The third time I got caught stealing classified documents out of the National Archives, the judge said enough was enough. He and the prosecutor hatched up a plan to send me away to prison for 20 years so I'd learn my lesson. But there were plenty of things I'd stolen that the authorities didn't know about (money things), so I used some of that loot and hired myself the best counsel in the city. He found a loophole in the law and convinced the judge that first he had to give me another option: I could learn my lesson by teaching young toughs about important life skills, in a structured and competitive environment. The judge looked through his binder full of ragamuffin teams in need and asked, "What about baseball? Can you coach baseball?" I nodded, because of how much codeine I had had that morning, and he interpreted my head movement as assent. That's how I became the coach of the 12U GoldenTee baseball squad, and that's how I found myself living a storybook season that ended with … well, we're getting ahead of ourselves now.
More from Baseball Prospectus:
"Pitching and defense wins" is what I knew about baseball, and I found out quickly that the boys (and girl) on the GoldenTees didn't know squat about pitching. Lot of throwers on that team. Big kids, some mustaches and learner's permits, and real strong arms; my glove hand was blue by the end of practice just warming up with them. It didn't surprise me to learn that they had won the championship the previous season, and that most of the league was afraid to hit against them. But they weren't doing it the right way, and I could tell them a thing or two about where life takes you when you don't do it the right way. It takes you to a battered ballfield with a bunch of kids you don't even know, when you could be home sucking whippets and watching DVDs of Monk season four.
Problem was, I didn't know much about pitching the right way, either. Thankfully, there were resources for people like me. Those resources are guys like Tim McCarver, Eric Karros, Mitch Williams, and Eric Byrnes. I went to work studying their wisdom about pitching, and this is what I taught my boys (and girl).
This might seem crazy, but a lot of these kids hadn't heard this advice before. "Wut U Mean" they texted me when I told them how important this is. I said "What's the point of the game, after all?" And they said to have fun, and I said what else and they said build community and I said what else and they said score more runs than the other team. Bingo! You gotta win if you wanna win. One of them asked if I meant like in a metaphysical sense, like the Yungian thing? Naw dawg, I said. Like the Al Davisian thing.
(And it's pronounced Jungian, with a J, I mentioned.)
2. Don't Be Terrible.
I asked the kids what they're trying to do when they're batting. They all agreed that, ideally, they would hit a home run. Well guess what, I said. When the other team is batting, they want to do the same thing, and so the best thing to do is to stop them from doing that. Sometimes it's real satisfying to see the lightbulb go on in a kid's mind.
Here's the best part, I told them. If you're not terrible, it greatly increases your chances of winning, and you guys remember what I told you earlier about winning. About it being good. Doing it and stuff.
So don't be terrible. Keep the ball in the park. Don't get knocked out in the first inning.
That sort of stuff.
3. Be good, too!
It's not as simple as I've been making it sound. You gotta not just be not terrible and win, but you gotta be good. You gotta stick to the plan, the plan being "don't be terrible" and "win?"
Now, you might be wondering whether there is more to having a plan than this. "That is literally the very thing we are all thinking," one boy said. Well, yes. You need to plan on being:
- Secure in the quality of your pitching ability ("stuff")
- In command of your pitches on both sides of the plate
- Constantly in a position of strength relative to your opponent
This might be a bit advanced for some of them, but it's never too early to learn: If you're good at pitching, and you pitch well, and you pitch better than the hitters hit, you will find success on the field, and in life.
4. Get lots of run support.
LOOK YOU LITTLE IDIOTS! I said, getting all intense like John Wooden. IF YOU DON'T PLAN ON GETTING RUN SUPPORT DON'T BOTHER SHOWING UP. THAT'S NOT HOW WE ARE GOING TO PLAY ON THIS TEAM. GET YOUR RUN SUPPORT. GET IT!
5. Don't face good hitters.
Why would you go face a good team if you're trying to win and not be terrible and be good? When you see a good hitter on the other team, you stay away from them. You run away. You go to the league office, and you ask that league commissioner to rework the schedule so you don't have to face those good hitters.
And when you find a bad team, just keep playing them, over and over and over and over and over and over. I'll tell you when to stop.
6. The three "secrets" to good pitching
- Big lefty
- Small town
- 4-seam fastballs
"But but but" they protested. They said Jared is their best pitcher and he's a right-hander and he was born right here in the middle of the city, and his bread-and-butter is more of a bowling ball two-seamer that gets in on the hands of right-handers. "Best pitcher?" I asked. "More like best second baseman. I'm the coach! I get to say!"
7. Do Some Humping in a Curveball.
LOL knew they'd get a kick out of that one. Told 'em let's keep that one between us, no telling your parents. Now they know I respect them as equals, and I'm on their side, even after the Jared scuffle. We're just a bunch of men (and girl) hanging out, cracking jokes, getting a little raunchy. Cool cool.
8. Know your puns.
You'll never keep your pitches straight if you don't have little puns to help you remember them. I told 'em I used to be a major-league pitching coach (how are they ever going to check?), and this was the most important thing I learned. I said I'd go out the mound and talk to a pitcher when he was in trouble. How about throwing the knuckleball, I'd tell the guy. He'd look at me confused and ask me which one that is. I'd smile. "You don't want to knuckle under the pressure, right?" And he knew. Boom strike three let's go home. This is how the pros do it, folks.
9. Learn how to pitch.
This is sort of redundant, I guess. By this point you all should know how to pitch, except Jared because he's a second baseman. But it's good advice!
This is the last one and it's the most important one. Look, I know you kids are poor. I could literally buy your parents for less than my watch is worth. This is the only way you're going to escape this life into which you've been born. And you probably think it's too soon to start worrying about your future, but it's not. That guy over there? He's a scout. He's a scout for the Twins. He's watching you right now and trying to figure out whether you're going to turn into A Guy or not. You hang a curve and he's not going to come back. This is it. Today's the last day he's going to be here maybe. Your last chance. You know what major-league baseball players make a year? Barry Zito's going to make $20 million this year and he's not even good, so I can't even imagine what the good ones get. You can do that, or you can follow your dad into whatever business he's in. You know how much your dad makes? Pft. I don't even want to say. I don't want to embarrass you. Look at my watch.
So you have to impress that scout. You have your parents in the stands, wondering whether you will ever achieve the dreams that long ago left them behind. You have to impress them. You have your teammates. You have to impress them. Someday you'll have kids, and the decisions you make today will affect how they see you. You have to impress them. You have your health; winners live longer, it's a proven fact. You have all the money I bet on this game. And guess what: it's not just that the stakes are high. It's that the margin between success and failure is as thin as this little kid sitting here in front of me. Real thin. You stand up on that mound and realize that if your timing is off by just a microsecond when you drive toward the plate, your whole system breaks down. Your arm lags, your elbow drops, your thighs lose thrust. Next thing you know, it's a cookie. Right there, middle of the plate, ready to get ripped. If you're lucky, it's a home run. If you're not, it's a line drive back up the middle, and you've got a baseball-shaped welt on your forehead. So, to recap: huuuuuuge stakes, tiny tiny tiny margins.
So you gotta RELAX okay?
And that's pitching.
Sam Miller is a writer for Baseball Prospectus.