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The greatest 10-and-under girls softball game I ever saw

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Believe it or not, there are times when youth sports really are all about the kids, playing now, at this moment. Not about parents, coaches, future scholarships, future pro careers, who’s on the travel team, or who’s bringing the snack. All of a sudden, a game gets so good and compelling, and the young players’ nerves of steel so awe-inspiring, that all you can do is watch and enjoy the ride.

Tonight, that was my 10-year-old daughter’s third-place softball game for in the kinda-sexist-named Petite Division of the Oak Lawn, Ill., house softball program.

Usually, a third-place game (I managed that same daughter in one two years ago) is a loose affair, what with the pressure of a championship gone. (Thank God.) My daughter Grace’s team is pretty loose to begin with, so they can practically barely stand erect as her Frost, the fourth-place team in the regular season, played the Storm, the second-place team.

The Frost went up 2-0 in the top of the first inning, and the Storm tied it in the bottom of the second. The bottom of the third wasn’t so good for the Frost. They gave up the maximum six runs in an inning, were down 8-2, and looked outmatched by a team that had four travel players to their one. The girls looked dispirited coming into the dugout — and didn’t look any better when they went down 1-2 in the top of the fourth. The coaches’ voices didn’t change pitch, but the Frost coaches seemed much louder as they urged their players.

But then, the magic started happening. The Frost scored four runs in the bottom of that inning, the last two, if I may brag, on a two-run opposite-field single by Grace. Now down only 8-6, the Frost’s spirits were back up, and the parents started getting a little more interested in the game. A few by me joked about not wanting to go to the bathroom, lest they miss anything. All that toilet talk made me have to use the bathroom (where, by the way, I was saw my daughter’s manager in the next stall).

Actually, not just the parents were zooming in their focus. This Frost-Storm game was taking long enough, games were finishing on other fields, and hearing about the comeback under way, players and their families decided to stick around and watch. Slowly more people were circling the field, cheering good plays (by either team), and making more of a buzz and ruckus than your average Florida Marlins home game.

I don’t know much about the Storm. But what they were seeing out of the Frost was pure guts. Players who normally didn’t hit were smacking balls. The Frost would get pushed to the edge of the abyss, then come fighting back. Again in the bottom of the fifth, the Frost got two quick outs. But then came four more runs — on two-run singles placed to about the same spot Grace placed hers. By the end of five-and-half innings, a 8-2 Frost deficit had become a 10-10 tie. More fans streamed toward the field, out of the impending darkness, to check out what was going on.

What was going on was two teams of 9- to freshly minted 11-year-old girls who were as cool and loose as the crowd was wound tight, especially we parents. It’s always difficult to watch your child play because you can’t protect them from injury or failure. It’s even harder when they are being put in situations that would make major-leaguers fold. In the Frost’s comeback, all of the eight runs they scored after falling behind came with two outs. A lot of them came with two strikes. I don’t think they even heard the parents or coaches anymore. I didn’t. I didn’t know of anything that wasn’t happening in front of me.

The Storm came back with one run in the bottom of the fifth to go up 11-10. That meant, for the Frost, score in the top of the sixth, or the game is over.

Grace was up first. She had two hard singles her first two at-bats. But she struck out against the same pitcher she already hit twice. If you followed me on Twitter and Facebook (and why wouldn’t you?), you would have seen this:

Grace strikes out to start 6th. Just setting team up for more two-out heroics.

Hey, after what I had seen the previous two innings, that was not a cocky thing to say. Meanwhile, the players and coaches for the Petite championship game, which was already supposed to have started, were now gathering around to watch.

It turns out the heroics were after one out. More girls smacked base hits to that same magic spot in right field, and the Frost ended the top of the sixth up 13-11. Do you believe in miracles?

The Storm didn’t become a second-place team by folding up easily, either. Though they appeared rattled at times that the Frost wouldn’t go away, they rallied for two runs in the bottom of the sixth and final regulation inning. They had the bases loaded with two out. One walk, and the game was over.

The Frost’s pitcher, Jackie, who in her first game pitching cried herself to distraction after her rough outing (so much I had Grace make a point to tell her everything was OK and her teammates had her back), was now in her third inning tonight — and she wasn’t backing down. Sure, she might get a little frustrated over a bad pitch, but her eyes were lasers into the catcher’s glove. The count works to two balls and two strikes. At this point, the 15,000 people were standing or on the literal edges of their seats to see what would happen. Discussion over how a 10-year-old girl can stomach this much pressure was rampant. If anybody brought Maalox, they were chugging it.

