Drop the Bat; Run to First (Lessons From a T-Ball Coach)

A few years ago, I wanted to introduce my oldest son to sports. He was probably four at the time, and after playing catch with him in the backyard during the early spring, I discovered he had a knack for both hitting and throwing a baseball. He was still pretty young, so I figured finding a local T-Ball club would be the best way to introduce him to the sport.

A few days after I signed him up, my wife and I had a barbecue at our house with some friends, and I casually mentioned this to my buddy as we drank beers and watched the sunset. He smiled and said “Nice! I did that last year with my son.” We talked about it for a bit and at one point in the conversation, he said: “You do know that these kids don’t actually play ball, right?”

His comment caught me off guard. What was he talking about? “Well, they sort of do…” he said. “I mean, yeah, they call it T-Ball, but the kids don’t actually hit the ball or run around bases.” I was confused. “They don’t? What do they do?” I asked.

He laughed and said “Well, any number of things. They cry, they tell you about how their dad just bought a new car, they play tag, they lie down and look up at the clouds, or just sit right down in the outfield and play with hotwheels… there’s very little ‘play time.’ You should be prepared for that.” I appreciated his comments, and laughed them off thinking that surely, his T-Ball club was just disorganized.

Oh man. Looking back, I laugh at myself now. He was right… about everything.

I learned a lot in a short amount of time. My first lesson was the harshest: if you check a box on your son’s paperwork that says “I am willing to be an assistant,” what that really means is that on day one, if nobody else has taken the reigns as the leader, everyone calls you “Coach Ron.” I also learned that when parents complain about your coaching style, you can’t just say “Hey, I never signed up for this!” …because you did, kind of. Sorry Coach Ron, these are your players. Time to warm up.

Sports are a proving ground where children can learn valuable life lessons. I knew that from participating in sports growing up: I tried all kinds of sports as a kid: baseball, soccer, hockey, basketball, I spent several years on swim team, and did some wrestling and track & field. Like many people, I discovered life’s basic lessons through sports: life isn’t fair; nobody wants to play with a cheater or a poor sport; you have to pace yourself if you’re distance running; congratulate the winner even if that isn’t you; it doesn’t count unless you cross the finish line; when you fall down, you get back up, etc.

What I didn’t know until I became Coach Ron is that the teacher also becomes the student. I knew I’d help introduce these kids to important concepts like “there’s no crying in baseball,” but they had many lessons to teach me as well. And I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way: it’s a refreshing breath to see the world through a child’s eyes. You just have to be patient with them and not view the process as a hassle.

So, after spending a weekend frantically reading “Baseball for Dummies” and laying out a plan for how I’d teach these kids to play ball, all while trying not to look like a rookie who didn’t know what what he was doing, here are some valuable life lessons I gleaned from my very short tenure as a T-Ball coach.

Lesson #1: Hit The Ball, Then Drop The Bat And Run To First!

This was my battle cry. Many times if a player actually hit the ball some distance (rather than just barely knocking it off the tee), I’d have to tell them what to do. They’d stand there, stunned, with a death grip on the bat, looking at the ball, not knowing what to do. You’ve got to imagine what this looks like: “Run!” I’d tell them. “Run? Okay?” — then they start running… straight towards the third baseman, in the direction of the ball they just hit into left field. “Stop! Stop! Stop!” I’d shout, trying to get their attention. They indeed stop—they come to a grinding halt, standing still, looking at me. “No, I mean, don’t stop… erm.. keep running… run to first! Run to first!”

Sometimes if they did actually run to first, I’d have to shout “Drop the bat!” afraid they were going to slam into the first baseman with their heavy aluminum weapon. So if they actually heard me, they’d drop the bat, and stop running altogether. Or they’d turn around and run back to home plate to put the bat down.

It’s all very funny now looking back, and it was pretty funny at the time too, but it was mostly just so surprising at the number of commands they didn’t understand. Kids are very logical and think about things sequentially. They execute commands exactly as you barked them, without understanding the objective of the command. There’s no nuance. You tell them to run? They’ll run. Oh, you want them to run somewhere specific? Why didn’t you say so?

