Little Billy Makes His Play
Little Billy squeezed the handle of his new bat so hard his knuckles were glowing white. His new high performance stick with the composite barrel and optimum swing flex was supposed to eliminate all of his hitting flawsâ€”at least that’s what his dad was banking on when he tossed his credit card onto the counter at Rickâ€™s Sporting Goods. Today at The Hit Zone baseball training complex, where nine-year-old Billy Smolan was getting his weekly instructional hitting lesson, all that high-tech bat jargon didn’t seem to be making much of a difference.
Inside the claustrophobic batting tunnel, Billy scrunched his eyebrows tight as he tried to focus on what Coach Hayden was preaching from the other end…which was getting tougher and tougher considering that Coach Hayden had been barking to Billy for about 40 minutes now.
â€œYou gotta fire your hands through the zone!â€ Coach Hayden echoed from behind the netted L-frame, loud enough to make the ballplayers in the adjacent tunnels flinch. â€œBilly, you ainâ€™t gonna get the power unless youâ€™re loadinâ€™ and firinâ€™ those hands.â€
The 68-year-old instructor with the Ben Franklin specs, furry moustache, and decades of teaching experience pounded on the finer points of hitting to Billy for the nth timeâ€”except Billyâ€™s mind was now as saturated as a soaked sponge. As Coach Haydenâ€™s words bounced off Billyâ€™s ears, the youngster longed for being at home, watching SpongeBob, and eating that Three Musketeers bar his dad had promised him for making it to the hitting lesson. He also thought about the swim party at his friendâ€™s house he was missing at that very moment. Now that his traveling baseball team, the Bakerstown Tigers, had arrived at the crescendo of their summer schedule, his parents reasoned that â€œit was not a time to be skipping lessons.â€
After watching Billy poke another harmless dribbler off the handle of his bat, Coach Hayden slumped his head in an unintentional sign of frustration. It was a long day for him. Billy was his eighth student, and it felt like his eightieth.
â€œLook Billy, I think youâ€™re getting it. I really do,â€ Coach Hayden said, really just trying to cover up his accidental show of negativity. â€œWe’ve only got a few minutes left. Let’s see what we can do…” Coach Hayden thought for a moment, mentally digging into his bag of tricks while bobbing a ball up and down with his pitching hand. He snatched the ball mid-flight and pointed at Billy.
“Say, do you like those Star Wars movies?”
Billy’s eyes opened wide, waking up from his mind drift. He loved Star Wars anything.
“Sure,” he answered, confusion sneaking into his voice.
“Good,” Coach Hayden said. “See the knob on the end of that bat of yours? Pretend there’s a lightsaber coming out of it. Pretend it’s coming out nice and straight. When I pitch the ball, I want you to stab the baseball with the point of the lightsaber, okay?” Little Billy thought it was a little strange, but nodded yes. He was quite coachable and willing to try anything.
“Okay, here we go.” Coach Hayden tossed a baseball right across the heart of the plate. Little Billy swung and, like a bolt of lightning, made delicious contact using a beautiful level swing that for all intents and purposes came out of nowhere. The baseball left Billy’s bat like a rifle andâ€”Crack!â€”smacked head-on with the steel frame directly in front of Coach Hayden’s head.
“Holy crap,” Coach Hayden whispered under his breath.
“Okay, let’s see if you can do that again.”
Coach Hayden challenged Billy with a faster pitch. Using his lead hand, uh, rather his ‘lightsaber’ to guide the bat through the hitting zone, little Billy stroked another rocket, this time to the netting directly behind Coach Hayden.
“Bingo! Ha ha! I think you just figured something out Billy…What do say we quit while weâ€™re ahead?”
As Billy collected the scattered baseballs around the tunnel, he hung onto the feeling of drilling those last two pitches so strongly that he actually believed he’d been smacking line drives for the entire 45 minutes. Meanwhile, Coach Hayden stuffed his cell phone and keys into his hat and left the tunnel feeling like he had just performed a minor miracle.
At the front desk, Coach Hayden reminded Billy of three things he needed to focus on. Billyâ€™s dad, who was delayed on a sales call, was supposed to be there to soak up these tips to help Billy reinforce them at home. Instead, Billy would go on to forget all three hitting points by morning. The benefits of his lesson would vanish just like that.
Waiting outside the complex, little Billy spotted his dad’s shiny black company sedan weaving into the parking lot. He recognized his dad’s quick entrance as a sign that they were in a hurry, and he knew what that meant.
â€œHey Billy, do you mind if we take a rain-check on that candy bar?â€ his dad asked, peeking at Billy through his rear-view mirror while Billy buckled himself in the back seat next to his 14-year-old brother Josh.