Jackie throws a pitch catching the outside part of the plate. Called strike three. Game is tied.

You know the cliche that it’s a shame somebody has to lose this game? (Ask John Isner and Nicolas Mahut about that one.) As it turned out, in Frost v. Storm for third place, no one had to. It was 8:35 p.m., 35 minutes after the championship game was supposed to have started. So no extra innings — there’s a tie for third.

For this game, there really was no other appropriate way to end it. I don’t know how the Storm felt. But the Frost players were beaming and jumping around with excitement over grinding out such a tough, um, not-win. After each game in their league, a team will form a line with players on each side, slapping hands and chanting, “We. Are. Proud of you, yeah, we are proud of you,” as the other team runs underneath — and then the teams reverse the lineup. In this case, I think the 27,000 fans who saw the end were ready to do the same chant with each team.

Oh, of course, there were some dimbulbs who couldn’t grasp the excitement of the moment. One old fart sitting next to me was ripping the coaches and the players like he was watching a Chicago White Sox game. Dude, these are volunteers coaches and 10-year-old girls, not full-time millionaire pros. Another guy was upset the Frost and Storm couldn’t play extra innings. I mean, really whining about it. Another parent mentioned to Grace’s coach that it’s too bad the Frost made so many errors, or they would have won.

My response is to quote my late father: If my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.

Who cares? Each team makes errors. Half the fun of watching this age group play is seeing how they recover from their mistakes — and both teams improved by leaps and bounds in learning how to forget their mistakes and move on.

It’s nearly three hours after the Frost-Storm game, and I’m still feeling a buzz about it. It’s the kind of buzz that keeps me excited about my kids’ games, even when around me there’s hassles with parents, coaches, future scholarships, future pro careers, who’s on the travel team, and who’s bringing the snack.

Your 2010 Frost, after losing to the eventual champion. Yep, they’re a loose group.

When a Little Leaguer has cancer

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This story out of Haverstraw, N.Y., about an 8-year-old Little Leaguer with leukemia brought back from strong memories for me, because two years ago I was managing a team of kids around that age in a similar, difficult situation. From the Journal News in White Plains, N.Y.:

Sean DePatto ran onto the Haverstraw Little League field Friday with the energy one might expect from an 8-year-old ballplayer.

But what impressed the parents, coaches and players before the Haverstraw Devil Rays took on the Haverstraw Phillies Friday night was that Sean ran out onto the field after rushing back from Manhattan, where he had just undergone six hours of chemotherapy. …

Like the manager of the Haverstraw Devil Rays, I knew before my 2008 season of managing the 8- and 9-year-old Cyclones softball team in Oak Lawn, Ill., that one of my returning players would be recovering from leukemia. That’s because the girl, Olivia, lived just down the block and was good friends with my daughter, Grace.

In midsummer 2007, soon after my then-8-year-old daughter’s first softball season, my first as an assistant coach, and after Grace and Olivia had both played in their league all-star game, Olivia was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.  Her mother feared the worst when she noticed Olivia’s lethargy and an unusual amount of bruising on her legs. Olivia’s family was told that while the five-year survival rate was 80 percent, it would take two-and-a-half years of treatment, including intense chemotherapy, before she would be back to anything resembling normal.

When we told Grace about Olivia’s sickness, we didn’t use the c-word, cancer. With the prognosis for recovery good, we didn’t want to scare her that she would possibly be losing a friend. Later, Grace came home from a visit to Olivia’s house (often the visits were brief because of Olivia’s lack of energy, a combination of the leukemia and the therapy) and asked us if we knew Olivia had cancer.

As adults, you get worried about how your child is going to take bad news from you. It never occurs to you that their fellow child will deliver it, and do so in a way that’s a lot less scary than your tiptoeing around.

