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September 23, 2007

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

It's not too often that I use this space for talking about my personal life, but I can't just keep the story of the last week or so to myself.

My sons each play baseball in little league here in Olney, Maryland. This fall, my elder son Luc graduated from the machine-pitch leagues that he's played in for the last couple of years into the first kid-pitch league. The first kid-pitch league shares some similarities with the earlier leagues -- a five-run limit per inning (except the sixth) -- but mostly it's real ball, with a live ball and stealing (except for home, there you have to be batted in), and of course, the kids have to pitch.

Now pitching is not an easy thing. Many many years ago I did it myself, and though I don't remember being particularly bad, I don't remember being particularly good, either. It takes a lot of practice to be a good pitcher -- my father always said that hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to learn to do in sports, but I think for me, pitching comes in a close second. Especially when you're nine years old.

Luc's team is pretty lucky in that they have a fairly deep bench when it comes to pitching. In the first game, a little over a week ago, we fielded five pitchers for an inning each, and they all did pretty well -- in fact, they won that game largely on the strength of their pitching. Luc didn't pitch that game, though; due to the league actually being a little larger this year and some scheduling issues, we were only able to get in one official practice before the season began.

But we knew he was going to have to pitch. So, last Sunday we went over to his elementary school so he could start to get the feel for pitching. He did alright -- nothing spectacular, to be sure, just getting one or two out of every five pitches over the plate, with another one or two being fairly wild. But he kept at it, and by the end of an hour he had both a sore arm and the beginnings of a fast ball.

Tuesday we were able to get out again, this time after karate. His arms were probably tired, but he was pitching decently, probably around 50% strikes or so, and with fewer wild pitches. By the end of the hour, I think he was probably pitching wild less than 10% of the time -- not great, but good enough that I felt like he would be okay to pitch in a game, not hitting kids left and right or having bases constantly stolen out from under him. I even kept a count to give him a sense of that, and while he had quite a few walks, he also had a few strike-outs -- well, counts where he had three strikes before he had four balls.

Wednesday night, Jordan had a game, and Luc's coach turned up to deliver baseball caps and things to the coaches. (I help out with the coaching on both teams, even though my knowledge of baseball could barely fill a thimble. Mostly, I'm there to keep the kids focused on the task at hand and try to leave the deep lessons of the game to the head coaches.) His head coach, Jim, and I talked about whether Luc could pitch on Sunday, and I said that I felt like while he wasn't going to be the best they had, he certainly wasn't in a position where he was going to be hitting batters or anything.

So Jim called Luc over and asked whether he'd be okay to pitch on Sunday, and Luc, who is ever the serious child, said, "Yes, I think I'm ready." Jim said, "What do you think about pitching the first inning?" and Luc said, "I think that'd be okay."

So, it was set. I knew I wanted to get Luc out on the mound again to give him a little more time and see if we couldn't get the most egregious wild pitches out of his system. Friday, we hit the field again.

It was like a different kid entirely out there, and not in a good way. He was finding it more or less impossible to find the plate -- I'm talking less than 10% strikes. That may be charitable. There were certainly a lot more wild pitches, balls which even this adult catcher couldn't get to and in some cases, I didn't bother to try, they were so far off. And of course, the more he pitched and was throwing wild, the more frustrated he would get. In this way, I think the apple has not fallen too far from the tree.

We threw a few sets of balls and I went out and talked to him, and he was a mess. He was getting very worked up about the whole thing, and I was starting to really worry about him. I told him to take a little walk out to the outfield and back, just to rest his arm a bit and give himself a little time to cool down and find his center again or something. Jordan and I tossed a ball around for ten minutes until Luc came back and started pitching again.

But the balls were still completely wild; in fact, they may have been worse than before his little walk. So I walked back out to him and I could see he was starting to tear up a bit, the frustration was so extreme.

I had been telling him a lot about letting go of each pitch, just worrying about the next one that you're going to throw. We had a kid on his team in the spring who would get really really mad at himself if he botched a play -- and you have to remember, we're talking about eight-year-olds, botched plays are pretty much the norm. I reminded Luc of what I used to say to D: "Baseball isn't about the past. It's about the future. It's about what you're going to do now, when he hits the ball, not about anything that happened to get you there. Worry about right now, not about what you think you ever did wrong." I had been telling Luc to breathe before each pitch, and to not worry about the count, and to just relax and throw the pitches we both knew he could throw.