Not giving Billy a chance to answer his first question, his dad followed up quickly with, “So, howâ€™d we hit today?â€
â€œGood. I hit a ball at Coach Hayden and he said it would have killed him if the cage wasn’t in the way.”
A ‘that’s my boy’ smile swept across his dad’s face. “That’s awesome, kid.”
Jim Smolan loved baseball, and he genuinely wanted to get his boys crazy for the sport too. But he just didnâ€™t realize that you canâ€™t dial up passion. Falling in love usually requires quite a bit of quality timeâ€¦
Billy thought for a moment. “He also told me that there were these three things that were really important to remember about hittingâ€¦â€
â€œHold that thought,â€ Billyâ€™s dad interrupted. “Before I forget, Josh, here’s a twenty. Iâ€™ve got to drop you and your brother off at the field, so you guys can grab a snack there before your game, okay?â€
Billyâ€™s team was playing the first game of a weekend tournament that night.
Putting two and two together, little Billy asked his dad, â€œAre you gonna be able to watch any of my game?â€
â€œWell, Billy, Iâ€™ve got to take an important client out to the Pirates game tonight. Iâ€™ll have to hop on Route 8 right after I drop you off.â€ Billyâ€™s dad had a new corporate perk that included season tickets to Pittsburgh Pirates games at beautiful PNC Park. Sometimes he gave the tickets away, and sometimes he went to the game with his clients or partners at work. As a long-time sales manager for an electronic products firm, he’s been hustling at his job the past few years vying for a V.P. position. He’s figuring that once he gets that title, he can start to relax a bit. In the meantime, he’s made very little time for some of the more important things in life.
â€œAre you ever going to take us to a Pirates game again?” Josh piped up. It was well into July, and he hadnâ€™t taken the boys yet.
â€œTell you what, guys,â€ dad assured them, using a dash of the positive spin he likes to use while trying to convince clients who have no budget to open up their checkbooks. â€œIf we cross our fingers, I think Iâ€™ve got some tickets to a September game with your names on them.â€
Josh looked out the window. He had his doubts. Itâ€™s been a couple of years since Josh and Billy went to their only major league baseball game. Some of the simpler memories they took from that dayâ€”the steady buzz of the crowd, the insane screaming during rally times, and even those delicious hot dogs wrapped in soft, warm bunsâ€”had faded long ago. Josh stopped playing baseball around the same time, just when he would have had his first chance to play on 90-foot base paths. Peer pressure had something to do with itâ€”his best friends talked him into getting into lacrosse and soccerâ€”but there were other factors. Josh was an excellent athlete but started relatively late playing baseball and had a tendency to mess up when running the bases or deciding where to throw the ball on defense. It didnâ€™t help that his dad was rarely there to assure him that making mistakes at his age didnâ€™t mean failureâ€”they were just learning opportunities that helped develop baseball instincts. On the soccer field, Josh felt a sense of freedom and less pressure to perform while baseball made him feel like he was under a microscope. He felt relief when he quit.
During the 20-minute drive to Billy’s field, their car passed by a large open field surrounded by towering, leafy trees where little Billy saw something he didn’t think he’d ever seen before. With a cluster of bicycles all bunched together under a nearby tree, a group of boys of all different ages, some much younger than Billy and some much older, were all playing baseball together. It was like a huge recess class where all the school grades combined to play one big game. There were no uniforms and no sponsored shirtsâ€”just a smorgasbord of T-shirts, jeans and shorts. Billy also noticed that there wasnâ€™t a kid older than his brother Josh. No coaches! No parents!
Squinting his eyes, Billy tried to zoom in on the unusual bases. Are those Frisbees? He tried to figure out how the boys picked the teams, the batting orders, or even their positions. They must have decided these things on their own. Billy was captivated by the amazing scene as it passed by steadily at 45 mph. He thought of how much fun it would be to play baseball without having someone over your shoulder judging and correcting your every move.
After pulling into the Twin Hills Baseball Fields, site of the final tournament of the summer, Billy pulled his bat bag from the trunk and walked to his teamâ€™s dugout. His dad made a quick dash onto the dirt field in his shoes and slacks to have a quick chat with the teamâ€™s manager before taking off. “Excuse me, coach,â€ Billy’s dad said to Coach Moore, who was sitting on a bucket of balls and scribbling on a clipboard.
