Jewish World Review April 11, 2004 / 20 Nissan, 5764

Mike Barnicle

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Consumer Reports

The good ones coach life | It's almost impossible to ruin a good baseball game. Especially when kids are playing.

That's why it's annoying to watch some Little League coaches turn what ought to be a terrific time into a nightmare. It seems nearly every town and league has at least one totally predictable jerk who simply doesn't get it.

They figure getting youngsters ready for spring Little League means employing methods used to train Army Rangers. They have kids practicing three or four nights a week to play two or three games a week.

This guarantees one thing: Half the kids will be sick of baseball by Memorial Day and will end up confusing it with homework.

These "Harry Hard-Bar" types are fairly predictable, too: usually, they never played anything and their insight almost always comes from reading "Coaching Baseball for Dummies" or listening to Tim McCarver analyze the Game of the Week on TV.

They're probably nice guys at work or around the house and they sure do contribute time and energy to the task. But give them 15 kids and a bunch of games and they get truly bizarre.

Some yell and scream. Some can't figure out that baseball has a different pace than other sports and that an 11-year-old will occasionally daydream, drop a fly ball, get wobbly knees at the sight of a fastball, fail to hit the cutoff man or simply be opening one more stick of gum when the biggest kid on the other team hits one over his head.

Stuff happens.

Way back in the last century, I got lucky with a Little League coach. He was a guy who made it to the majors for a cup of coffee - a few innings across a couple seasons - when he played for Casey Stengel, who was then managing the old Boston Braves.

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Looking through history's rearview mirror, a couple things are now clear: the old Little League coach had a drinking problem. And it's a good bet he picked it up after his career was cut short by World War II.

But I still remember what he told us. What he told every ball club he ever coached. Age didn't matter. His players could have been 12-year-old Little Leaguers or American Legion teenagers.

He'd say that when the umpire gets behind the plate at the top of the first inning, he yells, "Play ball," not "Work ball" because it's a game and it's supposed to be fun.

He'd make sure we were all together on the bench. Then he'd walk back and forth, establishing eye contact with each of us and in a real low voice he'd tell us what he wanted us to remember about achieving success at baseball.

He'd look at a kid and ask him if he knew what would happen if the boy only did his homework three out of 10 nights. The kid would respond that he'd be in trouble with his parents and teacher.

"That's right," the coach would agree.

And what would happen if a boy - remember, this was decades ago - played basketball and only managed to make three shots out of every 10? The boy wouldn't get the ball a lot.

Football? A good run three out of 10 times? The kid would become a lineman.

Then he'd stare at us and inform his players that baseball was different; that if we got a hit three out of 10 times, we might get to the Hall of Fame as lifetime .300 hitters.

He told us that errors were like mistakes in life. Everyone made them. Get over it and hang in there.

So every spring, when Little League begins, I think of that old coach and all he had to say. He knew the game, both of them: baseball and life, too.

JWR contributor Mike Barnicle is a columnist for the New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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