But that wasn't working, even though it had worked before the pressure of pitching in Sunday's game. Here was a kid who was completely strung out and upset about pitching.

First, I told him he didn't have to worry about pitching on Sunday. As soon as I got home, I said, I'd email Coach Jim and straighten that out. Luc, courageous young man that he is, said, "Maybe I could pitch in the third or fourth inning," and I felt such love for that bravery, in the face of what he was going through.

Having gotten the pressure off at least a little, I started talking about things I've been doing lately in karate to improve¹. I talked about visualization, imagining in your mind the steps of what you're going to do before you do it. I talked about how I would think about a front kick before I threw it in training, and went through those steps for him, lifting my knee high, extending the foot, pulling the toes back, all the things I did. I talked about side kicks too, which are quite a bit trickier, and all the things that I would think about before throwing a side kick. I told him that Master Roberts had actually complimented me on my kicks since I had started doing that, and so I knew it was having some effect.

Then I talked about major league pitchers, and how every time they're up on the mound, before every pitch, they take a moment to think about the pitch they're going to throw. They stop, they take a deep breath, and they work through the motions in their minds. This may not be true of all pitchers, but I know certainly some of them do, and all of them are at least thinking about something up there.

So I told him, "You know what to do out here. Just think about what you're going to do before you do it, and you'll do fine. I know from the other days we've been out here that you know how to pitch the ball. Take a little time, and throw each pitch the way you know how to throw it."

I went back down behind the plate, and I'll be damned if that little man didn't throw nine out of the next ten right over the plate, and even that odd one might have caught someone swinging. I could see him out there, talking himself through the pitch each time (literally -- his mouth was moving, though he wasn't talking loud enough for me to hear), pointing his arm all the way back to second base and letting fly at just the right point in the arc.

I already felt like a million bucks, and I felt so glad for him that he'd found his way through, and hadn't even let that one ball phase him (it was the third pitch -- plenty of time to get in his head). There he was, my little nine-year-old boy, suddenly a pitcher.

But the real capper came right after we finished out the last few balls (I have thirteen we practice with -- I guess I'm not superstitious). He turned to me from the mound and said (and this is a direct quote from my serious boy), "Thank you, Daddy. What you said really helped me. I don't think you need to send Coach Jim any email." One's heart bursts with pride. I know what that means now. My kids have always made me proud, but this just took the cake.

You know, it doesn't even really matter how he pitched today -- the end of the story was really on Friday, when he made a mental move from frustration to confidence, when he learned not to give up when the chips were down, when he found a way through the difficulties that physical endeavors present.

But I'll tell you anyway.

Luc pitched his first inning of baseball today, the second inning -- Coach Jim had forgotten that he had already promised the first to another pitcher. He gave up two runs (comfortably below the five run inning limit). He had two strike-outs. He threw a total of three balls to seven batters, and only one of them got past the catcher.

I guess it's good he learned how. Because I have a feeling he's going to be pitching again.

¹It's only fair to note at this point that I had gotten these pointers from a book recommended by Jamie, Mastery by George Leonard. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at September 23, 2007 08:59 PM


Very sweet post, Brett.

Being a dad is amazing work, isn't it? :-)

Posted by: Chris Corry at September 26, 2007 01:15 AM

Thanks, Chris! Yeah, it's a pretty sweet job. The pay's nothing to write home about but the benefits are *totally* worth it!

Posted by: Brett Douville at September 26, 2007 08:34 AM

Great post Brett. :)

Posted by: Chris Ross at October 3, 2007 11:10 AM

Thanks! Writing about it was about one-thousandth the pleasure of living it, but I did have to share my pride :)

Posted by: Brett Douville at October 3, 2007 03:48 PM

Great post, Brett. Hope all is well!

Posted by: Emily at October 21, 2007 07:45 PM

Ah man, now you made me cry. I wanted a nice simple day and now I have to think about deep things and crap.

Can you tell I'm catching up on a lot of old post reading. :(

Posted by: TimL at December 28, 2007 02:56 PM

Geez, no kidding. I went in to see if there were any posts that got caught by the spam filter thingy and there's half a dozen from you :)

You only feel all deep because you've been playing Portal.

Posted by: Brett Douville at January 2, 2008 10:45 AM