Magazine article USA TODAY

Big Time in the Little League: For Managers, Coaches, Players, and Parents Alike, Nothing Quite Can Compare to a Season on the Youth Circuit

Magazine article USA TODAY

Big Time in the Little League: For Managers, Coaches, Players, and Parents Alike, Nothing Quite Can Compare to a Season on the Youth Circuit

Article excerpt

Pitching line for my son's Little League debut: one inning, four runs (none of them earned; the ball never left the infield), no hits, and too many errors to count. Despite his 0-1 record, he'll start our next game--and not because his father is the manager. The fact is, on this team of seven-year-olds, only three players can reach home plate and he happens to be one of them. Actually, our three hurlers also are our best fielders (and hitters) and rotated among first base, shortstop, and third base at the beginning of the season. However, this is youth league baseball. So, to start the year, coaches pitch to their own team and there is no catcher. In the second half of the campaign, the kids are to begin pitching and catching on their own. That's a lot better than last year when my boy played T-Ball for the hated--at least in this household, my doesn't-know-any-better, Derek Jeter-loving daughter excepted--Yankees (oh, the indignity) and I was relegated to the role of buttinsky parent.

We're part of the seven-team Pee Wee Nationals. I was glad we were able to be the Cardinals. Not only are they the defending National League champions, but both my sons (and mother, actually) are Redbird rooters. Moreover, it gave me a chance to add to my extensive and expensive (just ask my wife) uniform collection. Since the league-issued pants for the players were gray, and even though managers and coaches are supposed to wear t-shirts adorned with the league logo, I opted to go with St. Louis' road jersey. (I also got a Redbirds practice jersey through www.mlb.com.) But what's a game jersey without special-edition patches? On the right arm is the official 2004 World Series patch I snagged while covering the 2004 Fall Classic in Boston. On the left sleeve, sent to me by my sportswriting buddy in St. Louis (where I went to college way back when), is the Busch Stadium farewell patch, as the Cardinals are joining the parade of franchises building themselves (with taxpayer money, of course) a new ballpark.

Although the team received red hats, I just couldn't help myself and had to purchase the blue version the Cards wear on the road. Ah, but there is a third cap that St. Louis employs for Sunday home games: a red and blue beauty with an image of a bird perched on a bat replacing the standard "StL" logo. When the patents of my friend in St. Louis got wind of the fact that my boys are Cardinal fans, they promptly sent them a couple of "Sunday" caps. My oldest, of course, being a uniform maverick like his dad--he sports blue-striped socks while the rest of the team opts for red-wanted to wear his in games. Though tempted, I decided against it, explaining that the Cards wear it on Sunday and all our weekend contests are on Saturday. (Also, it's against league rules not to wear the "official" team cap.)

Sure enough, our next Saturday game was rained out and the makeup was slated for the following afternoon--Sunday. I knew what was coming and had my response all prepared. "Yes, it's a Sunday game, but look at the schedule; we're listed first; technically, we're the visitors. I'll tell you what, though: Why don't you where the cap to practices?" He agreed. No surprise there. He's a good kid and does what he's told with no back talk, which, ironically enough, is why his mother did not want me to manage this season. She warned me that the other players probably would not be as attentive; after all, they are only seven. Besides, she pointed out, patience is not one of my virtues, and yelling at other people's children--and I do yell--just isn't acceptable these days. Ouch! Still, when last year's manager opted out because of time constraints at work (although he remains one of the squad's invaluable coaches) how could I not step into the breech?

During games, I do a lot of pacing, exhorting, clapping, and yes, admonishing. However, I'm never out of earshot of my coaches or the players' parents, and I'm always checking in to make sure I'm acting within proper boundaries. …

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