It got to the point that, at least as far as Grace and Olivia were concerned, her disease and treatment routine became a matter-of-fact kind of thing — to them, anyway. For us adults, Olivia’s ability to handle so much struggle with so much ease was much more amazing. Olivia’s hospital gave her an award for her courage in the face of leukemia and all it entails. Then again, Olivia had never shown herself to shirk away from trouble. Grace and Olivia first met at age 3, when as her parents walked her down the block after just moving in, Grace — who then as now towers over Olivia — put up her dukes and chirped, “You wanna play fight?” Olivia didn’t say yes — but she didn’t back away, either.

When her hospital gave Olivia the award, the press release that came with it said that because of exhaustion, she could have to curtail her favorite activities, such as dance and riding her scooter.

Softball wasn’t mentioned, but as the 2008 season approached, I, as manager that year, fully expected Olivia not to play, even though her parents had signed her up the previous October, quite an act of positive thinking only a few months after her diagnosis. Olivia’s mother told me she would miss pre-season practices because of an especially intense round of treatment, but that she would be available for games. I went overboard emphasizing that it was up to her and Olivia, and that I wanted her guidance on what Olivia could handle. She said she would give it to me, and that, by the way, she’d also like to be the snack parent again this year.

I also explained to the team and the league what was going on with Olivia. With the team, as my wife and I were with Grace when we first learned of Olivia’s diagnosis, I was more circumspect about the c-word. I explained that Olivia had been sick and was getting treatment, and that they shouldn’t be surprised about Olivia’s lack of hair. Instead of a visor, Olivia would wear a cap given to the managers and coaches that her mother cut up and sewed so it would fit her head. As an added touch, she colored the white lettering on the black cap green so it would match the color of the lettering of the black visors worn by her fellow Cyclones.

Unlike Sean DePatto’s teammates in Haverstraw, neither my girls (nor their coaches) shaved their heads in support. That’s a great idea, and I thought about whether to suggest it. However, I figured that might be a lot to ask to a group of girls, particularly on a team which had members going through their Catholic First Communion during the season. Plus, I got the sense that the last thing Olivia wanted was attention as the Sick Girl, and having a team full of bald heads would only make that more plain.

Unlike Sean DePatto, Olivia by this point was well enough to go to school. But I think this statement by Sean’s mother, Kim, applies to Olivia as well, or any sick children who, if they don’t understand how serious their illness might be, understand the frustration of being told you can’t do your favorite things, and the determination to be able to do them again: “For him to be able to participate with the baseball team is giving him such a rush … It really makes a tremendous difference for him.”

I did not realize until the season was close to the end that Olivia sometimes would come straight to the game from, say, a spinal tap. All I knew was, Olivia, except for her jury-rigged cap, looked no different from the girl who played the previous year. Between her small stature and her quick bat, she was a tough out. And she again was one of our best pitchers. She could pitch two straight innings without getting frustrated or distracted, even if she got herself into a jam.

The only signs of Sick Girl were when the brother of an opposing team member tried to rip off her hat, and my constant asking of Olivia whether she was all right, which I asked so often she probably wondered whether something was wrong with me.

Otherwise, she ran with her teammates, played catch with her teammates, and sang the same interminable cheers that softball girls appear to know without anyone ever having taught them. I chose Olivia as one of our team’s all-star representatives because she was one of our best players. (In the picture to the upper right is Olivia, on the left, and Grace on the right.)

Sean DePatto’s coaches and teammates say that they are all better for having had Sean on the team, and I can say the same thing about myself and Olivia’s fellow Cyclones. I’m not sure how those girls will remember the experience. Maybe it’s because Grace and myself knew Olivia long before she got sick, or maybe it was her own determination to play well no matter what. But I don’t recall any overly emotional moments related to her being ill. All I remember is a kid who played hard on a team I had fun managing. I suspect in later years Grace will crystallize and share with my wife and I more of her own memories, and that they will probably have a lot more to do with the one-on-one time she spent with Olivia at her house during the worst of her therapy and illness, and not so much about the softball.

The next year, Grace and Olivia moved up an age group in their league, and they ended up on different teams. I switched to managing my son’s T-ball team, leaving Grace’s softball training in much more capable hands. Olivia ended her treatments for leukemia and is cancer-free. She also got back her head of hair. In 2010, she’s not playing softball, favoring instead theater and dance — as well as making videos with Grace, like the iCarly-inspired piece below.

[youtubevid id=”rujunJSHVQA”]

And, in case her old hospital would like to know, when Olivia comes over to see Grace, she’s riding her scooter.

