manage a Little League Team?"

I replied with a soft, "Uh-huh." I furrowed my brow, deep in thought, trying to mount a defense that Perry Mason might use and asked, "Why, is there a problem with this?"

She pulled the glasses way down to the bottom of her nose. I couldn't help but think she looked like Moneypenny in one of James Bond's movies. "Why no, I don't have a problem with this. But I know you. After nearly twenty years of marriage to you, I know what will happen this summer. You'll manage the Majors team in the spring, then you'll coach the town all-star team, after that there's summer baseball immediately followed by fall baseball. And somewhere in there, you'll be the town's baseball tournament director, start a baseball website, eradicate polio and feed all the starving children of the world. In short - no vacation for this family again this year. Am I right?"

I answered sheepishly. "No, technically you are incorrect."

"What do you mean, 'I am incorrect?' Did I miss something? Wait! Did you decide to enter the Iron Man competition in Hawaii as well?"


Then what part of that statement is 'incorrect,' as you say?"

"Somebody already took care of the polio issue."

I heard a heavy sigh from my wife as she pushed her glasses back on the bridge of her nose. "Okay, I give up. Maybe I'll see the Bahamas before I'm sixty-five."

"That's my girl." I gave her a big hug. "You'll see, it won't be so bad. We'll have a lot of fun this year."

She removed her glasses totally as she bored through the back of my head with her eyes. "I'm sure," was all she said.

Before one becomes a manager of a Little League team, one must ask some very introspective questions of oneself. Here's a brief list I compiled before I took a team this year:

1. Regardless of your present marital status, can you manage alimony and child-support payments? 

2. Do you suffer from self-induced psychotic episodes?

3. Are you comfortable in knowing that any decision you make on the field will be second-guessed by kids, parents, the citizens of every non-English speaking third-world nation and a golden retriever named Lucky?

4. Do you enjoy having the parents of kids you don't even know send you death threats via mackerels wrapped in The Sunday Times?

5. Do you believe in angels, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Freddy Kruger, Leatherface and the Yeti?

6. Have you ever had a railroad spike driven into your forehead? Was it fun?

7. Can you intelligently explain the infield-fly rule to an inexperienced umpire without uttering the words, "What a moron?"

8. Are you insured against lead poisoning, which will undoubtedly result from repeatedly jamming a pencil in your eye every time one of your players makes an error in the field?

9. Do you believe the Red Sox will ever win the World Series in your lifetime?

10. Would you believe some puffy red-eyed, scruffy-looking, hung-over Little League coach when he says something like, "Ah c'mon. You'll love coaching these kids. It's easy. And the best part is, it won't take up much of your time."

Yeah? Great. Congratulations, you've just become a Little League Manager. Welcome to hell.

The first part of managing a team consists of picking a team, i.e. the draft. All the managers gather at another manager's house, along with the league president, the league commissioner, and the league player agent. The managers each take turns selecting their team players. Food and beverages are always served, but only a novice would dare to leave the table. Only weaker men succumb to urges like hunger, thirst and ruptured bladders. I've actually heard of men who died from renal shutdown during a Little League draft session. 

To give you a clearer understanding of how the draft really works, try to imagine a collective bargaining session between the Teamsters Union and Roadway Trucking held in a senate subcommittee chamber deep in the bowels of Washington. Actually, the draft is much worse.

I survived my first draft and when I came home three days later, my wife looked at me with her unwavering stare as she whispered sotto voce, "Had enough yet there, Sparky?"

With conviction in my voice, I croaked back, "Huh?"

It seemed like forever until our first game date finally arrived. There was magic in the air as we readied ourselves to play the Pirates. Excitement rippled through the stands. I could feel the tension building and mounting within my own being. That is, until I realized I had inadvertently worn my twelve-year-old son's boxer shorts instead of mine. 

We held batting practice before the game and as I recall, David was at bat, while Tom was pitching. Chris was a few minutes late as he trudged across center field, his arms loaded with his baseball glove, baseball bat, water bottle, smoked turkey sandwich and six pounds of poached salmon. David crushed a fastball and sent it soaring toward center field and, you guessed it, Chris. I began shouting at Chris, trying to warn him of the impending danger. Then I thought to myself, what could the chances be that a ball that's two and three-quarter inches in diameter, traveling at a height of about thirty feet hit a kid that stands four-foot-eight and is located one hundred and sixty feet away and walking two miles per hour? If you bet the ball hit Chris, you'd be wrong. The ball never touched him. Chris saw the
ball coming at him so he tried to catch it with his glove. Except his glove wasn't on his hand. It was in his mouth. But the story gets better. Because Chris misjudged the ball, it hit his bat squarely. The force of the ball hitting the bat drove the bat into Chris' nose, promptly and efficiently breaking it. His nose that is, not the bat. I remember before the season began, Chris' dad said something to me like, "Please give him a chance, Bob. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then." 

As we made our way into the dugout, I called to one of the other players to get an icepack out of the first aid kit. Robert yelled back, "We don't have any icepacks, Coach."

I was half dragging, half-carrying Chris to the dugout. I shouted back, "Whaddya mean we don't have any icepacks. Where did they all go?"

Ian countered with, " Don't you remember, Coach, you used them all on the groin muscle you pulled at our first practice."

I looked over in the stands and found my wife staring back. She walked over to the fence to greet us. She wrinkled her nose and squinted at me as she asked, "I thought you said you got hurt rescuing a window washer who fell from a broken scaffold at the office?"

"I, uh well, uh yeah. I hurt it at the office first and then re-injured it on the practice field. I was re-enacting the time I stole home to win the state championship for my school back in 1973."

Michael interrupted, "Coach, I thought you got hurt when you tripped over first base trying to show us how to run bases."

I benched the kid for two years.