A former minor league prospect in the ’80s, Ray Moore reached as high as Double-A before being advised to start thinking about another career. After 20 years in real estate and performing odd jobs for his buddy’s landscaping company, Moore decided he wanted to share his knowledge of the game by coaching and developing young ballplayers. At the time, the Bakerstown Traveling Baseball program was trying to handle an epidemic growth of “daddy ball” complaints from parents who wanted more fairness from their coaches in return for the hard-earned dollars they’d forked over to get their kid into advanced competition. As a “neutral” coach, Moore was considered part of the solution. He was eased in by being put in charge of the nine-year-old squad, Billy’s team. Moore was given one request from his new employers: Grow the talent and bring home the hardware. To the board members of the program, winning was their ticket to success. It would attract young players from all over, and they’d be able to expand their teams. More openings meant they could be more aggressive in nudging the parents who were still on the fence in trying to decide between Little League ball and Pay to Play.
â€œOh hi, Jim,â€ Coach Moore said while finishing up his lineup. “What’s going on?”
“Not much.” Billy’s dad then switched to a lower voice, not wanting other parents to hear. “Hey, we were wondering, will Billy be getting an opportunity to play some infield? He’s happy to play anywhere, but itâ€™s getting toward the end of the season and he hasnâ€™t had a chance to field any game-action ground balls yet this year…â€
Coach Moore nodded knowingly, like heâ€™d heard it all before. He measured his words carefully. â€œBilly’s a good little player, Jim. He really is. And I want him to keep practicing hard and to keep his goals set as high as he can.
â€œThe coaches and I were just discussing the team dynamics. Right now we feel that with the teamâ€™s makeup…well, we donâ€™t think Billyâ€™s quite got the footwork for the infield so we want to keep him where his strength is, and that’s right field.â€
Now Billyâ€™s dad didnâ€™t know a whole lot about the game, but he felt a little strange hearing that his coaches had already eliminated most of the field from his 9-year-old sonâ€™s future. He couldn’t imagine that ever happening in Little League, and for a millisecond, wondered why they ever left town ball where Billy got to play with so many of his friends from school. Then he reminded himself why he and his wife chose the Bakerstown program in the first place. These coaches know what they’re doing. It’s a winning program and it’s best for Billy’s growth as a ballplayer. We’ve got the money. Why would I want my kid going to a county college when he can go Ivy League? If he’s not cut out for certain positions, better to find that out now.
Without a single word in defense of his son’s skills, Jim Smolan accepted his son’s fate, thanked Coach Moore and left for his Pirates game.
In his pre-game speech, Coach Moore warned his boysâ€”and to some of the parents within earshotâ€”that the game that night was really important because of the seeding for the weekendâ€™s tournament bracket…so there was a chance not everyone would get to play. This was not welcome news for the sideline crowd already on edge because the Bakersfield program had signed up 14 players per teamâ€”a boon for cash flow but a logistical nightmare for any manager trying to juggle that many nine-year-olds into nine positions over just six innings. One dad broke down his traveling ball expenses and figured that he had paid the organization $240 for each of the five balls that had been hit in his son’s direction over the entire season.
The game became one-sided early on after the Tigers scored eight runs over the first two innings. Coach Moore sat tight, not willing to take too many chances yet. By the end of the fifth inning, Billy had to get up from the bench and stretch his legs; heâ€™d been sitting the entire game. He watched and cheered his team on as they scored six more runs in the top of the sixth to go up 14-1. Then he grew quiet thinking what it would be like to go home and report to his dad that he didn’t make it into the game at all.
With a fat 13-run margin and only three outs to go, Coach Moore waltzed through the dugout ready to make some moves.
â€œLetâ€™s see…Ben! Go to second base. Have a seat, Scott. Nice game.â€
â€œAbout time,â€ Ben’s dad Tom muttered to his wife on the steel bleachers, spitting a sunflower seed shell between his sandals in disgust. Tom figured if his son couldnâ€™t get into a blowout on this Friday night, fat chance heâ€™d have getting a shot over the weekend when the games become do or die.
Coach Moore hesitated, as if for dramatic purposes, which was killing Billy inside because he knew he was the only poor soul left who hadnâ€™t seen any action yet.
“…Joey! Go to right field.”
Ouch. Those words ripped at little Billy’s heart and made his stomach feel funny. Joey was a starter who was taken out in the third inningâ€”Coach Moore was exercising a tournament rule that allowed starters to go back in the game. Joey was probably low man on the team’s talent pole, but somehow had worked his way to becoming a coach favorite. Little Billy swallowed hard.
Unbeknownst to Billy, the always-smiling Mr. Potts, the teamâ€™s scorekeeper, leaned into Coach Moore’s ear at that very moment and whispered with a hint of attitude, â€œBilly hasnâ€™t been in yet and we’re up by 13.”
Coach Moore nodded his head understandingly, then righted the wrong.
