First Victory!

baseballIt took nearly 4 months and 18 games, but my AA Braves of the ECLL celebrated their first victory on Saturday. While I won’t say our team is “peaking” it was a great feeling of accomplishment for the boys. the coaches were thrilled that the hard work and effort they have given us over the course of the season finally paid off. Even with a 2-16 record (1 win by forfeit) we still make the playoffs as the #1 season, which was decided upon prior to the start of the season by pulling numbers (seedings) out of a hat. Just so happened I pulled the #1 seed, thus we will play one of the top 2 teams in the league (based on win/lose record).

The victory for me was somewhat bittersweet, as I was left to act as scorekeeper yesterday during the game. While I remained positive after the game, we didn’t play off that well. It was more that the other team hurt their chances to win by the number of walks they allowed in 5 innings, which hit double digit. This has been our problem all season long because a walk can turn into a triple in just 2 pitches, as no catcher in AA can make that throw to second base. That fourth pitch, a ball that goes past the catcher ends up scoring the runner from third base.

While I managed the substituting of players, I was not my normal, vocal self with shouts of positive reinforcement and encouragement. I left the coaches to my coaches. As the game progressed, I was more frustrated with our lack of hitting, again. It’s amazing to watch these boys hit during practice, all of them swing a very aggressive bat and have done so since we started practicing back in February. Come game time, the bats go quiet. Good, aggressive swing go to hesitation and many bats being left on the shoulder resulting in a backwards ‘K’ in the score book.

Yesterday we had just 3 hits in route to our 16-6 victory over the struggling Red Sox. No team should be winning with just 3 hits, in fact both teams committed more errors than hits. Part of the reason is their age (7, 8 and 9 year olds), still learning the game and not really quick enough or strong enough to make a stop and long throw from shortstop of third base, for example. Our coaches were very aggressive on the base paths, taking base after base, an act I have not been too supportive of all season since I believe “stealing” (if you can call it that) doesn’t teach the player anything because catchers can’t make the throw to second base. Yet, nearly every team takes advantage of this in AA, resulting in high scoring games.

This concludes my first year managing competitive little league in the ECLL. Plans are to manage next season with two of my coaches who joined me this season. This time around we will be involved in the entire process, from tryouts to the draft, unlike this season.

While I am not conceding the loss in two week, the boys have their work cut out for them this week in practice. They will need to work just a bit harder and be that much sharper in order to be prepared for whichever team we face. Both teams scored 20+ runs on us the last time we played, but the positive side is we were in both games through about 4 innings. After 4 innings we struggle with consistent pitching.

Win or lose, I am very proud of all the boys I have managed this season. They have learned the fundamentals of the game of baseball and hopefully have become people based on how we have taught them this season. At the start of the season my philosophy was to develop the player and the person, hopefully I have lived up to what Big Al taught me in his coaching clinics.

Fun in Little League

ReferEase-Sports-quoteAt no point during this Little League season have I regretted my decision to manage the AA Braves in East County Little League. From the first preseason meeting to our current 0-13 record, the season has been fun, teaching young players the fundamentals of the game and watching them execute what they have learned. Unfortunately, I have an unsettled feel that has been with me since the first game of the season. I have confidence in how I approached the season, planned our practice schedule, and implemented a fair play, 6-3-3 system for our players to follow, regardless of skill level.

Little League is about having fun, which is what the AA Braves have had all season long. Many will point to our win less record and draw their own conclusions about our players and team being a failure, yet that could not be further from the truth. The coaching staff has worked relentlessly to teach our players the fundamentals of baseball. By the end of the season, each boy who put on a Braves cap at the start of the season will be a better baseball player.

There has been elation, frustration and disappointment throughout the year, but at no point did we lose focus on what is important, our boys. In the true spirit of baseball, the coaching staff has remained positive, keeping a good attitude towards the other coaches, players and umpires. We continue to stress the fundamentals of baseball. Winning isn’t everything. Last week I related a story last week to my players. I told them, “I don’t remember won many games I won or lost in Little League, nor do I remember any final scores. However I do remember some personal highlights; a good play, a home run, some all-star teams I was on. What sticks with me the most after 35 years, the coaches I played for and learned from. I feel these coaches taught me to be a better ballplayer I was from Little League to high school and even into college, but more importantly they taught me to be a better person.” Not sure the boys see it now, but hopefully they remember their coaches when they are older.

