For the past two years, I've coached my son's team. Yessir. Coached Pee-Wee baseball. They say coaching Pee-Wee baseball is like herding chickens. That's pretty accurate, except a chicken won't take out one of your kneecaps with an aluminum bat when you're not paying attention.
The joy and the difficulty of coaching Pee-Wee baseball, of course, come from the Pee-Wees playing it. Coaching kids this young is an interesting psychological challenge. You never know what they'll latch on to.
For example, don't ever tell a peewee player that he has a good eye for picking out bad pitches. From then on, the kid will watch every ball go by and wouldn't swing if you pitched him a beach ball underhand. He may not hit well, but he knows that he knows how to watch a ball go by and by God he is going to go with his strength.
Then there are the distractions. Professional athletes have to deal with distractions such as contract negotiations, gun laws, etc. A five-year-old athlete has distractions too. Like planes. And kites. And birds. And the game being played over on the other field. And what ever that is up his nose. And, the most devastating, most vexatious distraction of them all: dirt.
It's weird. It's primal. Kids on a baseball field are compelled to play in dirt like dogs are compelled to roll in dog poop.
Using his foot, or squatting down, the pee-wee baseball player will draw lines in the dirt. He'll draw circles. He'll draw squares in circles with a line through them. He'll pick up a handful of dirt and pour it slowly into the other hand, like a farmer sifting his soil before the planting season. He'll throw dirt into the air. He'll throw dirt at the other team's third base coach. He'll pour the dirt on his head, put his hat on over it, then get an expression on his face like "now that's a good use of dirt!"
Then, when I say, "What are you doing?" he'll look at me like it was the dumbest question since Flounder asked the guys if they were playing cards.
But there's another side. Once, during my first season of coaching, a kid named Michael hit a nice shot over second base and into the outfield. He ran to first jumping and yelling like he'd just won the World Series with a ninth-inning homer.
I ran over and knelt down to give him a high five, and Michael jumped off the bag and caught me with a surprise hug. The perfect joy in his eyes was unforgettable, and it reminded me immediately of my first hit, playing in Lakeside's Bethlehem Little League some 33 years ago.
And that's when it happens. On a warm Saturday morning in April, when you're kneeling in the dirt trying to get a kid to square up with home plate, or out in the field showing him how to stay down on a ground ball the magic of spring, the magic of baseball, the magic of childhood takes you by surprise, jumps right into your arms.
A whiff of fresh-cut grass. The feel of a clean white baseball in your hands. The sight of a sideline full of cheering parents in lawn chairs and on blankets and the sun shining off the faces of players who don't know how to grandstand ... who wouldn't charge for an autograph even if they could write their names ... who play for the joy and the excitement and the hope that today they might be the one to hit the home run and circle the bases (maybe even in the right direction), and get that game ball.
Rebirth, in April, through the eyes of a Pee-Wee baseball player.
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