My wife stared back at me without uttering a word. Moments passed as Chris' nose began to swell and both eyes started to turn black and blue. I almost laughed as I realized the kid looked like a tall, skinny raccoon. But I held my tongue and silence hung over the field like an early morning mist. My wife broke the silence by saying, "I'll go to the concession stand and get some ice. But before I go, I have to ask you one question"

I replied, "Shoot."

She frowned while asking, "Had enough yet, Sparky?" 

I shook my head solemnly.

As she walked away, I saw her shaking her head from side to side. I also thought I heard her mutter, "Big hero. Pulls a groin muscle rounding first. Wahoo."

Dealing with young boys who are on the cusp of becoming teenage boys can, at best, be somewhat frustrating. These boys are beginning to test the waters of independence and they're pretty lucky they don't drown - or get eaten by some mambo moray eel. More than one coach has left a dugout for no other reason than to avoid spending twenty years in a federal penitentiary for the attempted murder of a minor. I'm thoroughly convinced that if judges were forced to serve time coaching Little League teams the words "justifiable homicide" would take on a whole new definition. 

The trial might go something like this:

Judge: Do you have anything to say before this court passes judgement against you?

Me: Yes, Your Honor. I was dropped many times on my head as a small child and shortly after that I became a Little League Baseball coach.

Judge: You were a Little League Baseball coach at the time of your crime?

Me: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: Case dismissed.

Some kids just manage to do things so unbelievable that coaches never repeat the tales. It's not a confidentiality thing. It's just that no one would believe us half the time. Take Tommy for example. He was one of the players I had drafted this past season, and he had a reputation for being "a little high-strung." One of the other coaches told me a story about Tommy when he was in first grade. It seems the boy showed up for school one day and was holding a meeting in the back of the classroom. When the teacher broke up the clandestine assembly, she found that Tommy had brought a bottle of beer to school.

Curiosity got the better of me, and one day during practice I cornered Tommy in the dugout. I asked him if it was true that he had brought a bottle of Budweiser to school. Tommy looked up at me with his innocent eyes and said, "No Coach. That's not true."

I breathed a sigh of relief and made a mental note to straighten out the other coach the next time I saw him. Tommy picked up his glove and began to head out to left field. As he trotted away he called back over his shoulder to me, "It was a Corona, Coach. I hate Bud." I wonder what would have happened if the boy had enough foresight to bring a bottle opener. Corona's don't have twist-off's.

When I was a young man in my twenties, I coached a baseball team back in northern New Jersey. If you think it's tough coaching a team by today's standards, you should have seen what it was like back then. I'm talking about northern New Jersey here. Just to give you an idea of how tough those twelve year-old kids were, they had names like, Donny "The Bull" Scarentino, Joey "Little Undertaker" Pantano, and Jimmy "I dare youse to cross home plate while I'm standin' here and I'll break your freakin' back" Lamarella.

I was lucky enough to have a winning season two years in a row. My team won first place in the division and in the town in both 1975 and 1976. As I recall, we won most of our games by forfeit. The other teams just didn't want to play against us. There was some scuttlebutt about a few of the opposing coaches being fitted for cement overcoats, but I think that stuff was just greatly exaggerated.

However, during 1977 Federal indictments were handed down and most of my team was forced to enter the witness protection program. It was a shame it all had to end. I had to start paying for my own parking tickets. I no longer found a new Ferrari in my driveway every six months. But what really hurt was that I had to give up my private box at Yankee stadium and my permanently reserved booth next to the stage at the Copacabana.

Just like a long-awaited vacation, the season flew by far too fast. We lost our last game to the Pirates in the first round of the playoffs. The kids were all disappointed, as was I. If I hadn't left the responsibility of supplying refreshments to Tommy, I think it would have been a boring farewell party. The kids have all gone off to do the things that kids do during summer, before any serious thoughts of school might set in. Before long, they'll forget the season had ever existed. They'll never know the long hours I spent planning their lives in the short term. They'll never know the agonizing moments I experienced after the games wondering if I kept a pitcher in the game too long, or perhaps not long enough. Their lives will go on and Little League Baseball will be replaced with swimming, backyard picnics and pickup whiffle ball games, with each kid dreaming he's Mark McGwire and each at bat bringing him closer to a new home run record. But they'll be back next year. Someone once said that baseball is as perennial as the grass. Whoever said it is a genius in my book.

As for me, well, my wife was right. I managed a Little League team this past spring. I became the town's tournament director and therefore have been involved in no less than seven baseball and softball teams. I also coached the town's all-star team this past summer. I am currently managing a summer baseball team in a nearby town. I'm in the process of creating three baseball teams to send to another local town for six weeks of autumn baseball. By the way, I did develop a new treatment for gastroenteritis. It also makes a great mixer if you ever run out of ginger ale. And oh yeah, I almost forgot. I've also begun plans for world peace. Start small, I always say.

Last night, as we sat across from each other at the dinner table, the last Saturday in July, my wife and I both realized it was the first meal we had shared together since the first week of April. We also realized it would be the last meal we'd share until the last Saturday of October. 

I tried to make some conversation, but it was awkward, as if we had just both met. I tried some idle chitchat, but it was going nowhere fast. Finally, I switched tactics and I told her we should start thinking about taking that trip to the Bahamas next Spring. As she had done so often in the past, she pulled her glasses down over the end of her nose and stared blankly at me over the top of them. I made a mental note that for Christmas this year I'd buy her a pince-nez. 

I extended my arms out to her, pleading, with my palms facing upward. "C'mon," I said. "I mean it. Next year, we'll go to the Bahamas. I promise. Really. You'll see." She kept staring at me, never once uttering a single word. Somehow, I just don't think she believed it. To tell the truth, neither did I.

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