I have been rather appalled at some other managers and coaches and their approach to the game. It can be summed up in a single word. Competitive. At ages 8 and 9 years old, I feel there is too much competition in the AA division we play in. Maybe this makes me “soft” as a manager and doesn’t put my players in a position to win. If that’s the case, so be it. Thankfully playoff positions were handed out prior to the start of the season or the competition would even be more fierce.

It’s unfortunate that some of the fun, in my opinion is being lost because of the drive and desire to win meaningless baseball games. Winning by 10 or more runs seems to put an exclamation mark on the victory for the winning team. I, on the other have have been on the opposite end of those 10-run rule loses most every game this season and take responsibility for how our team played. Nothing worse in Little League than not being able to play all 6 innings, calling the boys in after the umpire calls the game and the boys have a puzzled look on their face. Worse yet having a few players who were only put into their position half an inning ago and haven’t experienced an at-bat.

More frustrating, the fact managers and coaches take advantage of the rules for their benefit. The worst offending, taking second base on a walk. The catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher, walking back to the mound, the batter rounds first and doesn’t stop. Worst yet, issuing a walk and 2 pitches later the previous batter is now standing on third base. One passed ball later, they are adding another point to their score. Honestly, you can’t even call this stealing since 99% of the catchers in AA don’t have the arm to make the throw to second base. This “stealing” doesn’t teach players how to steal a base, nor does it teach you proper base running. Even if the ball is caught by the catcher, it still requires a perfect throw and catch just to have a chance at making an out. Yet managers and coaches are playing by the rules, which I feel are flawed and ruin the fun at this age level.

Implementing a fair play system for all players on my team took priority before the season began. Regardless of their skill level, I wanted to make sure each player had the opportunity to hone their skills at numerous positions. Some of my players would probably never see more than 2 innings in right field and their one at bat if on another team. What does that teach a player? Would they return next year? How does that player improve and gain game experience? They don’t. At this age, players need to field numerous positions to get their experience and find out where they play the best. As a parent I would be livid if I paid for registration, new cleats, glove and bat only to see him play 36 innings and get 18 at-bats in a season. That is borderline neglect by a manager and should NEVER happen in Little League.

For some parents I have failed as a manager this year, going win less through 13 games. That’s fine, at 13 games in, not one parent has approached me saying they are unhappy with their son’s playing time. I take that positively meaning I have done part of my job as a manager, providing equaling playing time to all my players. Sure we haven’t won, but as I said there is more to life (and baseball) than winning. I feel we have taught these boys some great baseball skills and each have improved their fundamentals. Most importantly we have had fun all season long. Isn’t that the sort of coach you want teaching your son?

Undefeated in Fun

lifelessons_After early setbacks, some frustration and numerous emails to “Big Al” Price of Big Al Baseball, I stumbled across another resource while searching the Internet, the book Life Lessons From Little League by Vincent M. Fortanasce, M.D. I believe in the philosophy of Big Al when it comes to teaching youngsters the game of baseball. As with each new season, expectations run high, from players and parents to coaches, who practice consistency to get ready for the start of the season. Yesterday we continued our streak of being undefeated in fun.

While our 0-6 record doesn’t reflect how well the boys on the East County Little League AA Braves have been playing, the coaching staff still believes that practice and positive reinforcement will yield results. Those results might not include a victory during the 18 game season, but when it comes to the fun, these boys know no boundaries. In the end, isn’t that was little league is all about? As a kid, you won’t remember when you struck out 3 times, but you might remember your coaches or teammates you shared the season with.

Those individuals not affiliated with the Braves or ECLL, have lived vicariously through our winless stretch, but the season is far from over and in my eyes not lost. Thankfully we have 15 games in which to improve, as we are the #1 seed when the playoffs starts, a fact I have not mentioned to the team. Frustration has crept in at times during games, especially knowing how well the boys practice during the week. They are a hitting machine, all 12 of them but when game time rolls around you would think they are swinging a wet noodle. On defense their gloves seem to disappear and we look more like the Bad News Bears.