Lesson #2: We’re All On The Same Team.

Well, not all of us are, but at least half of us are. If you’re wearing a blue shirt, and Johnny’s wearing a blue shirt, you should celebrate when he hits a home run, not cry. If you’re on 1st, and Erin’s on 3rd, it’s okay that she gets to home plate before you. That’s a good thing… the game is designed that way. Many, many times, I’d have to break up fights between kids—on the same team! A center fielder and second baseman would both run to pick up the same grounder, then get caught up in a fist-fight over “It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine!” …and I’d try to shout above the noise and say “You’re both on the same team! Just somebody throw it to 3rd!”

Lesson #3: Kids Don’t Really Know Who They Are.

I mean that on a philosophical level in that they’re impressionable and their personalities haven’t fully developed, but I also mean it on a literal level. For example: they simply cannot remember that their jersey says “#05.” If you say “#05, throw me the ball,” he may just keep sitting there, picking dandelions while the ball is two feet in front of him… because even though he’s been wearing his shirt for three weeks, he still doesn’t remember that he’s #05. Coaches just have to accept that they need to memorize names. And not last names, either, like in real baseball: first names. So if you have two “Evans” on your team, you can’t just call one “Smith” and the other “Jones.” You have to say “Evan 1” and “Evan 2” or “Evan S.” and “Evan J.”

Lesson #4: “I Don’t Know” Is An Acceptable Answer From A Child’s Perspective.

They’ll show up to baseball practice, wearing a baseball shirt, standing in a team huddle talking about how we were going to play baseball, and I’ll notice that one of them wouldn’t be wearing a glove. “Where’s your glove, John?” His response: “Huh? Oh. I don’t know.” How did he think he was going to catch the ball? I don’t know. They haven’t thought that far ahead.

Lesson #5: Don’t Throw A Ball Unless There’s Someone There To Catch It.

I was amazed at the number of times kids would throw a baseball across the field… or into the parking lot… or into a crowd of people, regardless of whether there was actually a human being there ready to catch it. “Who is going to catch that? Who were you throwing that to?” I would ask. Their response? You guessed it: “I don’t know.” Guess what, kid? You threw it, now you have to go pick it up. Bonus lesson: it doesn’t count if you throw the ball at a kid who’s looking at the ground and has no idea a ball is coming their way. I had to remind the players that you have to make eye contact first and ensure that the person you’re throwing a ball to is ready to catch it.

“Off-season training.” We’ve got the mental game down pat.

Lesson #6: You Always Need To Know Which Game You’re Playing.

Many, many times, I’d have to remind them: the object of the game (of baseball, that is) is to hit the ball far, far away, then run around the bases as fast as you can and come back to where you started. The purpose is NOT to hit the ball, then run in the direction of the ball you just hit and pick it up. Where do they get these ideas? What sport do they think this is? “Repeat after me,” I’d say: “the ball is evil… you want the ball to go as far away from you as possible.” In baseball, the ball is BAD and we run AWAY from it.

Lesson #7: At The End Of The Day, Kids Don’t Really Care About The Sport.

This was the hardest part for me to accept. On my first day as a coach, I learned about a new concept I’d never heard of before: “a parent tunnel.” What’s that? Apparently, it’s where all the adults watching the game come onto the field and stand in a line and hold their hands up like a tunnel, and just like playing “London Bridge is Falling Down,” the kids run through it, but instead of singing, we hoot and holler and say “good job.” I may have seen people do something like at one point in my life, but I didn’t know it was called “a tunnel,” and I had no idea kids cared about it. At the end of practices, one of the kids asked me “when can we do the tunnel.” I just blinked. “Do the tunnel?” What’s that? Some parents told me “Well, the LAST coach let us make a tunnel and the kids would run through it.” I had no interest in this and thought it was very silly. But when the player who first mentioned it to me started crying, I rounded up the parents and said “Okay, we’re going to do a tunnel! Let’s go!” and pretended I actually cared about this very silly gesture that has nothing to do with baseball. What is this all about? And who cares? I was already peeved that I had to be the coach since none of the other parents would step up, so I especially resented being compared to the “other coach” from before. Where was your perfect OLD coach now, huh? That’s not my coaching style. I don’t like tunnels.