In which I throw my 10-year-old daughter to the youth sports-industrial complex

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As I believe I’ve mentioned multiple times, my 10-year-old daughter is a three-time All-Star (as in, every year she’s played) in softball, though so far she has eschewed (to my delight) travel ball. The intensity of the parents and the cliquishness of the girls scared me, as well as the $900 price tag (not including actual travel). Plus, I’m not sure I can be involved, particularly as a coach, because I don’t have a goatee.

Despite my hesitance about getting too deep into the youth sports-industrial complex (go figure, with what I named this site), I couldn’t help but get excited when I found out one of the local travel softball teams was sponsoring two clinics at Dwyane Wade High, my local school. And, those clinics featured college coaches. Plus it was only $30 for two Sundays, and I didn’t have to grow a goatee for my daughter to join.

Anybody remotely sentient understands that clinics and camps serve a purpose higher (or lower) than teaching your child. Here is what all the participants involved in my daughter’s camp get out of it:

Oak Lawn Ice, the sponsoring organization. It spreads its names to the girls and their families, so when it comes to time to shell out the travel team bucks, they will think of the Ice first. Also, the Ice makes more contacts with the high school coach and, more importantly, the college coaches that are coming by and might want to recruit some Ice players, thus getting more families willing to shell out for the team.

– Julie Folliard, the Dwyane Wade High softball coach. Though it’s a public school, it has to recruit against at least three nearby all-girls’ Catholic high schools and one coed Catholic high school, all of which are sizable and have their own strong athletic traditions. By hosting the clinic on the T-Mobile D-Wade Court, she makes contact with a slew of potential high school players, strengthens her contacts with a local club team, and strengthens her contacts with college coaches who might someday want her players, thus giving Folliard a feather in her visor when she’s coming back to young kids to get them to her school, thus building a tradition so smart-asses like me say she coaches at Richards High, not Dwyane Wade High. Also, I’ve heard her complain (in a coaches’ clinic I attended when I coached my daughter’s team) about the lack of fundamentals of a lot of players, so Folliard gets some hope that maybe a few players coming up will know what they’re doing.

– The college coaches. Specifically, Illinois-Chicago assistant Amanda Scott, DePaul assistant Liz Jagielski, and Northwestern head coach Kate Drohan, the attending coaches. They get a very early line on talent, and they get to give that talent a very early line on them. They strengthen their contacts with a high school coach. They strengthen their contacts with a travel organization. They get to plant the seeds of knowledge early, before they have to get players to unlearn what they did wrong at earlier levels.

[youtubevid id=”nN8cOpyOqIE”]

Amanda Scott’s pitching drills were pretty much what you see in this clip. Except that my daughter tells me she also taught them how to throw a changeup.

– The girls themselves. They get to showcase themselves to a prominent local travel organization, and put themselves on the radar of at least one high school coach, and if they show inordinate talent, some college coaches.

However, for my daughter, I figure the advantages are more prosaic. By getting cheap access to quality high school and college coaches, she can learn more in two Sundays than she’s learned in three years under volunteer moms and dads. No offense to them, especially because for two years that limited-knowledge parent was me.

Whatever the undercurrent of semi-professionalism running throughout the camp, as long as my daughter can learn how to control her pitches, field consistently, and figure out the new lefthanded-batting stance she today decided to adopt while at the clinic, I don’t care what everybody else in the youth sports food chain gets out of it.

Bumper bowling live-tweeting day!

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It’s Saturday, which means more tweeting live from the Brunswick Zone in Oak Lawn, Ill., as my 6-year-old son’s Field Force Monkeys take on — well, I don’t know who they’re taking on, and I don’t think they care. Ryan and his team members seems to worry most about the order of scores amongst each other. Anyway, you can follow all the exciting, beer-less bowling action at twitter.com/notgoingpro, or at your own Twitter feed if you want to follow me (@notgoingpro).

I would be curious to hear any responses, here or on Twitter, just to know it continues to be worth ignoring everyone around me as I do this.

Also, it’ll be a game-time decision whether I also live tweet the insurance adjustor looking at my van to assess the damage to my bumper when someone backed into it.