â€œMy mistake. Billy! Get your glove and go on out to right field. Sorry for the mix-up fellas.â€ Billy ran to the outfield like it was the last day of school while Coach Moore privately assured Joey that he’d be playing the entire game tomorrow.
The defense got loose before the start of the inning. â€œOne more, Catch,â€ the home plate umpire yapped to the catcher. â€œBalls in! Cominâ€™ down!â€
Little Billy two-bounced his warm-up ball into the dugout, walked to his position in right field, and then scanned the stands. His mom hadnâ€™t arrived yet. He remembered her saying something about having to stop by the mall to exchange some clothes. After a blank gaze, he barely returned his eyes back to the game when he heard a Clink! of an aluminum bat.
Oh my gosh, he thought. It was just the first pitch of the inning, and the ball was already headed his way.
As the baseball flew high over the infield, little Billy froze, almost in a catatonic state. His first thought was that he didn’t want to make an error. Do not make a mistake. It was the coaching staff’s mantra. No mistakes! But that wasn’t what Mr. Robinson, last year’s coach, preached. The coolest coach Billy ever had, Mr. Robinson told his boys to “go after every ball like it was the last ball you’ll ever chase” and â€œdonâ€™t worry about making errors.â€ Not this season. Little Billy knew that one slip-up and he’d be back on the benchâ€”though he often wondered why a few of the starters could make like a million errors and still stay in the game.
In an instant, Billy decided to make Mr. Robinson proudâ€”wherever he was. Like a flash, he took off toward his left, where the ball was headed. He ran and ran, fully committed to getting his glove on the ball, no matter the outcome. With the ball within range as he approached the right-field line, little Billy extended his arm. Just then he tripped and started falling onto his side. He wasnâ€™t even thinking about getting hurt. Catching the ball was the only thing on his mind, his number one priority.
Just as Billy crashed to the ground and splashed the right-field line chalk, the ball spanked the middle of his leather gloveâ€¦and stayed there. He instinctively squeezed the ball safely with his left hand to make sure it didnâ€™t escape during his collision with the ground.
Yells came from all over as Billy popped to his feet, admiring the fresh grass stains on his uniform. â€œAlright, Billy!â€ screamed the first baseman. “Great catch, Billy,” yelled the center fielder. “Nice catch, son,” said an unknown dad leaning against the right-field fence with a toothpick in his mouth and a sports page tucked under his left armpit.
Wearing a Christmas morning grin, little Billy pulled the white ball from his glove and arched a throw to the second baseman. â€œWay to be, Billy!â€ Coach Moore shouted from just outside the dugout, pointing his finger directly at Billy’s chest. â€œWay to be.”
Even Coach thought it was a good catch. Cool.
It might have been nothing more than just the first out during the last inning of a blowout. But to Billy, it was a strong feeling of belonging. He never felt as part of the team as he did at that moment. Just then, he noticed his mom’s car in the parking lot. Billy’s heart skipped a beat as he looked around. Where is she? Then he saw the car door open. His mom stepped out with her cell phone glued to her ear…and her eyes looking down. She had missed his moment. If only she had arrived just five minutes earlier. She would have been so proud.
To Billy, not having his mom or dad there almost made it seem like the catch had never happened.
Two weeks after the season ended, Billyâ€™s friend Zack gave him a call inviting him to his mini-golf birthday party. Billy went and had the time of his life. What made Billy appreciate the good time even more was the thought of all those parties and events he had missed the previous nine months while training and playing baseball.
During the party, Zack’s big brother Marcusâ€”who was so good at playing golf in high school that he was probably going to college for freeâ€”gave Billy a couple of swing tips while the boys were hacking away on the driving range. At first, little Billy felt weird keeping his left arm straight and swinging his hands and shoulders around his body the way Marcus showed him. He even whiffed a couple of times. But then he started making contact…and then there was this one swing where he “hit it on the screws,” as Marcus put it. The worn golf ball with the faded range stripe took off majestically into the blue sky and landed twice as far as any ball Billy had ever hit in any sport. It was such a sweet hit he didn’t feel a thing. It felt natural.
“Billy,” Marcus told him sincerely, “I think you have a knack for this. Wanna join Zack and I next weekend for some some chip-and-putt?”
For Billy, his little discovery of what it felt like to stroke a golf ball the way it was meant to be stroked came at the perfect timeâ€”two weeks before his 10th birthday. He asked for, and received, a new set of golf clubs.
That next spring, Billy told his parents he didn’t want to play for the Bakerstown traveling baseball team anymore…and baseball lost another promising young boy who didn’t follow the script and fall in love with the sport.
To see more of Johnâ€™s baseball research and postings, go to www.baseballengineer.com.