Alas… over time I accepted that the kids might care a little bit about sports, and they might even care a little bit about baseball. But what they care most about is dressing up in a uniform, going out on the field and making their dads, and moms, and grandparents proud. I learned that “the tunnel” is more accurately called “the tunnel of affirmation.” The kids want to feel loved. They want to be cheered for. They want to be affirmed. I learned to embrace the tunnel. I got over my resentment towards the old coach. I still don’t like doing the tunnel, but I do like what it stands for. Coach Ron believes in that.

Lesson #8: Kids Are Easy To Coach. It’s The Parents That Make Coaching Hard.

If you’ve seen the movie Kicking & Screaming (with Will Ferrell) let’s just say it’s painfully honest about this. It’s the parents that make things hard. One player, in particular, had a grandpa (who may have been a war veteran) who was there at every practice. He chewed tobacco, spat on the ground a lot, and wore shirts that had profanity on them. He also liked to shout out passive-aggressive comments when he disagreed with my calls. How could I try to show his grandson good sportsmanship when he was always undermining me? I never came up with a good solution for that. I just tried to do the best I could and ignore the peanut gallery.

Kids like to huddle.
Kids like to huddle.

Lesson #9: There’s A Time And A Place For Participation Trophies.

I’ve since found out that this is actually a pretty controversial stance to take—apparently there are many people, professional athletes included, who are outright enemies of participation trophies. I’m okay with taking the unpopular route: I like them. I think if a kid can stick around through a whole season of a sport that makes them cry, and confuses them, and they try hard, and learn to lose gracefully, or win with humility, that kid deserves an award. I’m not into coddling or telling kids that they’re “winners” when they aren’t—I draw a firm line between winning and losing. But I’m absolutely the first one who will tell them “you did a great job, and you should be proud of that.” If you play ball for Coach Ron, you’re getting a trophy at the end of the season, period.

Lesson #10: It Makes A Father Indescribably Happy To See His Son Playing Ball.

I grew up around baseball. Not like some others who played a lot of it, and I never played Little League, for example, but I did learn to play it in a kids rec league. I spent lots of my “chore money” as a child buying baseball cards and trading them with my friends. I still have a box of old cards somewhere with a Fleer or Topps collection of Jose Canseco, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds, Darryl Strawberry, and others.

This makes a man proud.

My uncle took me to my first baseball game ever, and we watched the Stockton Ports play the Lake Elsinore storm. I remember everything about that game. I even saw someone I knew there: my tap dancing teacher was sitting in the chair in front of me. That was magical. The whole thing was magical.

Most of my memories of being at my grandparents’ house involve a TV playing in the background, and if my grandpa wasn’t watching golf, he was watching baseball. Sometimes I’d sit through a whole game: the first game I sat all the way through was when he and I watched Hideo Nomo pitch the first ever no-hitter at Coors Field. When we moved to Colorado, grandpa took us to watch the Skysox play, and he made it a yearly tradition after that. He bought us anything we wanted: peanuts, cotton candy, hot dogs, sodas, and pizza. …all on the same day.

Yes, that's a participation trophy. He earned it. So says Coach Ron.
Yes, that’s a participation trophy. You better believe he earned it. So says Coach Ron.

Baseball is America’s pastime, and it’s a Stauffer family tradition. I’m proud to pass it on to my sons, and I’ve gotta say, even if nobody calls me “Coach Ron” again, I’m glad to have had the experience of passing it on. Baseball—and tiny little baseball players—have a lot to teach us.

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