Written by rkcookjr

September 26, 2009 at 10:53 am

Why kids love organized sports

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graces-camera-117

This is my 6-year-old son, Ryan, who is in his first year of T-ball. With his father being his manager, Ryan got the privilege of trying on his uniform before anyone else. It was an extremely exciting moment. “I’ve been waiting for years to put this on!” he told me as he handled his Phillies shirt.

Ryan has spent years watching his older brother and sister putting on their uniforms, so he had a long time to think about how this moment would feel. (Putting on his shirt for his bowling league apparently didn’t count, because it didn’t come with matching cap, pants and socks.) He kept his uniform on all afternoon, until it was time to get ready for bed.

Often there is the assumption that kids would be happiest with adults staying out of the way. But for a lot of children, organized sports is a big moment. It’s a sign they’re growing up, that they’re big kids, because what little kid gets to put on a uniform and have people watch him play? The problem with youth sports isn’t always that adults are involved. The problem is how they’re involved.

My job as manager is to make sure that Ryan — and all his teammates — are still as excited about baseball as the moment they got their uniform. Or at least not make them less excited that I’m not the reason they decide baseball isn’t their sport.

Fundamentals are for losers

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1391476949_1d14bbe4fdIt’s the universal gripe about pro sports, basketball in particular — how so many players seem to be so clueless about the fundamental skills of their sport. Quarterbacks who can’t look off defensive backs, guards who can’t hit the open man, fielders who don’t get in front the ball, etc. Actually, a lot of the complaining isn’t that specific. “A lack of fundamentals” is meant to encompass a general sense of malaise and distaste for sports at the highest level because they’re full of preening individuals who do everything wrong yet get paid so much.

I would guess a lot of the people who complain about fundamentals, outside of hockey fans in Minnesota and basketball fans in Indiana, don’t even know what fundamentals they find lacking, or even if they’re seeing good fundamental play and don’t know it. (And don’t get me started on the number of fans who find Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs boring despite, or because, they play great fundamental basketball.)

However, the nagging feeling about a lack of fundamentals is not all an illusion or the gripe of the fan ticked he’s stacking auto parts while some lucky member of the gene pool is making millions. From the lowest levels of youth sports on up, coaches are willing to ignore teaching certain players fundamentals, as long as whatever they’re doing works.

Yeah, a shocking revelation. But that message got reinforced to me, anyway, during a recent training session for coaches in my 6-year-old son’s baseball league.

The coaches, from Dwyane Wade High School, did an excellent job presenting fundamentals of baseball and how to teach them to young children. I’m especially appreciative to learn the term “squishing the bug,” a way to explain to little kids how to move your back foot while you swing a bat. But, hey, you say, none of the best major-league hitters squish the bug! Yeah, well, you can explain to someone older about picking up the back foot at the point of contact and squishing the bug only afterward, but it’s the easiest way to explain to a 6-year-old that you shouldn’t keep your back foot planted firmly on the ground.

But this does get me to the idea of when fundamentals are reinforced — and when they’re not.

One of the assistant coaches discussed numerous instances coaching his son’s travel teams (approximately ages 10 to 13, it sounded like) when he just gave up on teaching fundamentals to certain kids. If someone could hit home runs, he didn’t care how they did it. If someone could strike people out, he didn’t care how they did it. He said exactly, “I’ll leave it for the next coach.” He said that happens all the time, even at the high school level, where if something is working but flawed, they’ll leave it for a college or minor-league coach to fix.

That makes logical sense. A coach’s job at the higher levels (and maybe even the travel level, depending on the organization) is predicated on winning, and you’re not going to adjust what someone is doing well because it won’t work at the next level. Why stop winning for the sake of that? As a coach, particularly before the high school level, you have only a year, maybe two, with a kid. Often, that’s not enough time to fix a problem. Sure, you’ll try to do it if a kid is doing something wrong and it’s not working. But if it is, bombs away. That explains, in a nutshell, why so many players flame out at a certain level — if you’ve had a bad habit that works, it’s hard to undo it if you’re at a place where the competition is too talented to let it keep working. (If you see professionals with bad habits, then they were clearly physically gifted or otherwise strong enough as a player to overcome the bad habit.)

It was a strange message to send, given these coaches pounded into us kiddie coaches that it’s so important for us to teach fundamentals because that’s going to make their lives easier when the players get to the high school level. Actually, given the amount of complaints they had about present players who had no clue about fundamentals, I believe the “their lives” the coaches were speaking of were their own.

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