Their performance during games has the coaching staff baffled, questioning our practice structure and leaves us asking each other, “What else do we do?” From the pages of Big Al Baseball, stress repetition in order to gain confidence and consistency at bat or in the field. Another factor Big Al promotes, keep practice fun and positive. We have been able to turn many of the drills into a competition for the boys, seeing who can accumulate the most points. We have also played a game called Bubba Baseball using an over-sized plastic bat and pickle ball in order to promote fun, at the same time teaching strategy and the basics of baseball.

Yesterday was a feelgood day, even though we lost, again playing only three and a half innings with the game being called because of the 10-run rule, but I ran into a parent while hanging out at the snack shack. She doesn’t have a son that I manage, but she talked to a player on my team. When she inquired, “how’d you guys do today” the player responded, “we lost again.” She countered with, “wish you were playing on the Dodgers and winning?” To my surprise he said, “no I am having fun with my team.” As a manager that made my heart swell and I felt like I was on cloud nine for a moment! To hear that coming from a player is reward enough that we are not only teach players the basics of baseball, but more importantly keeping it fun.

Kids have enough stress on them, even at 8 and 9 years old. Why add to that stress level by yelling and criticizing their performance, acts which could inevitably turns kids off from continue to play little league. I have Big Al to thank for the basics of managing and coaching young kids. I stumbled across another resource while searching the Internet last week, the book Life Lessons From Little League by Vincent M. Fortanasce, which has provided me a very positive outlook on managing kids and controlling parents while their son learns baseball. The book has had a very positive influence on me in under a week since I started reading.

On Friday I had an assistant coach saying, “I don’t know how you stay to calm and positive through this.” The last 2 games have been different than the first 4 games. In order to build a player, you need to instill courage, character and loyalty, which is the motto of Little League. I want to keep a positive attitude towards all the players, all the time, even if the result is something negative, such as an error in the field or striking out. Tearing a child down with negativity or criticism has no place on my team. Positive reinforcement and keeping the game fun will have players trying harder.

The way I see it still, we have another 13 games in order to improve offensively and defensively. Sure we have seen 5 out of 6 games ended early because of the 10-run rule, but there is no reason why we can’t compete with any of the teams we have played in our division. As long as we continue to practice and improve I have no doubts we could win the playoffs. Our boys might not be the biggest, fastest, best kids in the league, but they are all playing with a big heart. All of them have improved their skills since we started practice in February. We have seen flashes of what they can do. Winning isn’t everything or the only thing, nor does winning breed success. The fundamental of little league is to stay positive against all odds and have fun.

Opening Day

Little League LogoWhile late getting in the game this year, I am involved in little league for the second year, now as manager of the AA Braves in East County Little League in Oakley. Last year was a learning experience in coaching young kids, keeping them interested and maintaining patience. For me, baseball seemed to come easy, one reason I decided to coach last year, knowing I had the fundamentals to teach young kids. Big Al Price got my enthusiasm pumping after attending his coaching clinic the past two years. If there is a coach I want to emulate, it’s Big Al, he has a love for developing the player and the person.

Still not a fan of watching Major League Baseball, managing little league is different, as players at this age are willing to listen and learn and make improvement. That is my hope for many I am managing this season. I see a world of talent in some of the players on my team. I am impressed with their level of skills at ages 7-9. Not sure I was as good as some of the kids when I played my first few years.

Still, I have some concerns as we look forward toward Saturday and Opening Day for the little league season. I begin to question if I and the coaching staff have done enough to prepare our players to compete, more importantly to have fun. If you can’t have fun, why play? Big Al provided the system and I feel I implemented his “teach it, try it, game it” approach rather well through a month of practice. Win or lose, I want to make this season a positive experience for all.

What really worries me are the parents. Last year we had a great group of very supportive parents lining the sidelines during practice and games to watch their son or daughter during the season. They cheered and screamed in support of their player, no better feeling of success. This year, little league becomes competitive and sometimes that can bring out the ugly side, not only of coaches and players, but parents.

In an attempt to nip it in the bud, I made each player and their parent read and sign a list of expectations this season. Each party plays an important role in order to achieve their expectations. Much of the onus falls on my, as manager to walk the razor’s edge and balance playing time with parent expectation of their player, while being competitive and making the season fun. Those are some big responsibilities. Managing parents, is something I don’t want to do. I don’t want to go face to face with a parent who is questioning my decisions or thought process when it comes to how we are learning or playing the game.

Thankfully I have a very good coaching staff, including one guy I coached with last year, who was up to speed with how I conduct and manage practices. My philosophy on games, I want to get players are much playing time as possible because we all know it sucks to sit on the bench but with 13 players, most will play 4 innings, while a few will player 5 innings. Talent on our team is across the board, we have a few exceptional players, a group of of good players and some who are still in the learning phase of baseball, which is the case of my son.

While I subscribe to Big Al’s philosophy of rotating players, I searched the Internet for other ways to rotate players. What I won’t do is play my best players 6 innings every game, regardless of how good they are. It is not win at all costs for, especially since every team will make the playoffs. What I do hope to gain is introducing players to multiple positions during the season. Nothing at all with teaching players to know 2-3 positions. Growing up I learned to catch, player first base and the outfield, which was a benefit as I was able to use my skills and maximize my potential.

Prior to the first practice I asked each player to provide me three positions they wanted to play, during practice we would break into groups and run infield and outfield drills for all players. Pitchers and catchers were the only groups that received special drills during practice. I’ll be curious to see if we have done enough to prepare kids for these positions. At a minimum each player will see three different positions during each game. Will that keep us competitive? Time will tell, hopefully it keeps the kids involved in the game and having fun.

I will miss Opening Day ceremonies, but I still remember as a youth marching into the groomed field, hearing all the parents and reciting the Little League Pledge.

I trust in God
I love my country
And will respect its laws
I will play fair
And strive to win
But win or lose
I will always do my best

I am looking forward another great season with my players, watching them grow and improve and come together as a team. Come Saturday it will be “PLAY BALL!” as we have an early afternoon game versus the A’s.

Coaching is Fun!

bigalThe Lugnuts are one meeting and one practice into the new little league season. As a co-manager I now have two events under my belt and feeling more confident about being a coach. As a first year co-manager with no prior coaching experience, I was not sure what to expect. I do remember some very good coaches I had as a youth growing up, especially Mr. Voigt, my first year manager and my father, who would go on to manage and coach a few of my teams over the next 7 years. It was beneficial to draw on memories I had of how they coached young kids. I realized yesterday, coaching is fun!

Myself and Mandouh, the other co-manager spent 3.5 hours at Big Al’s Coaching Clinic a few weeks prior to the start of little league. I was not to keen on the idea of coaching baseball since I no longer have a love for the game. It was lost the last time the MLB went on strike. Yet when asked if I wanted to co-managed and sighed, but agreed to coach this season, which would put our kids on the same farm club (ages 6-7).

The Big Al clinic was nothing short of amazing! I knew the basics of baseball and had played up through college. Over the years my interest waned and I started following other sports, but Al Price was someone special. He was able to show me a side of the game that I never thought I would experience in coaching. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how good I would be at.

Once we finished Big Al’s clinic we were both excited about the season. We decided we would follow his blueprint in order to teach our players the game of baseball. Our first practice proved to be a huge success! Of course there were a few kids who lost interest quickly or didn’t quite want to listen to what we said, but overall we were pleased with how well they all did. Even those few kids who struggled, we were able to find a positive aspect to their first practice.

Thankfully we were prepared as coaches. Based on what Big Al had taught us and what he includes in his coach manual, we were able to put together a 90 minute practice that seemed to go by in a blink of any eye. We felt completely in control, always having the kids on the move, either running, throwing or catching, not giving them time to pick daisies while standing around in the outfield. Hopefully along the way each of them learned something yesterday.

I actually felt like a coach and it was a great feeling. Here I was with 11 pair of eyes watching and listening to what we had to say. I had a practice plan in my hand with starting and stopping times, as well as an outline that covered the main points of each drill we did from meeting the kids upon arrival, to running, catching and throwing. Initially we had hitting on the plan, but there would have been no time to fit it in. We all know that is the best part of the game when you are younger; see how far you can hit the ball.

I didn’t walk around and get any feedback from the parents who were in attendance, but most of them seemed pretty pleased as they sat there watching their son or daughter in action. Help was plentiful too, which was a big help. We had two other coaches, along with two brothers who also provided help. I did notice one piece of the plan I missed was the team building factor. Thankfully, Mandouh being a grocery manager knows all about team building and he was able to bring the players together with the coaches as a team. It was a great feeling!